Nutrition Articles

Healthy School Lunches Kids Will Actually Eat

40 Real-LifeTips from Real Moms

Breakfast might be the most important meal of the day, but lunch runs a close second. Studies have shown that children who eat a well-balanced lunch often do better in school and are more alert. It can be difficult enough to get your child to eat right when you're there to monitor what he or she eats. But in the cafeteria, where the temptations of pizza, vending machines and other unhealthy snacks await, you have to up your game to get kids to actually eat what you've packed.

To help you provide healthy lunches for your family, we asked members and experts for tips and advice on packing kids' lunches.

First of all, remember that it's not your lunch. If you pack broccoli and your son hates it, he won't eat it. Let your kids weigh in on what they want to pack in their lunches, and offer them a few healthy choices so they feel like they're in control.

Save Money and Pack Smart
  • Though you might be tempted by their convenience and kid-friendly sizes, avoid pre-packaged, processed foods for your kids' lunches. They're expensive and loaded with sodium and preservatives.
  • Think outside the lunchbox. Did your kids love last night's roasted chicken and vegetables? Pack some in a thermos to eat the next day. Pack leftover meatballs into a whole-grain hotdog bun for a lunchtime sandwich. Mix leftover rice and vegetables and top with chunks of pork or chicken.
  • There's no rule that lunch has to include a sandwich, chips and a cookie. Try a tasting plate of chicken chunks or deli turkey roll-ups with a handful of grapes, and carrots with a small container of low-fat dressing. Finger foods are usually a hit with kids.
  • Be safe. Pack lunches properly to ensure food safety and freshness. Invest in a reusable ice-pack, a thermos to hold warm foods and a variety of different sized containers. Include a cloth napkin and reusable utensils to cut down on waste. Remind your child to always wash her hands before she eats.
A Balanced Meal
Include something from each food group, but be creative. Here are some tips for creating a well-balanced meal.

Whole grains
  • Always choose whole-grain or whole-wheat bread. If your kids won't eat the crusts, that's OK--trim them off. It's more important that they're eating the sandwich.
  • Toss air-popped popcorn with cinnamon and sugar for a sweet treat or sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese. It's a great whole-grain snack.
  • Spread brown-rice cakes with peanut butter, all-fruit spread or light cream cheese.
  • Whole-grain crackers that are low in fat and high in fiber are a good substitute for bread for little mouths. Kids love the crunch. Send a few pieces of cheese so kids can create their own mini sandwiches.
  • Make whole-wheat versions of your family's favorite quick breads and muffins.
  • Make large batches of cookies--oatmeal raisin is a good choice--and freeze them. You can take one from the freezer and put it in a lunch box. It will thaw by lunchtime.
  • Instead of bread, try a whole-wheat tortilla for a sandwich. Roll one up with low-sodium deli meat, cheese and honey mustard.
  • Whole-wheat pretzel sticks are crunchy and fun for kids. Make sure the version you buy lists "whole wheat flour" as a primary ingredient.
  • Use what fresh and in season. Seasonal fruit tastes better and is also cheaper.
  • Make fruit easy for kids to eat. Segment oranges and core apples and pears (use lemon juice to keep them from turning brown). Cut up large pieces of fruit into smaller pieces.
  • Offer dried fruit like raisins, cherries or cranberries.
  • Buy 100% real fruit leathers or roll-ups.
  • When buying canned fruit, make sure it's packed in 100% fruit juice rather than syrup.
  • Instead of jams and jellies, make a peanut butter sandwich with banana slices, raisins or berries.
  • Offer a handful of seedless grapes in a bag with a wet paper towel for sticky hands. (The wet paper towel also comes in handy after eating an orange.)
  • Make a fruit smoothie and store it in a thermos. Add a handful of spinach for an extra serving of veggies. Your kids will never know. (Make the smoothie at night and freeze. It will be nice and slushy by lunchtime.)
  • Cut raw veggies into bite size pieces and serve them with a dip. In addition to ranch, try peanut butter or another nut butter, pesto, salsa, hummus or guacamole--whatever you kids will eat.
  • Add shredded vegetables to sandwiches and soup.
  • Try mixing chopped broccoli or cauliflower with brown rice and a bit of cheese for a healthy casserole.
  • Either provide money for your child to buy milk or include a small carton of shelf-stable milk in every lunch.
  • String cheese or a few cubes of cheese are a great way for kids to get calcium and protein.
  • Freeze a small container of cottage cheese or yogurt. Add it to his lunchbox and it will be thawed by lunch.
  • Instead of paying for flavored yogurt, add your kids' favorite all-fruit spread, chopped fruit or a drizzle of honey or maple syrup to the yogurt.
  • Try topping cottage cheese with chopped tomatoes or pineapple chunks.
  • If your child will only drink chocolate milk, allow it. It's better than drinking no milk at all.
  • If your child isn't a fan of meat, that's OK. There are plenty of ways to get protein into his or her lunch. It's very important to include protein, because it will help keep your child fuller longer. As long as your child is old enough to eat nuts and there are no allergen concerns, experiment with various forms of nut butter. Beyond peanut, there's cashew, almond, sunflower, soynut and even hazelnut butter.
  • Eggs are another great source of protein. Include a hard-boiled egg (peel it first) or a couple of deviled eggs (made with low-fat mayo).
  • If your kids are fans of tuna, egg or chicken salad, sneak some veggies into it. Minced carrots, celery, zucchini and even cucumbers mix well. In addition to regular sandwiches, these salads make great dippers for whole-grain crackers and raw veggies.
  • Hummus or black bean dip is full of filling fiber and protein. Like the salads mentioned above, it's great in sandwiches or as a dip.
  • Disguise protein as a treat by mixing nuts with dried fruit and just a few chocolate chips for an easy trail mix.
More Mom-Tested Tips
Here what community team members are doing to make lunch fun, tasty and healthy for their kids.

