Tips for Packing Healthy School Lunches

Tips for Packing Healthy School Lunches

Running out of ideas when you're filling up the kids' lunchboxes? Try these tips for satisfying their palates without giving up nutrition.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

The hottest nutrition question in most households isn't how to lose weight. It's what to pack for your child's school lunch that's nutritious and that he or she will enjoy.

But how can you satisfy a kid's palate without sacrificing nutrition? Here are some guidelines to get you started.

What to pack

  • Grain. Focus on 100-percent whole-grain bread or whole-wheat pita, tortillas, bagels, wraps, or crackers.
  • Vegetable. Include raw, crunchy veggies, such as baby carrots, grape or cherry tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, or cucumbers - whatever your kids might enjoy. Send along a low-fat dip in a tiny container if it helps get the veggies down.
  • Protein. Peanut butter provides protein and healthy fat for staying power. Choose a natural brand without added sugar. Spread on whole-grain bread and top with fruit jelly or banana slices. Other protein choices may include a hard-boiled egg, low-fat cheese, or string cheese. Or pack tuna fish, chicken, or egg salad with a little canola mayonnaise. Other good choices include lean ham, roast beef, turkey, or chicken.
  • Dairy. Pack skim, low-fat milk, or a container of low-fat yogurt.
  • Fat. Include a little fat for extra flavor. This will help keep your children satisfied so they won't be hungry too soon after the meal. A handful of nuts, some avocado, a few slices of cheese, or a bit of peanut butter are all good choices.
  • Fruit. Throw in some fruit for sweetness. Choose firm, crunchy grapes, strawberries, or other berries; a medium-sized piece of fruit; or individual fruit cups packed in juice, not syrup.
  • Dessert. Dessert doesn't have to include a lot of sugar. Try packing graham crackers or ginger snaps, a small box of raisins, a slice of homemade quick bread, or natural applesauce.

Get creative
Lunch can be something other than a sandwich. Try one of these healthy options:

  • Vegetable, chicken, or bean soup packed in a thermos. Leftover chili or stew is also a good thermos option.
  • A salad with added protein. Try slices of low-fat cheese, lean luncheon meat, cottage cheese, a hard-boiled egg, or tuna fish. Pack low-fat dressing in a separate container.
  • A sliced apple smeared with 1 to 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. Include whole-grain crackers on the side.
  • A chicken or turkey breast, leg, or wing without skin from last night's dinner. Also include some whole-grain crackers and a crunchy veggie as a carb source.
  • A couple of scoops of cottage cheese topped with sliced fruit and some nuts.
  • A mini whole-wheat bagel with natural peanut butter or a healthy butter substitute.
  • Whole-grain cracker sandwiches with low-fat cheese or peanut butter.
  • A container of egg, chicken, or tuna salad made with low-fat (canola) mayonnaise and whole-grain crackers.

Try to avoid:

  • Processed foods, such as white bread or other refined carbohydrates.
  • Fatty luncheon meats, such as bologna, salami, and pepperoni.
  • High-fat, high-calorie sweets, such as cookies, cakes, and candy.
  • Soda or fruit drink blends. Choose a 4-ounce carton of 100-percent fruit juice, low-fat milk, or water instead.
  • Snacks containing trans fats. Look for brands that are trans-fat-free, or substitute mini rice cakes.

Remember to keep all perishables in insulated containers with cold packs. Also, be sure to discuss the importance of eating a healthy lunch with your children and include them in the choosing process. You will have more success - and less trading of lunches - if your children are involved in picking what goes in their lunch boxes.

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