young girl eating sandwhich

It’s becoming more common for school-age children to take packed lunches to school. With this shift in dietary trends, it’s important for parents to know which foods can serve as healthy fuel for growing bodies and minds. While school cafeterias are now offering healthy options, children who bring their lunches may choose to pack unhealthy snacks with sugars and fats.

In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a new food icon to serve as a guideline for making healthy food choices. The new MyPlate icon is designed to illustrate what a healthy meal should be made of. By following the guidelines below, you can provide your children with the energy they need to grow and learn.

Healthy Lunch Graphic

Fruits and Veggies

With each meal, half of your child’s plate should consist of fruits and vegetables. Any canned, dried, fresh, or frozen fruit, or 100% fruit juice, can be counted toward your child’s daily serving. Any canned, cooked, dried or dehydrated, fresh, or frozen vegetable also counts. Raw veggies, such as carrots, celery, broccoli, and cucumbers, and sliced fruit cups are convenient options for lunch boxes. Try packing fresh fruit without syrup to cut back on added sugars.


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. Make sandwiches on whole grain tortillas, and pack pretzels, which can contribute to your child’s daily serving as a source of refined grains.


Protein options should include lean or low-fat meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, nuts and seeds, eggs, and processed soy products. As an alternative to meats, which are often difficult for children to keep at the ideal temperatures throughout the school 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 can all be counted toward your child’s dairy requirement. Squeezable yogurt pouches can be frozen – keeping the rest of your child’s lunch chilled, if necessary – and they typically thaw out by lunch time.


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.

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