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Simple tips for packing your child a brain-boosting school lunch

And how to make it yummy

By Gina Houmann, MPH, RDN, LD
August 15, 2017

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Mornings during the school year can be daunting. Getting your kids up, making sure their homework is done, seeing the bus fly by as you missed it… again. So it’s understandable why packing a healthy lunch for your child might not be on the top of your to-do list. But the reality is, giving your child better options will help them through their entire day. And in the long run, it will actually even prevent them from developing chronic diseases.

Food provides energy for the brain and body. When a child has food in their belly, they can focus on their school work and not their hunger. And lunch is the meal that gives your child energy to keep going for the rest of the day.

Here’s what to include in your child’s lunchbox, and why:

  1. Fruits, veggies and whole grains, like whole-grain bread, whole-wheat or corn tortillas or brown rice. These will power up your child with an immediate energy source.
  2. Protein, like from lean meats, cheese, nuts and nut butters. This helps build muscle and other tissues in your child’s body, making it stronger.
  3. Healthy fats, like from like seeds/nuts, avocado and olive or canola oils. These will keep your child satisfied longer. And omega-3 fats are actually a building block of the brain that are necessary for memory.
  4. Water or milk. Water is the best way to stay hydrated – being even a little dehydrated can make your child feel sluggish. Milk has nutrients that help your child grow strong.

On the flip side, make sure to limit high-sugar foods and sugary drinks when you’re packing your child’s lunch. Kids don’t need the extra sugar and beverages like soda, sports or juice drinks have a lot of it without much of anything else. They’re full of empty calories with no nutrients, and can actually impair brain function.

Won’t my child just throw out the “healthy” stuff when they get to school?

When kids are continually offered lots of better-for-you foods like fruits and veggies, they get used to it. After a while, they’ll eat it.

Kids do have the power to decide what they eat and what they don’t. But it is our job as parents to provide healthy foods for them to choose from. Kids may not accept a new food the first time you offer it, but keep trying. Sometimes you have to offer a food 10 times before the child will eat it.

There are ways you can make eating well fun, too. Kids like familiarity, but they also want it to be interesting. They want to eat foods that provide different colors, textures and flavors. If you can provide those things in healthful choices, it’s a win-win for everyone. In my experience, it also helps to get kids involved in the shopping, planning and preparing of healthy lunches. They are more likely to try it if they’ve invested effort into it. Here's a recipe that my 5-year-old loves to both eat and help make.

Beet and carrot slaw wraps

Serves: 5


  • 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 5 raw beets (about 2 to 3 cups grated), with greens still attached
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 apples, cored and sliced
  • 5 slices cheddar cheese
  • 5 8-inch whole-wheat tortillas


First, make the dressing. Put orange juice, oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in a jar. Screw on the lid and shake well.

Then, cut greens off beets and pull leaves from stems. Discard or compost the stems. Wash leaves, then stack them and roll them. Slice the roll crosswise into thin ribbons. Peel beets and carrots and shred them using a grater.

In a bowl, toss beet leaves, shredded beets and carrots and dressing.

Divide the slaw, apple slices and cheese evenly onto each tortilla. Roll tortilla from bottom up, tucking in the sides as you go. Secure the wrap with a toothpick, if you like.

Reprinted with permission from Chop Chop© Magazine

Check out yumPower and Power Up for even more tips, activities and recipes to help your family eat better.

About Gina Houmann, MPH, RDN, LD

Gina Houmann is a Program Manager for several organization-wide nutrition programs at HealthPartners Institute. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. Gina enjoys partnering with clinicians across HealthPartners and Park Nicollet to provide nutrition programs and resources to better serve patients. Previously, she provided nutrition counseling and education for patients at Melrose Center. In her free time, Gina enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband, 5-year-old son and 2-year-old twin daughters.

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