How to Pack a Healthy School Lunch

Children eating a healthy school lunch.
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When it comes to our kids’ lunch pails, we’ve come a long way from peanut butter and jelly. While this classic can still be handy in a pinch, we’re looking for healthier daily selections that give them the best chance at a productive and successful school day.

Eating healthy foods will have a positive effect on your kids’ mental functioning and concentration — both of which can help ensure optimal performance in school. And you don’t have to be a top chef to make tasty, nutritious lunches kids will actually eat. Just study up on nutrition basics, talk to your kids to see what they’d like to try and be willing to try a few new recipes.

In case you’re not sure where to start, here are a few helpful hints:

Plan Your Menu in Advance

It can be hard getting everyone ready and out the door in the morning, never mind making lunches. Think about what you can prep ahead of time or, plan to make enough dinner servings the night before to have lunch leftovers. A dish you can put into a container and forget about until it’s time to grab a lunch box can take the stress out of your morning routine.

Use All Food Groups

Try to include all the food groups for a balanced diet. This includes proteins, grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy. When in doubt, Choose My Plate is a great resource for helping you plan healthy at-home or on-the-go meals.

Focus on Fresh Foods

Use fresh ingredients as much as possible. For many veggies, this isn’t hard. Broccoli, corn, carrots, onions, bok choy, potatoes and mushrooms for example, are available fresh year-round. They’re also easy to cook in stir-fry dishes, soups, or pastas. See what your kids like and let them help prepare and cook, if they’re old enough to safely do so.

Eat the Rainbow

Vegetables of different colors have different nutrients essential for health. Use a variety of vegetables in different colors to make sure your kids get the biggest variety of nutrients and tastes.

Include Beans

While canned beans are good and convenient, “seasoned recipe” beans may have more sodium and added sugar. So when your recipe calls for beans, try using dry beans instead. Though you may have heard that they require quite a bit of preparation, if you plan ahead, you can allow plenty of time for them to soak and cook. Dried lentils are also a happy exception. They cook quickly, taste great and lend themselves to a variety of dishes.

But let’s be honest, sometimes we don’t have dried beans handy or there just isn’t enough time. When using canned beans can’t be avoided, make sure to thoroughly rinse and drain them before use.

Healthy Pasta and Grains

Pasta salad is great for making several lunches. Add your kids’ favorite veggies and some protein like chicken, and it’s a meal. You can also use a grain like quinoa to make a salad. Quinoa is a complete protein in itself and is versatile in many recipes.

Include Healthy Proteins

Your kids need protein for healthy growth, energy, healing and concentration in class. So be sure to include enough protein-dense foods in their lunches. While including proteins like lean beef, chicken or pork; seafoods like grilled or baked salmon or shrimp; or eggs seems ideal, kids typically won’t have access to a refrigerator for storing lunches or means for heating them up when they’re ready to eat. If that’s true for you kids, get creative with unsalted nuts, seeds and peanut butter.

Think Outside of the Box

Often described as “anything that comes in a box,” processed foods — including sauces, canned foods, meats like bologna, salami, sausage and hot dogs, butter, ice cream, fruit juices, dried pasta and tortillas — can be high in sodium, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and especially trans fats or hydrogenated oils. Always read food labels and do your best to avoid processed foods whenever possible.

Add Spice for Variety

Eating the same thing day after day can be boring. Make sure your kids have a variety that keeps them interested. Making lunch for your kids need not be drudgery, have fun with new recipes and always be open to trying new spices.

Schedule an Appointment with a Dietician

Make revving up your kids’ energy and boosting their brainpower a priority. And if you feel overwhelmed or don’t know where to start, know that our registered dietitians are here to help. We can help your kids learn about foods that will help them feel whole. Consider scheduling an appointment today.

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