Tips for packing healthier school lunches

The cute little girl helps her mother to pack lunch and water for kindergarten together.

School lunches and after-school snacks are important parts of a child’s daily routine. With a little creativity, you can help ensure that your child’s routine is based on healthy choices.

Getting kids to eat snacks is usually a piece of cake, compared to getting them interested in healthy, balanced, nutritious lunches. So, it may call for some strategic thinking. The following tips can get you started:

  1. Get them involved. Get kids involved in the entire lunch prep process, including grocery shopping, visiting farmers markets, and packing (or helping pack) their own lunchboxes. This gives them more control of their choices and provides hands-on experience in learning about nutrition.
  2. Let them shop. Most supermarket produce departments offer a variety of ready-to-pack cut fruits and veggies. They also stock dried fruits and unsalted nuts, pre-portioned cheese and single-serve yogurts, hummus and cracker cups, and tuna and chicken pouches. That covers fruits, veggies, grains, and protein. Let these sections of the store become your child’s “lunch planning” resource, where they do the shopping and the menu planning.
  3. Get quality items. Invest in a quality lunchbox, water bottle, thermal beverage container, several cool packs, and some reusable containers. Lunches that stay cool and fresh mean less wasted food, while using reusable containers instead of plastic bags provides lessons about waste and recycling.
  4. Make it look fun. Fun shapes and bite-size veggies and fruits are appealing to young eaters, especially if there is sauce or yogurt on hand for dipping. For kids, many fruits are also much easier to eat if they are cut into portions. Prepare sandwiches and let your child use cookie cutters to create fun, bite-size portions.
  5. Let them reconstruct and rebuild. “Deconstruct” a favorite food item, such as pizza, and let kids “rebuild” it during lunch with healthy ingredients. Fill their lunchboxes with whole wheat crackers, wrap bread, or pita bread; pizza sauce; part-skim mozzarella cheese; and favorite pizza toppings such as red bell pepper or pineapple. A couple of pepperoni slices and a few black olives will not hurt, but the idea here – as with all meals – is to reduce sodium and fats.
  6. Reward them. Set up a reward plan, such as a visit to the frozen yogurt shop on the weekend, for finishing school lunches and choosing healthy snacks. The reward does not have to be food. It can be a trip to the bookstore or inviting a friend for a play day at the park.
  7. Teach them food safety. You cannot be too safe with kids’ food safety. Remember to provide an ice pack if your child’s lunch includes yogurt, deli sandwiches, fresh vegetables, or fruits. Teach kids about hand sanitation and safe food handling and storage.
  8. Surprise them. Good moods lead to good appetites. Kids love surprises, so on random days include a cheerful note, a comic strip cut from a magazine or newspaper, or a fortune cookie in their lunchbox. Let them anticipate a small prize from the dollar store in their lunchbox on the last day of each month.

This article was developed from data, menus, and dietary guidelines contributed by Manisha Vaidya, MS, RDN, LD, a clinical dietitian with UAB Medicine Food and Nutrition Services.

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