When you have school-aged kids, every day is a hustle – especially in the mornings.
You get the kids up and make sure their teeth are brushed, hair is combed and clothes are on. You check their homework, find their backpacks and get them some breakfast. And now with just minutes until the bus comes, you’re trying to pack them a good lunch – which is easier said than done.
We all want our kids to eat healthy. Nutritious food provides lasting energy for the brain and body, and helps children focus on school and not the rumbling in their stomachs. Below, we provide school lunch ideas and tips to ensure your kids eat well and enjoy it – while you get to stay on time and know your kids are well fed.
Healthy foods for kids’ school lunches
The five food groups are the foundation for providing your kids with essential nutrients to keep their brains and bodies in tip-top condition during school – and all year long.
1. Fruits and veggie lunch ideas
Fruits and veggies provide vitamins and minerals that can be hard to get anywhere else. Plus, they’re good sources of fiber, which helps with healthy digestion. And while the natural sweetness of fruit may be more appealing to your child than veggies, there are many ways to make both enjoyable.
Tips and ideas for working fruits and veggies into school lunches:
- Stick with “safe” foods. You know your child best. Include fruits and veggies that you know they’ll gobble up. Common favorites include berries, apple slices, bananas, baby carrots, celery and cucumber slices.
- Slice them so they’re easy to eat. If you’re feeling creative – or for special occasions – get fun cookie cutters to turn cucumbers into stars or create a smiley face out of berries in oatmeal (breakfast works for lunch, too!).
- Provide a dip. Various types of hummus, salad dressings and nut butters add a little zing to keep things interesting. For an easy homemade option, use plain Greek yogurt as a base and add herbs such as dill, cilantro or Italian seasonings to complement the veggies.
2. Whole grain lunch ideas
You may have heard that carbohydrates are bad for you, but this is only true of certain carbs. Heavily processed or refined carbs (think white bread and sugar) don’t have a lot of nutritional value, but quality carbs are a healthy and necessary source of energy. Whole grains like those found in whole-grain bread, whole-wheat or corn tortillas, or brown rice will power up your child with an immediate energy source. Plus, whole grains are full of vitamins, minerals and even antioxidants.
Tips and ideas for working whole grains into school lunches:
- Go classic. The sandwich is a school lunch staple for a reason. Sticking a healthy protein like turkey and a fat like avocado between two slices of whole-grain bread is almost a nutritionally complete meal by itself.
- Wrap it up. Like bread, wraps also come in whole grain varieties and can keep your kids from getting bored of the same old sandwich.
- Get saucy. Good grains come in a lot of forms, but a lot of them need a little something for flavor. Rice, for example, can benefit from soy sauce if it isn’t absorbing flavors as part of a stir fry or other dish.
3. Protein for kids’ lunches
Protein from lean meats, cheese, nuts and nut butters helps build muscle and other tissues in your child’s body, making it stronger. Getting enough protein can be especially helpful if your child plays sports, since it will help them recover after practice and games. But it can also help kids feel fuller for longer, so they won’t be as distracted by snack cravings toward the end of the school day.
Tips and ideas for working protein into school lunches:
- Make your own Lunchable. Many kids get a kick out of building their own bites from pre-portioned ingredients. You can upgrade this concept with small slices of quality cheese, white deli meats and even tofu. Then pair them with whole wheat crackers.
- Add an egg. Mixing in an egg or two while cooking a hot meal like soup or rice is an easy way to add some protein and a flavor boost.
- Start with yogurt. Yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, is full of protein, and you can customize it to your child’s tastes. Fruit, oats and nut butters are all common mix-ins. It also works well as a base for a tuna salad.
4. Healthy fats
Healthy fats can be found in things like seeds, nuts, avocados, and olive or canola oils. Like protein, these will keep your child’s hunger satisfied longer. And omega-3 fats are a building block of the brain that are necessary for memory.
Tips and ideas for including healthy fats in school lunches:
- Accessorize. As mentioned above, things like sandwiches and yogurt are great for combining multiple foods at once. Leveling up a sandwich with avocado spread or a yogurt topped with crushed nuts are just a couple of options.
- Get cooking. You might already use olive or canola oil when you’re cooking on the stovetop, so look for opportunities to repurpose those foods for lunches. And if you prefer to rely on nonstick pans, adding a little oil can still give you the added bonus of an even easier cleanup.
- Dress things up. Kids might not always be enthusiastic about a salad, but a flavorful olive oil-based salad dressing can certainly help.
5. Water or milk
Water is the best way to stay hydrated – being even a little dehydrated can make your child feel sluggish. And milk has nutrients like calcium that help your child grow strong bones.
Tips to encourage your child to drink water and milk:
- Get a fun water bottle. Have your child pick out a water bottle in their favorite color from the store. Or if you have an extra one around the house, have your child put their favorite stickers on it.
