How to Pack Healthy Lunches for Kids

By: Mollie Shauger | Friday, September 6, 2019 | Child Care

Children eating lunch. Credit: iStock

Packing school lunches can be homework in itself, but think of your child’s lunch as vital fuel that will keep them energized and focused throughout the day. 

A lunch that is both filling and nutritious can also cut down on after-school snacking. Additionally, healthy eating habits can help prevent childhood obesity, and provide kids with the nutrients they need for their growth and development. 

With many child care centers and schools prohibiting peanut-based products, finding alternatives to peanut butter sandwiches can require some creative thinking. However, packing allergy-friendly and nutritious lunches doesn’t mean you have to spend a ton of money.

Here are some ways to ensure children are getting the fuel they need for the school day.

Think about categories

Instead of the traditional sandwich combinations like peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese, focus on packing an item from each of the five food groups - proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. Use MyPlate as a guide to help organize choices into these groups. From there, you can come up with your own combinations, such as strawberries and yogurt, or whole-grain pita bread and hummus. Bento box containers are popular items right now for assembling lunches that hit on all the food groups.

Package things at home

Instead of buying pre-cut or pre-packaged items like apple and cheese slices, buy a bag of apples and slice them at home, or buy a block of low-sodium, low-fat cheese and cube it yourself. This not only cuts down on the grocery bill but it also allows you to control the portion sizes. Also, processed, packaged foods tend to have high levels of preservatives, sodium and/or sugar.

Make it colorful

Making lunches colorful not only is attractive for picky eaters, but likely means there are more nutrients in the meal. Incorporating more fruits and vegetables is an easy way to add color and jazz up any lunch. Fruits and vegetables can also help control blood pressure and weight

Use leftovers

Lunch is an easy way for kids to enjoy a meal like macaroni and cheese or spaghetti and meatballs a second time around. It doesn’t have to be a full meal either; you can use leftover turkey on a sandwich, or pair soup with a sandwich or whole wheat crackers.

Plan ahead

To get your child excited about lunch - and also spend time together as a family - let them help with grocery shopping and meal prep. Younger kids can choose the fruit, snack, and veggie they want and help with putting things in containers. Meal planning also cuts down on impulse buying at the store.

Buy items in season

One simple way to cut down on costs is to buy foods that are in season. The fall is a great time for using fresh produce like apples, pears, pumpkins and butternut squash. These foods are not only healthy but also very versatile and can be paired with lots of other foods.

Consider substitutions

If you have a picky eater or if your child has allergies or other food sensitivities, there are several food alternatives. For example, if your child won’t eat fresh fruits, try dried fruit. If they can’t have peanut butter, try soy nut butter or sunflower butter.

Keep drinks in mind

Sodas, and even some fruit juices, can be a source of extra sugar. Water or milk are better choices.


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