How to Pack Healthy School Lunches

Give kids a midday boost with healthy, protein-powered lunches.

Healthy school lunches with a sandwich
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I don't exactly enjoy packing my children's lunchboxes, but I try to remember that healthy school lunches can really make a difference. Kids feel better and learn better when they fuel up with a nutritious meal, with sufficient protein and fiber. These guidelines will help you pack school lunches with both nutrients and kid appeal.

Goals for Healthy School Lunches

First of all, you want your children to eat the lunch you pack.

That means: packing foods you know they like; talking with them about what you're putting in their lunch (and teaching them how to pack it themselves!)​, and making changes gradually—no sudden switcheroos.

If they are bringing home uneaten foods, figure out why. Is there something they don't like? Do they not have enough time to finish? Are other kids making unhelpful comments? Address these concerns so kids aren't wasting food or going hungry.

A second and similarly important goal is to make a lunch that adds nutritional value. This midday meal should help your kids get their daily dose of protein, fiber, fruits, and vegetables. Look for foods that are high in nutrients, while also being low in sugar and other ingredients that add only calories.

Best Choices for Healthy School Lunches

Include complex carbohydrates to help your children feel full, protein to replenish energy, fruits, and vegetables for their antioxidants and fiber, and maybe a small treat, love note, or joke so they can start the afternoon with a smile.

  • Whole grains: For breads, wraps, pasta, and other starches, choose whole-grain varieties whenever possible. Make this a gradual change if kids resist—mix brown and white rice, for example, or make a sandwich with one slice of white bread and one slice of whole wheat.
  • Protein: There are lots of ways to go beyond peanut butter and lunch meat. Check this list of healthy protein suggestions for choices that your kids might like.
  • Fruits and vegetables: I like to include one of each. Remember, your child needs at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, so why not check off two of them at lunchtime? Also remember that whole fruits are a better choice than juice (even 100% fruit juice) because they contain less sugar and more fiber.
  • Beverage: Make it milk or water for the most healthful (read: least sugary) choice.
  • Treats: If you want to add a fun little extra, try these suggestions for sweet and salty snacks that still have some nutritional benefits.

Make Healthy Lunches More Appealing

I'm not saying you should trick your kids, or spend hours crafting a sandwich that looks exactly like their favorite superhero. But these kid-tested tactics can often entice children to eat a little more of their lunch in the limited time they have to finish it.

  • Make it a mini. Small versions of everyday foods (tiny sandwiches, baby corn) have a cute factor that counts with kids.
  • Select a special shape. If what you're serving is relatively flat, you can cut it with a cookie cutter into a fun shape. This works with sandwiches, pancakes, cheese slices, tortillas and quesadillas, melon wedges, and more.
  • Dip is a definite do. Whether it's ketchup, salad dressing, yogurt, hummus, or cheese, pack a small container and watch dippables like veggie strips, fruit chunks, and whole-grain crackers disappear.

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