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How to Build a Healthy Lunch Box

Use these expert lunch packing guidelines to keep your kid nourished and ready to learn all day.

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Food trends come and go, but many of the guidelines for packing a healthy school lunch stand the test of time. Sean Patrick Corcoran, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development told The Atlantic, “Students who eat regular, healthy meals are less likely to be tired, are more attentive in class, and retain more information.”

Jan Walker, a dietitian at Children’s Hospital Colorado, gave us her advice for building a lunch that will help get your child through the school day.

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And you don’t have to do it alone. School age kids should be able to participate in packing their lunches. “Parents can show kids the basic template for lunch and ask them to make some choices like showing them what they’ll have for veggies this week, showing them what’s in season, and asking them to tick off the things that sound good to them,” says Walker. “It’s so important to ask questions rather than dictating the lunch. You’re dictating the template, but you’re giving them choices within the template. If you include your children in the process; whether it’s making the tofu or helping to prepare their lunch, investing them in the process makes them more likely to actually eat what is in their lunch box.”

Pick a Protein

Serving Size: Size of your child’s fist.
Provides: Sustainable Energy

Try a lean hamburger patty, cubed chicken breast, sausage links, tofu, hard-boiled eggs, sunflower seed butter and celery, tuna salad, beans, or unsalted nuts and seeds.

Add a Rainbow of Veggies

Serving Size: 1 Cup or more
Provides: Fiber, Vitamins, and Minerals

The Mayo Clinic recommends providing a rainbow of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange, each week. Try celery, carrot sticks, and radishes for dipping; kale chips perfect for crunching. Add bell peppers, romaine, and tomatoes to a sandwich, or transform an everyday turkey sandwich into a wrap and stuff it full of nutrient-dense, crunchy veggies.

Don’t Forget Calcium

Serving Size: 1 Cup Low Fat Milk, ¾ Cup Yogurt, or 1 Ounce Low Fat Cheese
Provides: Healthy Bones and Teeth

Unflavored cow’s milk is a favorite, but unsweetened almond and soy milk, yogurt, cheese, and even tofu are valuable sources of calcium that add variety.

Serve a Small Starch

Serving Size: Size of your child’s fist.
Provides: Sustainable Energy

Be sure starches are whole grains—like quinoa, farro, brown or wild rice—or half of a sweet potato, oatmeal, popcorn, or whole wheat bread. Whole grains and complex starches create a sustainable form of energy.

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Finish with Fruits

Serving Size: ½ Cup Cooked or Canned, or One Small Fruit
Provides: Fiber, Vitamins, and Minerals

Go for fruits in season for the juiciest and best tasting bites. From August through December think apples, peaches, pears, and grapes. In the spring, think about packing fruits like bananas, pineapple, and strawberries. In the early summer before school lets out, pack kiwi, berries, melon, and watermelon.

Skip Dessert

Walker strongly suggests not sending kids to school with sweets in their lunch, explaining that there are usually treats available and kids trading with each other. If you want to send a sweet treat to end the meal, kids are recommended to have no more than 24 grams of sugar per day.

Make Lunch Fun

Camouflage those Greens!

It’s a parent’s dream that kids will love veggies, but not always a reality. A helpful way to incorporate more greens into your child’s diet is simply to mask them in some of their favorite foods. Make spinach pesto (heavy on the spinach) and mix it into pasta, or make mini zucchini pizzas; zucchini wedges baked with a small dollop of marinara and cheese on top.

Roll It!

Create an everyday lunch staple by using whole-grain tortillas to make roll-up sandwiches. Roll up nut butter and banana, ham and cheese, or just about anything and cut into pinwheels for kid-friendly finger food.

When I Dip, You Dip, We Dip

Dips are some of the easiest ways to get kids interested in fruits and veggies, or really just about anything. Try hummus, cinnamon greek-yogurt dip, various nut butters, tzatziki, or guacamole to get kids dipping.

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Reduce the Waste

Watch what comes home in the lunch box. Lunch times are short, so pack things that kids can easily pull out and handle on their own, otherwise it may just come back home. If certain foods are consistently coming back in the lunch box, save those for after-school snacks. Healthy food that gets wasted at school is just a waste.

Picky Eater?

According to Walker, studies have shown that it takes at least 15 tries, on average, for kids to acquire a taste for a veggie. She encourages parents to consistently expose picky eaters to vegetables on a daily basis. Offer veggies at each meal and first when kids are particularly hungry like right before a meal or after school. Kids are starving when they get home, so rather than giving them a carb-heavy snack, put some veggies with the snack, or serve the veggies first and see what happens. Walker says it’s most important to be calm and assertive.

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