Nutrition Articles

Healthy & Fun Lunch Ideas for Kids

Think Outside the Lunch Box Next Time You Pack

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Although a packed lunch can be a healthy alternative to cafeteria food, making sure all those required vitamins and minerals also squeeze into that brown bag can be a challenge. Just as the hot lunch counter may be laden with unhealthy foods, so may a poorly packed lunch. Whether your child wants to pack lunch every day or just on "mystery meat Mondays," there are a few things to consider when he or she forgoes the cafeteria fare.

Make It Nutritious
To ensure that your child has ample fuel to power through those long classes, make sure they are eating a wide variety of foods from the major food groups. Use the "Plate" method (which replaced the Food Guide Pyramid in 2011) as a guide to make sure you're covering all the bases. Here are some additional tips on making lunchtime nutritious:

  • Choose whole wheat bread instead of white. Whole grains are loaded with nutrients and fiber, while their refined counterparts are lacking. To make sure your bread is whole wheat, check the label. The first ingredient should be whole wheat, not just wheat flour. If your child is used to the refined version, try switching to a hybrid variety first, which contains some whole grains mixed with refined flour.
  • Don't skip fruits and vegetables. Many kids are partial to fruits, but vegetables are important too. Include peanut butter or ranch dressing as a dip for carrots, celery, or cherry tomatoes. Add finely minced kale and zucchini to soups or stews, where it may sneak past your detective. For fruit, fresh is best. If you must use canned (it may be time-saving and cheaper), make sure it is preserved in fruit juice, not syrup.
  • Include protein for sustained energy. Besides lean meats, good protein sources include nuts, cheese, and beans. Some easy-to-pack examples include cheese cubes, almond butter (like peanut butter, but made with almonds instead), trail mix, hummus, and mock-meat deli slices (found in the natural foods section of your local grocery).
  • Add calcium. Include milk money or pack calcium-enriched orange juice, soymilk, or rice milk.
  • Avoid soda and other sweetened drinks. Water and 100% fruit juices are better choices.
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

  • There's a child in my child's fourth grade class this year with many allergies. Her parents have requested that all food brought to school, either to be shared or in a lunchbox, be prepackaged and clearly labeled. I'm fine with only sending food in a package if it's to be shared, but I think the insistence on pre-packaged foods in my son's lunchbox is going too far. I prefer he have fresh foods that I prepare. I'll do my best to avoid the foods that cause her the most serious harm, but the list of things she has issues with is over 2 pages long. Many other parents and the principal agreed with me. I can sympathize with another mother who just wants to keep her child safe, but expecting that kind of constant vigilance from 23 other parents whose children whose diets are not so sensitive can be a recipe for disaster. - 8/14/2014 9:27:33 AM
  • HILDEJEN
    YogaGeek-

    I am a school nurse and yes kids do have allergies that could be life threatening. Unfortunately kids now have allergies to about everything. Beef, cinnamon, metal, strawberries, etc. I would have to agree with RENEETC1, where does it stop. One of my favorite classes in college was Sociology. The teacher said something one day that really made me think- "for every law put into place is another right taken away". I want to advocate for all of the kids, not just kids that have health issues. We had a parent that wanted all of the kids on a school bus to not have anything that her child was allergic to (many things) when traveling to an extra curricular function. The school turned this request down. When the mom said something to me, while I understand her concern, I also want to think about all the other students. I think it is responsible to do everything we can to avoid exposure as long as it doesn't infringe upon others. We need to try and meet in the middle. - 9/13/2013 11:02:21 AM
  • RENEETC1: You do realise how serious nut and peanut allergies can be, right? We're not talking the gut discomfort that arises in a lactose-intoleran
    t person consuming dairy (which, unpleasant though it is, is unlikely to cause serious damage in a one-off situation). People with nut allergies can get anaphylaxia which, if not promptly treated, restricts the airways and leads to asphyxiation.

