Healthy Lunch Ideas
By packing a school lunch, you are ensuring a tasty and nutritious meal that will keep your child energized throughout the entire day.
This mid-day meal should include whole grains, vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein sources. Refer to ChooseMyPlate.gov for guidance.
When it comes to planning lunches, include your child. This creates a perfect opportunity to teach them about creating well-balanced, nutritious meals. If the child helps in the planning, he/she will be more likely to eat the lunch and even try new foods. Avoid sending the same foods everyday and be creative.
Keeping Lunches Safe
Harmful bacteria rapidly grow between the temperatures of 40-140° F. Recent studies have suggested the average packed lunches are not kept at safe temperatures, which could lead to foodborne illness. When preparing packed lunches, take these precautions to help keep your child safe:
- Always use good hand hygiene when making the lunch
- Prepare food items on a clean surface
- When packing items such as dairy, meats and eggs, use ice packs and an insulated lunch bag so the foods remain cold
- Place the insulated lunch bag in the freezer overnight to aid in keeping the packed lunch colder longer. You can also freeze bottled water, milk, or yogurt and place in the lunch box. This will act as additional ice packs and will thaw by lunchtime.
- Items that do not require refrigeration include fruits, vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat/fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles
- A thermos is helpful in keeping hot items hot
- Wash vegetables and fruits before packing
- Wash the inner lining of the lunch box with warm soapy water every day. Make sure it is completely dry before packing the lunch.
- Pack antibacterial wipes for your child to clean their hands before and after eating
Tips for What to Pack
Below are some healthy lunch box ideas. All of these items can be easily customized based on your child's food preferences.
Make an individual pizza using a whole wheat English muffin with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh veggies
A sweet alternative for kids who like fruit, try a whole wheat wrap with reduced-fat cream cheese (flavored or plain), a variety of chopped fruit, 1 tbsp lemon juice and 1 tbsp maple syrup.
Peanut Butter and Jelly
It can be easy to fall into the peanut butter and jelly rut. Try some of these tips to add variety to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Instead of using peanut butter every time, try using other nut butters. An assortment of breads can also be used to add variety, such as banana bread, cinnamon raisin bread, zucchini bread, whole wheat English muffin, whole wheat mini bagel, or whole wheat waffle.
If your child does not like whole wheat bread, try using one slice of white bread and one slice of wheat bread for sandwiches. You can even use whole grain crackers, wraps, or rice cakes. For a different twist add granola or dried fruit.
Low-fat cheese stick wrapped in lean turkey. Vegetables and condiments can be added according to your child's preferences. Choose lower-sodium lunch meats that do not contain artificial nitrites or nitrates, such as Applegate or Hormel Natural Choice brands.
Whole wheat pasta topped with the child's favorite dressing (such as Italian) or tomato sauce. If you child does not like whole wheat pasta, try offering a mix of whole wheat and white pasta.
In a whole wheat tortilla, add rice, beans, lettuce, salsa and reduced-fat cheese. Adjust the ingredients to fit your child's preferences.
Soups are a comforting meal during those chilly, winter months. Cook a large amount of soup and
place into smaller containers and freeze. When your child requests soup to take for lunch, heat one of the small, frozen containers and place into a thermos.
Additional Lunch Items
The following are ideas for other items that can be added to the lunch:
- Frozen, fresh, or dried fruit
- Homemade trail mix (nuts, dried fruit, whole grain cereal)
- Fresh vegetables with dips such as hummus, bean, salsa, guacamole, light ranch
- Whole grain crackers
- All-Natural fruit leather
- Low-fat cheese
- Baked-dried apple chips
- Low-fat yogurt (Freeze yogurt the night before school, therefore it will remain chilled up until lunch time)
- Apple rings with peanut butter and granola
- Air popped popcorn (can add spices such as cinnamon, garlic powder, chili powder, etc.)
- Low-fat cottage cheese (try adding fresh/frozen fruit or applesauce)
- Hardboiled eggs
- Baked chips
- Graham crackers
- Milk, soymilk, rice milk, almond milk, water
UW Health's Registered Dietitians provide accurate, evidence-based nutrition information that promotes health and wellness to empower individuals to make healthy lifestyle changes that will enhance their health. Recommendations may vary based on your individual health history. For a personalized nutrition plan contact UW Health to schedule an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. For more nutrition information, visit the Nutrition and Health Library.