When the school year starts, things suddenly get much, much busier. In the rush to get the kids up, dressed, packed and out the door, sometimes lunchboxes are stuffed with whatever’s most convenient. The problem: Too many snack foods, desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages are sneaking into our kids’ lunchboxes, and not enough fruits, vegetables and dairy products are being packed. So start this school year off with nutrition in mind. Think ahead and plan menus for healthy school lunches that will wow your kids and give them the nutrients they need to be the best students they can be.
7 Tips for Building Healthy School Lunches
A nutritionally complete lunch is essential to promoting peak academic performance. If your kids bring lunch from home, here are some tips for building a healthy, well-balanced mid-day meal:
1. Choose a healthy item from each food group.
Include fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products.
2. Include an ongoing variety of foods within each food group.
Don’t always include the same foods from each food group. Keep it interesting by mixing it up from day to day or week to week.
3. Make sure to include healthy fats (in moderation).
Foods with healthy fats — like those found in avocados, fish, nuts and hummus — are also important for growth, development and prevention of disease. If your kids’ school doesn’t allow peanuts, find out if other nuts, sunflower seeds, and/or nut or sunflower butters are OK.
4. Skip the sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit juice.
Stick with water or low-fat or fat-free milk.
5. Plan lunches in advance and prepare items ahead of time to avoid last-minute, grab-and-go items.
For example, wash and cut up fruits and vegetables and put them in portable containers so they’re ready to throw into the lunchbox.
6. Keep sweet treats to a minimum.
They’re fine once in awhile, but only in moderation.
7. Involve your kids in menu selections.
Let your children be involved in the menu planning by offering two to three choices. For example, “Would you like grapes or strawberries tomorrow?” By wording the question this way, you’re offering a choice, but not allowing your child to choose a fruit roll-up over fresh fruit. Let older kids play a bigger role by preparing their own lunches with the necessary guidance as needed.
What’s on the Menu?
Now that we know how to build balanced, healthy school lunches, let’s put that knowledge into action by planning some menus.
Try Out These Healthy Sample Lunches
Here are some great ideas for healthy school lunches your kids will love. Each sample lunch below contains a fruit and/or vegetable, whole grain, protein, dairy and healthy fats (in moderation).
- whole-wheat pita pizza topped with low-fat mozzarella cheese and roasted vegetables, paired with sliced peaches
- turkey and cheese roll-up in a whole-wheat wrap or pita, with sliced tomato, leafy greens, avocado, baby carrots and hummus on the side
- quinoa mixed with chickpeas, feta cheese, roasted vegetables and a splash of olive oil (served cold)
- arugula salad with grilled chicken, halved grapes, low-fat Swiss cheese, barley and sunflower seeds, drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing or tossed in lemon juice and olive oil
- chicken Waldorf salad (lighter version) served on whole-wheat bread and paired with a fresh fruit or vegetable
When the lunch bell rings, make sure your kids are eating foods that will empower their brains and bodies. Healthy school lunches are as easy as thinking ahead and planning a nutritious, balanced menu. Bon appétit!
- School Lunches (Nemours’ KidsHealth.org)
- Garden-Fresh Lunches (recipes and ideas for kids, from KidsHealth.org)
- Leftovers for Lunch (recipes and ideas for kids, from KidsHealth.org)
- Recipes (KidsHealth.org)
- National Nutrition Month: “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right” (Nemours’ Promise blog)
- Nutrition & Fitness Center for Parents (KidsHealth.org)
- Nutrition (HealthyChildren.org)