Packing a Healthy School Lunch

Thanks to Rebecca O’Reilly MS, RD, Vermont Department of Health, for submitting this article.

I don’t know what happened to fall, but somehow here we are smack in the middle of the school year. The holidays are behind us and we’ve once again settled into a relative state of normalcy, or at least routine. Routine has its pros and cons. One area that always seems to end up on the con list is food. This time of year, the stews, soups and roasts that I was so excited about in October have lost their appeal and I’m left searching for new dinner ideas. Fortunately, recipes are everywhere! A bit of time spent meal planning with magazines, cookbooks, and the internet can usually solve this problem. Have you ever wondered why the same resources don’t exist for lunches?

I typically hate packing lunches and the thought and effort that I devoted in the fall has given way to bagels and cream cheese and packaged everything. Why is it that school lunch ideas are not as easy to come by as new dinner recipes? As a mom and dietitian, I generally feel extra pressure to keep up the lunch appeal and I have come to terms with providing lunches for myself and my children that are simple and still mostly nutritious. Most important to me is that my children have good fuel for learning and playing. Still though, does it have to be the same old stuff as the year goes on? Here are a few tips I’ve brainstormed to step up my school lunch game. I hope you also find them helpful… and maybe someday healthy school lunches will demand the same attention that we give to the rest of the food industry.

  • Use the MyPlate guide. Focusing on including protein, grains/starch and plenty of fruits and veggies, along with a calcium rich drink or side, is the simplest way I know to pack a well-rounded lunch. (Bonus points for making half of the grains whole grains and keeping the protein lean).
  • Choose items from the perimeter of the grocery store. This is where some of the most nutrient dense foods are hiding in plain sight. Produce, cheese and yogurt, eggs, whole grains, etc., can all be found here. Of course, there is conveniently packaged nutrition to be had within the aisles as well, but the more you can source from the perimeter, the better.
  • Think outside the sandwich. A thermos can be a powerful tool. Even if your child’s school doesn’t have a microwave, you can reheat soup or homemade leftovers for an easy and economical lunch option. Or go the cold route and try a homemade smoothie. Any time you have a chance to make some fruit-filled muffins or some egg and cheese cups, take it. These things hold well for several days and travel extremely well.
  • Include something that’s just for fun. My children’s favorites include, a small package of fruit snacks, a pudding cup, or a small package of mini muffins. Try to limit to one item and don’t make a big deal of it.
  • Utilize hot lunch! This one can be a godsend. I am a firm believer that a free hot lunch should be included as part of the school curriculum for EVERY child. We’re not there yet, but until we are, we can support school food by encouraging our children to participate in school meals on whatever level we are able. School meals may not be perfect, but neither are the lunches that my children bring from home. Forget your own memory of school lunch; school nutrition professionals are required to follow fairly strict nutritional guidelines. Many people are eligible for free or reduced school meals and the more people that utilize this option, the better supported the school meal program will be.
  • Finally, include lunchbox planning as part of your regular meal planning; a shopping list is a powerful tool when it comes to increasing nutrition while saving time and money. Here are some ideas for your next list:

Lean protein/dairy: Hard boiled eggs, edamame, rolled up turkey, trail mix (check the school nut policy), low fat Greek yogurt, cheese sticks, chickpeas, cream cheese, nut (or alternative) butters, turkey sausage or veggie sausage, cottage cheese

Grains/carbohydrates: Whole grain bread, pretzels, mini bagels, hummus, whole grain crackers, popcorn, whole grain tortillas (wheat or corn), pita bread, whole grain, low sugar cereal, such as cheerios, pancakes

Veggies/fruit: Carrot sticks, grapes, applesauce, snap peas, berries, cucumber slices, dried apples or apricots, canned pineapple or peaches in 100% juice, bananas, orange slices

This is definitely the short list. Don’t be afraid to ask other parents what they like to include. Your children might have good ideas as well. Try not to label foods as healthy or unhealthy; rather, encourage them to think of foods they like from all categories. Lastly, many children now have complicated dietary requirements. If this includes your child, I encourage you to work with a Registered Dietitian to help you meet his or her needs without losing your mind.


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