    Yes, schools can be overzealous (many people with nut/peanut allergies only have issues if they actually ingest the food, yet the entire school is prohibited from bringing PB&J sandwiches on their behalf), but we are talking about a potentially fatal reaction here. It's comparing two unlike things to suggest that banning a fatal allergen leads to banning a non-fatal intolerance/sensi
    tivity. - 9/12/2013 4:48:41 AM
  • I think that the school systems are overdoing it with foods that can't be brought to school. A lot of school do not allow nuts of any kind. What's next, no milk or milk products because some children are lactose intolerant? No breads because some children have a problem with gluten? What about children who are allergic to strawberries or other fruits and veggies?
    If a child has food allergies they know it, and know they are not supposed to eat it. Type 1 diabetics have certain foods they can't eat. Education begins in the home, not with the government trying to regulate every part of our lives. - 8/27/2013 10:21:13 AM
  • my mom packed my lunch every day when i was in school. while there were definitely those days that i traded my grapes for someone else's chips, or brought my allowance money so i could buy an ice cream, overall im extremely glad i spent the majority of my formative years eating healthy. my weight gain was most definitely due to emotional eating and not knowing the difference between stress and actual hunger. now that im on the path to a healthier lifestyle, ive really started to appreciate all the ways in which my mother encouraged healthy eating growing up. im finally putting into practice all of the little things she taught me along the way about cutting unnecessary calories when cooking and eating balanced meals. - 8/26/2013 9:03:31 PM
  • These are great suggestions but I have a critique. Peanut butter may not be a safe choice for lunches due to anaphylaxis concerns. WOWbutter is an alternative that tastes like peanut butter, is healthy and is safe for your child's classmates. - 2/17/2013 12:12:38 PM
  • I love the ideas and I incorporate many of them into my own lunches. As a teacher I get about 30 minutes for lunch and that includes walking my students to the lunch room, getting me back to the teacher lunch area / work area. I get to eat and use the rest room and pick up my students all in 30 minutes, so the pre-chop, pre-peel is essential. Our students get 20 minutes in the lunch room, and any left overs must be tossed. Reusable container are also tosses. Boxes and insulated bags must be empty of all food when they leave. So much for buying nice containers to pack for the child. Also we send home a list of un approved foods each year, based on current student population and allergies - I mean anaphalactic (sp) response allergies. They may include peanuts, tree nuts, citrus (that was a new one for me), eggs, wheat, soy, ......... We are not allowed to remove those children to a different area for their protection, federal full inclusion laws do not just apply to Special Education students. Our school was monitored last year for Federal law compliance to our food service program. As a public school we receive subsidy money for the school lunch program. It was a real learning experience. Nice to say, we passed everything except minutes of table time for eating. So we adjusted the minutes at table, good for our little ones, who eat more slowly. We are also part of a huge program that serves only whole grains, with fresh fruit and fresh veggies every day, 1% milk, and reduced fat proteins. Also, increasing the number of times we serve legumes in lunches. It is taking some time for students to adjust to newer healthier menus. Our 3rd grade grows a spring to summer garden every year, and those foods are scrubbed for raw sampling or steamed for a cooked sampling. A couple of our aides volunteer to provide summer care, and there are summer veggies when they return to school in August. We are a relatively small district of about 4000 students. Most of our schools have gardens, our High School has a green house and raises vegetable an... - 9/30/2012 4:10:20 PM
  • JUDYSKITCHEN1
    I have heard that freezing water in plastic releases plastic into the water. i used to freeze my water, but no more, I really don't want to ingest plastic. - 9/20/2012 11:17:14 AM
  • AGAMILL
    This is a great article with great ideas; however I struggle with the protein because we are not allowed to send nuts/seeds of any kind to our school and no eggs either. :( - 9/20/2012 9:47:46 AM
  • I just found a new blog via a pinterest pin that I now love! It relates exactly to this article and idea of healthy packed lunches. This woman is fabulous at creating balanced lunches.

    http://360lunch
    boxes.blogspo
    t.com/

    Here is another great site for ideas too.

    http://easylunc
    hboxes.smugmu
    g.com/The-Bes
    t-Lunchbox-Sy
    stem/Yummy-Lu
    nch-Ideas/101
    36835_YSuyb#!i=881860935&k=9UfE6

    I couldn't not share :) - 9/20/2012 7:54:01 AM
  • I pack up most of my boys' lunches the night before (refrigerating what needs to be kept cold) - all I do in the morning is assemble the sandwich and then put it all in the box. Much less stress for me this way!

    One of my friends packs 5 small containers of things her children are willing to eat (at least 2 are fruits & veggies). They have to eat at least 3 at lunch. When they get home and want an after school snack, they first have to finish whatever is leftover in the lunch. This could be a good approach with picky eaters - early on you might want to include reminder notes in the lunch box, and stick with things you know they like. She's seen great success with this! - 8/25/2012 9:51:35 PM
  • BRATSCHMOM
    My husband and I pack our food for the entire day, every day. We try to eat 6 small meals a day so this can be a challenge. We have invested in good insulated bags, plastic storage containers, travel utensils, etc.... After that it's all about good food choices and variety. It's harder than eating at home, but we always have our food and NEVER have to eat junkie fast food. - 8/25/2012 2:44:26 PM
  • I drive a school bus and substitute teach. When I substitute I try to take a lunch with me. I freeze a bottle of water (or two) to use in my lunch box. This keeps my food cold plus it gives me cold water to have on my afternoon bus route. Some school districts allow the students to have bottled water on the after school buses because of the heat. If parents would freeze the bottles of water first, then it would serve a dual purpose for the kids. - 8/25/2012 2:25:18 PM
  • This has me laughing - "mock-meat deli slices (found in the natural foods section of your local grocery)". Shouldn't natural foods be, um, naturally occurring, as in, found in nature? - 8/25/2012 1:59:13 PM
  • Where my grandson goes to school there are children with peanut allergies, so he is not allowed to bring peanut butter to school! - 8/25/2012 12:59:34 PM