LISAMARIE55 uses a thermos for both warm and cold food items. Pasta salad with diced tomatoes, cucumber, cheese and carrots, with an olive oil-based dressing, is a great lunch. In the winter, put veggie soup in the thermos. To sneak in extra vegetables, add shredded veggies (zucchini, carrots or celery) to tuna or chicken salad.

JAKE_ADAMSMOMMY likes to pack string cheese, grapes, carrot sticks, and cheese-and-cracker sandwiches that her kids can put together themselves.

COOKIECHRISTIAN likes to keep lunchtime fun with the following ideas: bagel sandwiches, celery sticks filled with peanut butter or cream cheese, carrot sticks, cucumber, "trees" (cauliflower and broccoli) with ranch dressing, frozen tubes of yogurt (they thaw by lunch), dried fruits, black olives, fruit kabobs with pineapple, melon, and berries, chips and cheese or bean dip, guacamole and pico de gallo for kids to assemble themselves.

LUV4MY3BOYS likes to include as many food groups as possible in her sons' lunches. She fills celery with peanut butter and raisins and uses a cookie cutter to make heart-shaped peanut butter sandwiches. She chooses whole grain bread, natural peanut butter, and all-fruit preserves. For something sweet, she includes yogurt and granola with fresh fruit, apples dipped in peanut butter, homemade oatmeal raisin cookies, and trail mix.

KIMMER322 loves cutting up fresh fruits such as pears, bananas, apples and grapes and tossing them with vanilla yogurt.

TAMMYBEE5 likes to pack sliced carrots and cucumbers and fruit salad.

Selected Sources

Want to get kids off to a healthy start this school year? So does SparkPeople! With "A Month of Fun and Healthy School Lunches," you'll end the food fight and get kids excited about packing lunch--with fun yet simple meals they'll actually eat. Written by a mother of three, with 50 easy and healthy recipes plus plenty of ideas tested by real moms in real life, this e-book turns lunchtime into fun time! Bonus: You'll also get 25 healthy, kid-friendly after-school snack ideas! Click here to check it out!

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Member Comments

  • This would be a dream article for me except, when my daughter went to school, she ate nothing.... I even packed candy a couple of times and it came back untouched. Not milk, not fruit, not trail mix.... nothing. The teacher said that my daughter was too busy socializing during lunch, so it would all come back.

