How to Pack Healthier School Lunches

Two Parts:Including Nutritious Foods in School LunchesMaking Lunches Kid Friendly

Although purchasing a school provided lunch may be easier and quick, packing your child's lunch might be more beneficial. A home-packed lunch allows you to have some control over what your child eats, provides you a chance to send a "little love" with your child to school and will most likely be a little less expensive than a traditional school lunch.[1] However, packing a balanced and nutritious lunch for your child each and every day can be difficult and time consuming. Plus, finding nutritious foods and meals that your child will actually eat and enjoy may also present as a challenge. With a little planning and meal prep, you can easily pack a healthy, nutritious lunch for your child.

Part 1
Including Nutritious Foods in School Lunches

  1. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 1
    Always include a source of protein. Including a source of lean protein in your child's lunch is essential. Protein will provide them with the energy to pay attention during the day, support muscle and tissue development and metabolism.[2]
    • Leaner protein sources are preferable to high fat, highly processed or fried protein. Lean protein is lower in calories and fat which makes it fit well into a balanced diet.[3]
    • Include 1 – 3 ounces of protein in your child's lunch. They only need about 4 – 6 oz of protein total each day.[4]
    • Offer a wide variety of lean protein to help expand your child's palate and provide them with a larger variety of nutrients. Try: seafood, poultry, eggs, lean beef, beans, nuts, or tofu.
    • Options to try include: a hard boiled egg, lean deli meat or tuna salad on a whole wheat mini bagel, 1/2 cup of oven-fried tofu bites, or two deli meat and cheese roll-ups.
  2. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 2
    Offer a fruit and vegetable. Both fruits and vegetables are essential part of a child's diet. They provide valuable amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to support healthy growth and development.
    • Include a 1/2 cup serving of both a fruit and a vegetable each day in your child's lunch.[5]
    • Include a variety of items throughout the week to expand your child's palate and preferences to these sometimes, tricky to eat foods.
    • If you're purchasing canned fruit, fruit cups or frozen fruit, choose items that are packed in water or 100% juice instead of syrups. For vegetables, choose canned or frozen items without added salt, gravies or sauces.
  3. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 3
    Add in a serving of dairy foods. Although dairy foods are typically considered part of the "lean protein" food group, they should be considered as a separate food group for children.
    • Dairy foods contain high amounts of calcium and Vitamin D which are essential for healthy bone growth. Unlike adults, children have the ability to continue increasing their bone density as they age. Calcium is essential for this important process to occur.[6]
    • Children need a total of 2 – 3 cups of dairy foods during the day. Including one serving at lunch can help your child meet this goal.[7]
    • Most children above age 2 or 3 years old, do not need full fat milk or yogurt. Go for or low-fat options for younger children, and low-fat or fat-free options for older children for your child's dairy foods.
    • Choose a variety of items like: milk, cheese, yogurt and cottage cheese.
  4. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 4
    Choose nutritious sources of grains. Like other food groups, including the most nutritious source of grains, like breads, wraps, pastas or rice, will boost the overall nutrition of your child's lunch.
    • Include 2 – 3 ounces of grains in your child's lunch. They only need about 4 – 8 total each day.[8]
    • 100% whole grains are a preferable choice for your child's lunch. These grains are minimally processed, contain higher amounts of fiber, protein and other nutrients that will support your child's growth.[9]
    • Instead of items like white bread, plain flour tortillas, white rice or plain pasta, go for 100% whole grain options. Try whole wheat bread and tortillas, brown rice or quinoa, whole grain oats, or whole wheat pasta.
    • Some children might not like the look of whole grains or their more intense flavor. Try "white" whole grain foods to help disguise these nutritious grains in their diet.
  5. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 5
    Include a hydrating beverage. Like adults, children need to drink adequate amounts of fluids everyday to keep their little bodies hydrated.
    • Most children need about 5 – 8 cups of water or other hydrating beverages each day.[10] This amount may change if your child is more active or plays a sport, it's a hot or humid day and how old they are.
    • Children truly only need to drink either water or low-fat milk. Try packing a small 8 oz water bottle or low fat milk box (similar to a juice box) in your child's lunch. Freezing them in advance can help your child's lunch stay cold in their locker or cubby.
    • Skips sodas (even diet), fruit juices, sports drinks or smoothies. These generally have a lot of additives and sugar which children do not need.
  6. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 6
    Include a nutritious treat. Even though you may want to make your child's lunch super nutritious and healthy, remember they're still a kid and should enjoy the occasional treat.
    • When you're including a sweet or salty treat in your child's lunch, take advantage of nutritious foods they already enjoy. For example, if they love fruit, use fruit in sweet treats or if they love nuts, use those as part of a salty snack.
    • Nutritious sweet treats for kids can include: fruit with a peanut butter yogurt dip, brownies or muffins made with zucchini and whole wheat flour or whole wheat pita chips with fruit salsa.
    • Better salty snacks can include: homemade tortilla chips and hummus, homemade trail mix with roasted nuts and dried fruit or baked sweet potato fries with low-sugar ketchup.
  7. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 7
    Skip processed lunch meals and snacks. Processed foods should be limited for children (and adults). These foods are generally high in calories, sugar, fat, sodium and other additives.[11] Try to avoid these foods as often as possible.
    • Avoid typical processed foods like: pre made lunch packs (with deli meat, cheese and crackers), juice cocktails or sports drinks, sweet pastries like cakes or cookies, chips and candy.
    • It can be difficult to avoid processed foods in your child's lunch - especially if they're asking for certain foods or many of their friends eat these types of foods.
    • An occasional processed food item is fine and shouldn't be a cause for worry. However, try making similar items at home or from scratch so your child can enjoy these items, but without all the additives. For example, if your child is asking for chips, consider making baked whole wheat tortilla chips at home and packing those instead of regular potato chips.

