Healthy & Fun Lunch Ideas for Kids

Although a packed lunch can be a healthy alternative to cafeteria food, making sure all those required vitamins and minerals also squeeze into that lunch box 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 percent fruit juices are better choices.

Make it Delicious

Even if you did pack a cottage-cheese-stuffed bell pepper and a bran muffin, that doesn't mean it made its way to your child's tummy. This lunch might please your palate, but younger taste buds aren't generally so adventurous. And if they don't like it, they probably won't eat it—especially if you're not around. The best way to ensure that lunch ends up where it should is to recruit some help when packing it. Research shows kids enjoy food more if they've helped in its preparation. Besides letting them chop and bag, there are many ways to get them involved:
  • Let your child choose what to pack. If you're afraid to let her choose what goes in the box for fear it will consist entirely of junk food, let her choose between a few different approved items.
  • Create a menu. Work with your child to come up with a list of foods he'd be happy to see in his lunchbox. Categorize them into food groups and let your child pick an item from each group to pack. This way, they have guidelines AND a choice. Keep a running list of ideas (yours and your child's), so you can liven up the menu periodically.
  • Don't overlook last night's dinner. Did your child really love the veggie pizza you had for dinner last night? Leftovers save time and make a great lunch.
  • Respect individual tastes. If you're packing for multiple children, keep in mind that what works for one may not work for another.
  • Allow periodic splurges. If you've got a die-hard chocoholic on your hands, allow for the occasional treat, as long as he or she is eating healthy most of the time.
  • Take the work out of lunch. Some schools give kids as little as 20 minutes to eat lunch, so peel, chop, seed and spread in advance. They'll be more likely to eat that juicy orange if it's already peeled.
  • Only pack foods that have passed the test. If they've never tried nori rolls, don't pack them until they gain approval.
  • Discuss the other leftovers. If you pack the carrot sticks and your child tosses them, no one benefits. Make sure that your child is actually eating their entire lunch—if not, then don't pack so much. Ask her to bring home the leftovers so you can modify portion sizes next time.

Make it Safe

No matter how nutritious and delicious your child's lunch may be, it could cause her harm if it is not prepared and stored according to food safety guidelines. To ensure that your child's egg salad sandwich is Staphylococcus-free, follow these guidelines:
  • Always wash your hands (and your child’s hands, if he’s helping) prior to handling food.
  • Make sure all preparation surfaces are clean to avoid cross-contamination.
  • If you are cooking food that will be eaten cold, allow enough time to chill it thoroughly prior to packing. 
  • If you are packing your child’s lunch in a reusable bag or box, make sure it has been washed in warm, soapy water after each use.  
  • Keep perishable food out of the "danger zone." Harmful bacteria multiply quickly between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F. 
  • To keep cold foods cold, refrigerate lunches until you’re ready to walk out the door, and include an ice pack with perishable items. 
  • To keep hot foods hot, fill an insulated thermos with boiling water and let stand five minutes. While you are waiting, bring the food to a boil, empty the thermos and then pour in the hot food. Keep it closed until lunchtime to keep it safe.
  • Some foods that don’t require an ice pack include fruits, vegetables, trail mix, breads, hard cheeses, canned foods (as long as they are consumed immediately upon opening), nut butters, jelly, mustard and pickles. 
Although packing lunches may take a little more time than handing your kids a fistful of cash as they dart out the front door, it is also an opportunity to teach nutrition and planning skills, and to connect with your kids. Research shows that kids who eat healthy throughout childhood are more likely to be healthy adults, and packing a healthy lunch is yet another way to promote this behavior.
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Member Comments

thank you Report
Always looking for ideas! Report
I have never experienced such strictness from a school. Everyone likes to enjoy a treat once in a while Report
thanks for sharing Report
! Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Help them to do it and it will mean more to them. Report
Good article. Report
Great job Report
All very good ideas. Allowing them to help/handle the food makes more memories for them to eat/choose better. Report
My kids' school has a peanut allergy table that kids can choose to sit at. Other than that, there are no restrictions as to what they can bring (with the exception of no food/baked goods to share for birthdays, etc). I can't believe how strict some of these schools are! People have all kinds of dietary differences, so I understand the struggle. However, if there are reasonable accommodations (e.g. a peanut allergy table) for major allergy concerns, the other kids should not have to change their eating habits.

My kids always bring their lunch because they only get 20 minutes. The line to buy lunch takes about 10-15 minutes. So kids get 5 minutes to inhale their lunch? Plus it teaches kids to eat super fast...which we all know is not ideal (until you're a mom with a baby & have no choice Haha!). Report
If a kid can't survive public school b/c of food allergies, they shouldn't be there. Period. Sign them up with K12, and dictate the environment they should be in. Trying to tell public schools what kids can and can't bring for lunch is never going to be successful. (And let's be honest, in the "real world," you're not going to be able tell your coworkers what they can and can't bring to work b/c you're "allergic.")
Do you really want to raise your kids in a bubble? Don't get me wrong, it's been done before, but is that going to help them as a long-term solution? You can't make the whole school the bubble. Your home, maybe, but not everything outside it. Report
No wonder so many people home school, it's impossible to always be safe with what you pack for lunch, can't expect every one to get it right and children to police themselves 100%, teachers should not have that burden. Keep deathly allergic kids at home. Report
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. Report


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.