- Add some flavor. Adding slices of citrus fruit or cucumber to your child’s water can make it more fun to drink than straight H2O. There are also plenty of herbal teas that can be cold brewed overnight to get a wide variety of flavors.
- Try yogurt in place of milk. If your child doesn’t like drinking milk, see if they’ll eat it instead! Yogurt still has the nutritional benefits of milk but has the added bonus of being a probiotic, which means it can help with digestion and other aspects of gut health.
Foods to limit or avoid
On the flip side, make sure to limit high-sugar foods and drinks when you’re packing your child’s lunch. That’s not to say you can’t pack a cookie as a treat, but like with a lot of things, moderation is key. Many foods and drinks already have added sugar, so kids don’t need extra. Things like soda don’t have any nutritional value either.
The best healthy and easy lunches to make for school
If you’re struggling to break your child’s picky eating habits, mixing healthy ingredients into a quick and easy recipe might be a good solution. Here are a few to get started, courtesy of PowerUp:
Mix one tablespoon of mustard with two teaspoons of honey and spread the mixture on a whole-wheat tortilla. Then layer on sliced turkey and cheese, top with spinach and roll the whole thing up. Get the full recipe here.
Despite the name, GORP can be customized however you or your child prefer. A good starting point is a half-cup each of nuts and dried berries, a quarter cup of another dried fruit, cereal and seeds. But again, you can experiment with the ratios to find what works best for you. Once you have your ingredients, just mix them all together and bag the whole thing up a quarter of a cup at a time. Get the full recipe here.
Mix one-third of a cup of cooked or ready-to-eat quinoa with one-third of a cup of your yogurt of choice. Then mix in berries and top with a tablespoon each of sunflower seeds and sliced almonds. For a flavorful garnish, add some chopped mint and a drizzle of honey or maple syrup (which is especially helpful if you started with an unflavored yogurt). Get the full recipe here.
Other recipes to try
- Banana applesauce with almonds
- Crunchy chickpeas
- PB&J oatmeal bars
- Cheesy zucchini dipper sticks
- Vietnamese spring rolls
- Muffin tin omelet bites
Meals for children with allergies or special diets
If your kids are allergic to certain foods, such as those containing gluten, eggs, dairy or nuts, chances are you’re used to making meals without those ingredients. But if you’re working around a newly discovered allergy, it can be helpful to know what options you have for allergy substitutions and recipes. Below are a few examples. Always be sure to check the ingredient lists on packaged foods when you’re shopping, too. It can be surprising where some allergens pop up.
Gluten free meal ideas for kids include:
Dairy free meal ideas for kids include:
Tips for packing balanced school lunches for your kids
Knowing what to feed your child for lunch is one thing, but packing it up is another matter. Here are a few things you can do to make packing lunches easy without compromising on quality.
One way to make things easier is to stick to what works and create meal plans for your children. Make lists of what your kids have liked or what you’ve packed in the past. You can even set a 4-8 week rotation of different meals so that you don’t have to come up with ideas the day of or the night before.
Cook in bulk and freeze
If you want to go a step further with planning ahead, cooking ahead is a real time-saver. Just remember the different benefits of the five food groups and look for freezable dishes that involve as many as possible.
Love those leftovers
Last night’s dinner often makes for a great lunch. If it was a hot meal, you can just reheat a serving and pack it in an insulated container. Or, some things are also good cold: combinations of meat, cheese and veggies make great kabobs.
Involve your kids
Encourage your child to choose what they would like to eat. Guide them by using the food groups above or show them a list of options that they can choose from.
They can get involved in the kitchen, too! Get their help with washing fruit, cutting veggies, counting out grapes or assembling a pasta salad.
Mix it up
Kids like familiarity, but variety can keep lunches from getting stale. Rotating foods with different textures, colors and flavors can help kids get excited for lunchtime.
Consider food safety
Since whatever you make is probably going to sit in a backpack or a cubby hole for a few hours, freshness is definitely a factor to keep in mind. Using ice packs can keep perishables like yogurt cool, and insulated containers can keep things cold or warm depending on what’s needed.
Use a container with dividers
Even if you don’t have a picky eater, neatly divided portions can be very visually appealing (think bento boxes). No containers on hand? Try a paper cupcake liner or cut out pieces of parchment paper to help separate food.
Set up your child for success
Food is fuel. And the five food groups, when combined, can provide the best fuel for everything from learning in the classroom to playing sports. And as we’ve seen above, a nutritious lunch doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple recipes and a little planning can go a long way to helping your child have a wonderful school year.
Along with healthy school lunches, you can also set your child up for success by staying up to date with their preventive care. Make sure your child continues to learn and grow with the proper back-to-school physical exams.