Back to school time means it’s time for parents, caregivers, or students themselves to start packing lunches again. It’s a task that takes time and planning to make sure lunch is healthy. And of course, it’s also essential to keep lunches creative, interesting, and tasty, so kids actually eat them.
If you’re not sure where to begin, you’re not alone. Discover tips for packing healthy lunches for kids.
Never Miss a Beat!
Subscribe to Our HealthBeat Newsletter!
Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!
Packing Healthy Lunches for Kids
Whether they’re kindergartners or teens, growing children need the right foods to fuel them through the day. Healthy meals and snacks keep their energy level up and their brain working well. That’s why it’s vital to stock their lunch box with lots of nutritious foods.
When packing healthy lunches for kids, try to follow these guidelines:
- Include a variety of whole foods and skip processed, packaged foods that are high in salt, fat, sugar, and additives.
- Stick to water instead of sweetened soft drinks or juices for beverages. And pack an extra water bottle for after recess or sports, especially if it’s warm outside.
- Choose foods that don’t require refrigeration — or that stay at a safe temperature with an ice pack.
- Focus on fresh or dried fruits for sweet treats. Reserve candy, cookies, or other baked goods for special occasions.
- Add something from each food group for variety and nutrients. Lunch should include fruit, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, and healthy fats.
Healthy Lunch Ideas
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with the same sandwich and apple day after day. To make it more interesting, try mixing things up by packing a variety of healthy foods. A bento box (lunch container divided into small sections) makes it easy to include more colors, flavors, and textures.
For fruits, try strawberries, blackberries, grapes, bananas, and melon cubes. Thread them onto toothpicks to make skewers and serve with a container of Greek yogurt. Unsweetened dried fruits like apricots or apple slices make great snacks, especially when combined with almonds and sunflower seeds for a trail mix.
Kids will devour vegetables if you provide individual cups of yogurt-based dips, hummus, or guacamole. These make tasty dips for baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, sweet pepper strips, or cucumber slices. And for something different, try zoodles — noodles made from zucchini, carrots, squash, or other vegetables.
Don’t skimp on whole grains. They provide slowly released carbs to fuel the brain. Good choices include whole wheat pita triangles, whole grain crackers, brown rice, quinoa, or pasta salad.
Protein helps fill and satisfy, so make sure to include a generous serving. Turkey or other meat roll-up sandwiches cut into pinwheels are colorful and fun. Other protein options include hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, cheese sticks, shredded chicken breast, tofu cubes, or bean salads.
Avocados, olives, and nuts or nut butters (if allowed) are all healthy fats. These are filling and satisfying, and they also provide lots of calories for growing bodies. If nuts are off-limits at school, try sunflower or pumpkin seeds, or sunflower butter, which is nut-free.
Involve the Kids
There’s nothing worse than planning, shopping, and taking time to pack a healthy lunch only to find out they didn’t eat it. The best way to avoid that is to talk about healthy lunch ideas and get the kids involved in the process.
If the kids are old enough, they can help plan lunches for the next day or even the week. Make a chart of the different options for each food group and ask them to select the items they want. To avoid always having the same choices available, take them to the supermarket and let them choose new foods each week.
Older kids can get more hands-on and assemble their own lunches. An excellent way to simplify the lunch-packing process is to reserve Sunday night for meal prep. Gather the team and teach them how to:
- Cut up fruits and vegetables.
- Make some healthy dips.
- Pack up bags of trail mix or make your own energy bites.
- Cook rice, pasta, or other grains for salads.
Getting everything in the refrigerator and ready to go saves time during the week. And it’s an excellent way for kids to learn cooking and meal planning skills.
Connect with UPMC
About UPMC Nutrition Services
Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.