It’s that time of year again when kids are excited about fall activities, including the start of a new school year. There are many opportunities in this new season to be creative and have fun packing healthy school lunches.

Most children enjoy choosing and packing their own healthy lunches. There are food group charts (like this one) to guide you when grocery shopping so your child can choose one item from each group every day throughout the week. Offering smaller portions of a variety of foods with different shapes, textures and colors can keep your child excited about meals and help meet their daily nutrient needs.

If your child buys lunch at school, the standard hot meal is typically healthier than á la carte items. Whether your child is buying or packing lunch, you can use the My Plate Method as a guide for what proportion of foods should be fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and proteins.

Tips for packing healthy, fun lunches kids and adults will enjoy:

Try sandwich alternatives

  • There’s nothing wrong with sandwiches for lunch, but add some variability by using whole-grain tortillas, English muffins, pitas, leaf lettuce and even apple slices to hold your favorite fillings.
  • For bread-like items choose foods with “whole grain” as the first ingredient on the food label.

Make your favorite meals “lunch-box friendly” and assemble later

  • Keep dressings or moist foods on the side to prevent soggy lettuce or bread
  • Pack ingredients separate for “build-your-own” meals like fajitas, burritos, pizza and wraps.

Don’t forget the fruits and veggies

  • Fruits and vegetables like the following, can be added to your child’s entrée and/or given on the side with hummus, peanut butter, mustard or a fat-free/low-fat dressing:
    • Cucumbers, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, carrots, broccoli, bananas, apples, strawberries and pears.
  • Mix it up with seasonal foods! If your child recently picked apples, let them think of new or favorite ways to use them for meals and snacks.

Include protein with meals

  • Choose lean meats like boneless skinless chicken and turkey breast, ground turkey/beef with <8% fat, and limit processed meats like hot dogs, ham and sausages.
  • Add seafood like salmon and tuna to your lunches.
  • Use plant-based proteins like beans, hummus, unsalted nuts/seeds, nut butters and veggie burgers.
  • Remember hard-boiled eggs (limit to 1 per day) are an easy snack or can be added to sandwiches and salads.

Beverages are important

  • Excess sugar and calories from juice and soda can be detrimental to your child’s health.
  • Provide water (may flavor with slices of citrus or other fruits) or milk that’s low-fat or fat-free.

Snack solutions

  • If you and your child like to bake, prepare healthy items on the weekend you can savor throughout the week:

Sweet potato wedges

  • Chop 1 large sweet potato into wedges.
  • Season lightly with olive oil, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning before baking in the oven at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Home-made granola bars

  • Combine 1 mashed ripe banana with ~1 cup quick oats, 2 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp vanilla extract, 2 tablespoons raisins (or adjust wet/dry ingredients/seasoning as needed for desired consistency/flavor).
  • Spread flat on cookie sheet to ~1/2 inch thickness and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes
  • Add pumpkin, apple pieces, and other desired fruits/veggies for more variety
  • Add 1-2 tsp honey or some dark chocolate chips for a sweeter granola bar

Roasted chickpeas

  • Combine the following:
    • 2, 15oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
    • 2 tbsp olive oil
    • 1/2 tsp ground paprika
    • 1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper
    • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
    • 1/8 tsp ground coriander
    • 1/4 tsp coarse sea salt
  • Roast on sheet pan for 30-40 minutes at 400 degrees until golden and crispy, shake pan after 15-20 minutes.

Trail Mix

  • Combine the following:
    • 1 cup Chex Mix
    • ½ cup Miniature pretzel twists
    • 1 cup Regular Cheerios
    • ½ cup Nature Valley granola
    • 1 cup Sunflower seeds and/or roasted pumpkin seeds
    • 1 cup Dried cranberries
    • ½ cup Semi-sweet chocolate morsels as a special treat

Other snack or side ideas include: fruit with non-fat greek yogurt, low-fat air-popped popcorn, low-fat string cheese and pretzels.


Jessica McGee Jessica McGee, MS, RD, CSP, LD, CNSC, was the Food and Nutrition Services Clinical Nutrition Manager at Children's National.

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