Tips for Packing a Healthy School Lunch

Nearly every day, parents face the dilemma of packing their child's lunch.


Finding that balance between providing healthy foods and foods kids will actually eat can be tricky. But UW Health nutritionist Amy Mihm with the Pediatric Fitness Clinic offers some practical advice for parents.


"The best thing to remember is that kids need a variety of foods," Mihm explained. "They're going to need foods that are satisfying and that they'll actually eat instead of trading with their friends."


Packing Lunches Kids Will Eat


Schools are attempting to offer healthy alternatives for lunches; the challenge is ensuring your child selects the healthy options from among all the choices.


Approximately 1/3 of public schools are still falling short of providing the nutritious options for breakfast and lunch that the government has encouraged.


School lunch is an option, but parents may want to consider packing a brown bag lunch a few days each week.


Remember the Rule of 3: Protein, Veggie/Fruit, Whole Grain


"Packing a lunch helps parents ensure kids are getting a variety of foods and foods that are more palatable to their children's tastes," said Mihm, who suggests the "rule of three" as a guideline.


"When you are packing your child's lunch, always incorporate a protein source - like lean meat/poultry, eggs or even beans, a fruit and/or vegetable, and then a whole grain carbohydrate."

Kids generally have a hurried lunch, with a goal of eating quickly to allow more time to play at recess or socialize with their friends. But there are some strategies for parents to help them pack lunches their kids will actually eat, not trade.


Eye Appeal, Portability, and Fast Are Key

"First off, go for eye appeal," said Mihm. "I remember pulling out the foods that were the quickest to eat as well as the most fun from my packed lunch as a kid. And if you pack a sweet treat, you can almost be certain the child is going to pull that out first."

Mihm suggests using finger foods that can be fast and portable, such as pre-cut veggies, grape tomatoes, diced kiwi or apple slices or string cheese.


"Crinkle cut carrots are simple to pick up, crunchy and satisfying," Mihm offered. "Sugar snap peas have a sweetness and crunch that can replace the usual sweet treat." 

"Children who do not drink milk or eat other dairy products are frequently low in calcium and Vitamin D. Adding dairy in the form of low-fat string cheese or a carton of yogurt can be an assurance they're going to get some of the calcium they need," Mihm said.


However, she cautioned parents should be mindful of the amount of sugar in kid-style yogurts. Choose varieties with fewer than 10 grams of sugar per 6 ounces.

Salad dressing "dippers" are one way to help kids eat vegetables and get a little healthy fat into their diet as well. Choose varieties with the lowest amount of saturated fat.

"An apple or celery with peanut butter adds protein and fat and can help children feel more satisfied than eating vegetables or fruit alone," said Mihm.

Shy away from pre-packaged lunches which offer little nutrition and more sodium, sugar and saturated fat than kids need at one meal.

It's important not to forget about the beverage. Sugar-laden drinks like soda or even some juices do not provide nutritional value. Instead opt for low-fat or skim milk or water.


Suggestions for Healthy Lunches


More suggestions for packing a healthy lunch include: 

  • Choose whole-grain, using whole-grain breads, pitas, tortillas, or crackers to increase fiber in your child's diet 
  • Choose a lean protein. Turkey, eggs or baked beans are healthy options for lunchtime fare. 
  • Include fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies are important elements in any lunch. If fresh options aren't available, consider unsweetened applesauce or look for canned fruit in natural juices rather than heavy syrup. 
  • Incorporate low-fat dairy. Yogurt, low-fat cheese, or low-fat cottage cheese are good ways to ensure your child gets calcium and vitamin D for strong bones. 
  • Find sweet alternatives. Rather than cookies, pack dried fruit, graham crackers or trail mix. 
  • Upgrade the chips. Carrots with low-fat veggie dip, air-popped popcorn, or even trail mix offer a satisfying crunch and are a healthier option. 
  • Don't forget the beverages. Low-fat milk, water, 100 percent fruit juice are healthier options than sugary beverages.
Find more ideas for healthy and kid-friendly meals and snacks from the Pediatric Fitness Clinic.

Date Published: 08/06/2009

News tag(s):  child nutritionchildrenpediatric fitnessfood and nutrition

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