    She is home-schooled now, so I don't have those issues, but I am still trying to get her to eat healthy. I just wish I knew how to get her to even eat!
  • Great article. Our kids need to eat healthier meals.
  • My child's school has a lot of children with severe nut, mango, kiwi and legume allergies. Definitely makes it a challenge to pack a healthy lunch, but we make do. I've noticed some other comments stating that it's not fair that the kids can't take products that have nuts in them. I understand the frustration, but I've seen first hand (I work in a school) of how even the tiniest bit of nut oil was transferred and a student went into anaphylactic shock. I definitely think the health of kids' with allergies outweighs another child's wish for nut based food.
  • too bad - schools don't allow any nut product and believe it our not - our schools don't even allow soy products. Makes my life interesting because I have a child that doesn't like meat - of any kind including fish and is not fussy on eggs or cheese. It is okay right now because he is in day care and they given them fruit and veggies for snacks and I supply the lunch but next year at school will be harder. Oh yeah - he is not a fan of sandwiches neither - I think in the 10 months I have had him - he has eaten maybe 4 slices of bread, no tortillas and no pitas. Lots of fun and a challenge. Of course suppers are also fun. 4 1/2 years old and on the way to becoming a vegetarian. Sure hope his eating habits change as he gets older.
    I agree with the comment about potential allergens being banned at schools. Ours have been for years. NO nut products of any sort. It is a very important food group but can be consumed at home. Not worth risking another child"s LIFE!
    Fruit leathers that are 100% fruit are definitely available (even some with veggies too) however they really stick in the teeth and cause a breeding ground for cavities. Not a good choice for school were you can't brush them right after.
    Some very good ideas though. Having very picky eaters it' always a challenge :)
  • "Real Life Tips For Real Life Moms" - I've got a real life tip for the author - mom's aren't the only ones that prepare lunches for their kids.
  • Great tips! Very practical advice. Thanks.
  • If your kid is active with no weight problem, you really don't have to use "low fat" versions of anything. I'd rather have them eat "real" fat than a bunch of chemicals and artificial ingredients used to simulate real fat.

    Sorry, I just keep reading so many of these articles on SparkPeople and think "How 80's and 90s." Time to come in to the 21st century and read the newer research on what people should eat to maintain health. (And...research not funded by major corporations who are trying to sell their products with the results.)
  • I am so glad that my children naturally choose healthy food options.
  • In our area, parents are required to sign forms that they will not send their children with any potential allergy foods, such as peanut butter, nuts, or sesame some of these suggestions would not work. I would love to see an article that would provide suggestions while keeping this in mind!
    This is an interesting take on school lunches but, getting the kids to make good choices in a "society" of peer pressure isn't as easy as making a good lunch is.
  • I question advising canned fruit in it's own juice, but letting fruit leathers by with all the added sugar??? Wouldn't it be important to not add sugar to fruit leathers, too. I know the recipe for homemade fruit leathers says to add sugar for some varieties, or it never turns to leather.

    But wouldn't a whole piece of fruit be the best? and leave the fruit leather for a dessert? or leave it out altogether?
    Hi- To get around the no nuts policy in most schools here's what we buy.

    Non-GMO toasted soy butter. It's called WOWBUTTER and it tastes like peanut butter. School lunch stickers are provided so everyone around the lunch room knows your child is not bringing in nuts. It is 100 cal. per 1Tbsp. with 8 g fat, and 4 g protein. Sodium is 50 mg.

    Kae from Ontario, Canada
    For my second grader, I normally give him for lunch/snack: spring water in a thermos, plus an organic milk carton (chocolate, vanilla or strawberry - depending on his mood), an organic gummy fruit snack or twisted fruit, real fruit (apple or strawberry slices) and a ham or turkey and cheese (or just cheese) on honey whole wheat bread (all organic - yet again!) or on crackers (mini sandwiches!). If I'm out of sandwich stuff, I throw in a Clif bar. I let him know when his lunch is or is not nut-free so that he can sit at the right table.

    He's not into yogurt or string cheese at school, so those snacks I save for home. He's also not into dips, so veggies are out....he gets a veggie pot pie or steamed veggies at dinner.

    For class parties, I usually send in the Kinni Toos oreo-type sandwich cookies - nut, gluten, lactose free...but not taste free! :)

    I will have to try some of these new ideas to see if any of them are a hit. Thanks!
  • How exactly does one pack guacamole? Do you freeze that too?

About The Author

Samantha Donohue Samantha Donohue
Samantha discovered fitness as a teen, and now hikes, swims and bikes whenever possible.

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