6 Tips for Packing a Healthy School Lunch

What do you put in your child’s lunch box?

A mother and her daughter pick an apple together to help the girl pack a healthier school lunch.

What do you put in your child’s lunch box?

Lunch time is a critical time for kids at school to get the fuel they need to feed their brains and bodies. “Children need the right foods throughout the day so they can keep learning, playing and growing, and achieving their best at school,” says Mackenzie Coffin, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “Healthy food will supply the consistent energy they need to last through a school day and also enjoy after-school activities.”

Packed lunches made easy

“Creating fresh, nutritious and cost-effective lunches doesn’t have to be complicated,” says Dr. Coffin. “A little bit of preparation can go a long way when it comes to your children’s health.”

Set your child up for success with these six tips:

1. Make healthy eating a habit at home

When children are used to eating foods from the five food groups, they are more willing to eat those same foods for lunch anywhere, including school. The five groups are:

  • Grains
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Meats, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts
  • Dairy

Choose foods with a high content of nutrients (protein, minerals and vitamins) compared with the percentage of calories, fat and sodium.

2. Involve children in meal preparation, including their lunches 

This not only empowers children and promotes a feeling of responsibility, but also makes your child more likely to eat the lunch. Keep the pantry stocked with healthy staples and post a list of ideas on the refrigerator from which kids can choose. 

3. Give kids a choice

When packing lunch, ask your child which healthy option they would prefer — such as a banana or strawberries. By giving them a choice, they learn how to compromise and hone their decision-making skills.

4. Mix-and-match 

Using the five food groups as a guide, toss in whole grain crackers with peanut butter, cut-up veggies with hummus, Greek yogurt with berries or a slice of cheese on top of whole grain bread, pita bread or tortillas. The goal is to have variety, color and to include three-to-five of the food groups at each meal.

5. Turn snack foods into a meal 

Pack a small serving of cottage cheese with fruit, nuts, dried fruit or trail mix. Include sliced vegetables or even whole grain cereal.

6. Nix juice and soda

As much as kids love drinking soda and juice, water is the best drink for them. Fat-free or 1 percent milk is also a good option because it’s packed with calcium and vitamin D. Juice should be offered in moderation — not at every meal. 

Dr. Coffin empathizes with parents’ busy schedules and suggests keeping lunch light and simple. “It doesn’t have to be elaborate to be nutritious,” she says.

Improved cafeteria food

For parents who rely on school cafeteria food for their kids, Dr. Coffin is pleased there have been improvements in recent years. Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2012, cafeteria menus are becoming more nutritious and balanced.

Children are offered both fruits and vegetables each day, more whole grains, and portion sizes and calorie counts are created to maintain a healthy weight. 

While there’s no stopping kids from trading lunch items with their friends, Dr. Coffin highly recommends parents be role models for healthy eating and become more involved when it comes to their kids’ food choices.

“Educating children when they are young about making good food choices is one of the best ways to help them develop healthy eating habits that will last them a lifetime,” says Dr. Coffin.