Part 2
Making Lunches Kid Friendly

  1. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 8
    Prepare and pack lunches together. When you get your child involved in prepping and packing their lunches, they may be more likely to try new things and eat the foods that are packed.[12]
    • Children love to help. Take advantage of this when you have more time and allow them to participate in the packing of their lunch.
    • If children feel they have some "say-so" over what goes into their lunch, they may be more likely to eat all the foods that are packed.
    • Also, if you allow your children to prep or cook certain parts of their lunch, they are more likely to try new foods.[13]
  2. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 9
    Include a "rainbow" of foods. Many schools are teaching kids about nutrition on a regular basis. A common teaching theme is to "eat the rainbow." This fun trick teaches kids to eat foods from each color group everyday.
    • "Eating the rainbow" is a great idea to follow. When you eat foods that are all different colors, you're expanding the amount of vitamins and antioxidants in your or your child's diet.[14]
    • If your kids are learning about healthy eating or nutrition in school, try to keep up with those themes with foods in their lunches. If they're learning about different fruits, pack some of those items in their lunch. Or if they're supposed to try a new fruit or vegetable, allow them to choose something new at the store.
    • In addition, including many bright and vibrant colors in your child's lunch may be more visually appealing and tempting to your child's senses.[15]
  3. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 10
    Make foods easy to eat. Remember that children might have some difficulty eating or preparing certain foods in their lunches. If it's difficult or they cannot do it by themselves, they are more likely to ditch the food.[16]
    • All foods need to be easy to eat. Don't expect kids to put much work into their lunches. Plus, many lunch sessions are short and rushed and don't allow children much time.
    • For example, peel your child's orange, wash and chop raw veggies, wash and slice a raw apple, quickly blanch raw vegetables to help make them easier to chew, or cut sandwiches in half or quarters.
  4. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 11
    Include "fun to eat" foods. Kids will always go for "fun to eat" foods or foods that are stimulating visually.[17]
    • Include "finger foods" in your child's lunch. Finger foods are fun for children and are easy to eat. Include items like: grapes, blackberries, segmented oranges, baby carrots, small cut raw vegetables with dip or small cubes of cheese.
    • Make cutouts of their sandwiches using cookie cutters. Make sandwiches and then use a cookie cutter to make fun shapes out of their sandwich. You can also make "sushi" by rolling their favorite sandwich fillings into a whole wheat wrap and slicing it into small individual rounds.
    • Make fruits and vegetables fun as well. Try: making fruit kabobs or skewers, make homemade veggie chips, make sweet potato fries or "tots", or create animal figures with fruits or vegetables.
  5. Image titled Pack Healthier School Lunches Step 12
    Disguise fruits or vegetables. Although many kids will love fruit kabobs or homemade vegetable chips, there are many kids that won't go near these nutritious foods no matter how exciting they are.
    • Work to sneak in more vegetables into your child's diet. If they don't see them or taste them, they're more likely to eat them.[18]
    • Blend or puree vegetables into foods. Blend vegetables into sauces like tomato or pizza sauce, cheese sauce for mac and cheese or use pureed vegetables in a soup base.
    • You can also shred vegetables into baked goods like meatballs, meatloaf, casseroles or sweet baked goods.
    • Another easy way to get in fruits and vegetables is by making your child a fun smoothie. Mix yogurt, milk, spinach and pineapple into a morning breakfast "green monster drink" for a fun and sneaky way to get in some extra nutrition.


  • Kids may not like a fruit or vegetable on the first try. However, don't give up! It can take children up to 15-20 tries before they start liking certain fruits or vegetables.
  • Remember, kids are always watching you and imitating you. If you're not eating many fruits or vegetables, they will be less willing to try them or eat them regularly.
  • Allowing your child to purchase school lunch occasionally is OK. Not everyone can get a nutritious packed lunch ready everyday of the year.

Sources and Citations

Show more... (15)

Article Info

Categories: School Food | Meal Planning