It’s a lot more common for younger children to take packed lunches to school these days. With this shift in dietary trends, it’s important for parents to teach children how to pack healthy lunches full of foods that not only are nutritious, but that they’ll actually eat.
Some kids who pack their own lunches may choose to pack unhealthy snack-size foods loaded with sugars and fats. To help families make better nutrition choices, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issue its Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 – 2025.
Here are some tips for finding healthy, packable options kids will eat.
With each meal, a little less than one quarter of your child’s plate should consist of fruits.
Focus on whole fruits that are fresh, frozen, canned, or dried. Buy fruits and keep them accessible to eat as a quick meal or snack. Try canned fruits packed in water rather than syrup. If you buy your child juice, pick only 100% fruit juice.
A child’s daily requirement of fruit is 2 cups. A 1-cup serving is:
- 1 small apple.
- 1 large banana.
- 1 cup grapes.
- 1 cup sliced mango.
- ½ cup raisins.
- 1 cup 100% fruit juice.
Another quarter of your child’s plate should be veggies. Serve a variety of vegetables and add them into casseroles, sandwiches, and wraps. Go for fresh, frozen, or canned—they all count. Look for “reduced sodium” or “no salt added” on the label.
A child’s daily requirement of vegetables is 2½ cups. A 1-cup serving is:
- 2 cups raw spinach.
- 1 cup cooked collard, kale, or turnip greens.
- 1 small avocado.
- 1 large sweet potato.
- 1 cup cooked beans, peas, or lentils.
- 1 cup cut cauliflower.
Any canned, cooked, dried or dehydrated, fresh, or frozen vegetable also counts. Raw veggies, such as carrots, celery, broccoli, and cucumbers, are convenient options for lunch boxes.
A quarter of your child’s plate should consist of grains. Foods made from barley, cornmeal, oats, rice, wheat, or another cereal grain can be included in the grains serving. Grains are then divided into two subgroups: refined grains and whole grains. White bread and white rice are considered refined grains. Whole grains include foods such as oatmeal, brown rice, or whole wheat breads.
With each meal, half of the grains your child eats should be whole grains. Choose whole-grain version of common foods kids like, such as bread, pasta, and tortillas. Make sandwiches on whole grain pita, and pack pretzels, which can contribute to your child’s daily serving as a source of refined grains.
Not sure if it’s a whole grain? Check the ingredients list for the words “whole” or “whole grain.”
A child’s daily requirement of grains is 6 ounces. One ounce counts as:
- 1 slice of bread.
- ½ cup cooked oatmeal.
- 1 small tortilla.
- ½ cup cooked brown rice.
- ½ cup cooked couscous.
- ½ cup cooked grits.
Just slightly less than a quarter of your child’s plate should be proteins. Protein food options include lean or low-fat meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, eggs, and processed soy products. The guidelines encourage parents to serve seafood twice a week. When choosing meat, select lean meat and ground beef that is at least 93% lean.
A child’s daily requirement of protein is 5½ ounces. A 1-ounce serving is:
- 1 ounce cooked lean chicken, pork, or beef.
- 1 ounce tuna fish.
- ¼ cup cooked beans, peas, or lentils.
- 1 Tbsp peanut butter.
- 2 Tbsp hummus.
- 1 egg.
As an alternative to meats in packed lunches – which may be hard for kids to keep cool throughout the day – trail mix with a variety of nuts can serve as a good source of protein. Look for a mix with small chocolate chunks or candies that can double as dessert!
Milk, cheeses, milk-based desserts, soy milk, and yogurt all can be counted toward your child’s daily dairy requirement. Choose low-fat (1%) or fat-free (skim) dairy which give you the same amount of calcium and other nutrients as whole milk, but with less saturated fat and calories. If you’re lactose intolerant, try lactose-free milk or a fortified soy beverage.
A child’s daily requirement of dairy is 3 cups. A 1-cup serving is:
- 1 cup dairy milk or yogurt
- 1 cup lactose-free dairy milk or yogurt.
- 1 cup fortified soy milk or yogurt.
- 1½ ounces hard cheese.
- 1 cup kefir.
Here’s a tip for a healthy way to keep your child’s lunch chilled. Freeze a squeezable yogurt pouch and pack it in the lunchbox to keep it cool — and it will usually be thawed out by lunchtime.
Although oils are not a food group they can provide essential nutrients, so it is recommended that children eat about four to five teaspoons of oil daily. Some foods naturally contain high amounts of oils and oils can be used in cooking. Mayonnaise, some salad dressings, and margarine without trans fats are additional dietary options that are made up mostly of oil.
“In addition to following the dietary guidelines to provide your kids with balanced lunches, it’s important for parents to set a good example by also choosing healthy options for themselves,” says Silva Arslanian, MD, scientific director and principal investigator for the Center for Pediatric Research in Obesity and Metabolism and director of the Pediatric Clinical and Translational Research Center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “Children should be taking healthy options for lunch, and eating healthy is a behavior that they learn from their parents,” Dr. Arslanian says.
Top Tips to Remember:
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Focus on whole fruits.
- Vary your veggies.
- Make half your grains whole grains.
- Vary your protein routine.
- Move to low-fat or fat-free dairy milk or yogurt (or lactose-free dairy or fortified soy versions).
- Choose foods and beverages with less added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.
- Being active can help you prevent disease and manage your weight.
To search healthy recipes, educational games, and activities for your kids, and to find an extended listing of foods in each group, visit the USDA’s MyPlate.gov.
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