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Lunchbox 101: School Lunches that Pack a Punch (of Nutrition)


As your family launches into a new school year, there’s a new task to consider: packing lunch. The ingredients in your child’s lunchbox can help determine their success in the classroom. Starting the school day with a healthy breakfast and packing a nutritious lunch can fuel your child with the energy they need to absorb new knowledge and participate in school activities.

Parents face many challenges when packing lunches: discovering foods that are portable, finding the right balance of nutrition within the right portion sizes, avoiding sugary and unhealthy choices and—perhaps even more importantly—finding items your child will eat and enjoy! These guidelines will help you pack plenty of nutritious lunches with just the right dash of kid-friendly fun.

Healthy Lunches: A Balancing Act

Your child’s lunch needs to provide one-third of their nutritional needs for the day, and research shows that healthy eating patterns contribute to better academic performance. How does each of the five food groups contribute to your child’s school success?

Grains: The foundation of a sandwich, wrap, muffin, granola bar, pasta salad, or other lunch staples, whole grains provide B vitamins, minerals, and fiber to help your child feel full for long periods of time so they can stay alert and concentrate at school. Magnesium and selenium are also found in whole grains. The mineral magnesium is used in building strong bones and releasing energy from muscles; selenium is important for a healthy immune system.

Proteins: Meat, poultry, fish, beans, peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds provide a variety of nutrients including protein and iron. Just as your child is learning and building upon blocks of knowledge in the classroom, proteins function as building blocks for strong bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. Proteins also provide calories for energy.

Dairy: Children of all ages, including teens, need the calcium, protein, and vitamin D found in milk, cheese, and yogurt for building strong bones, teeth, and muscles. It’s important to include low-fat dairy items since whole milk products are high in saturated fat.

Fruits: Lunchbox-friendly fruits range from traditional apples or oranges, to grapes and numerous pre-packaged options including sliced apples or dried fruit. Fruits contain many essential nutrients that are considered under-consumed, including potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin C, and folate (folic acid). Fiber, found in whole or sliced fruits, helps provide a feeling of fullness with fewer calories.

Vegetables: A variety of colorful vegetables—from baby carrots and celery sticks, to salad greens and cucumber slices, plus cherry tomatoes and other veggies—helps kids get the nutrients and fiber they need for good health. In addition to fiber, vegetables contain vitamin A (which keeps your child’s eyes and skin healthy and helps to protect against infections) and vitamin C (which helps your child’s cuts and scrapes to heal and keeps teeth and gums healthy).

Common Pitfalls

Forty percent of American children bring packed lunches to school. Surprisingly, the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found home-packed lunches are likely to be higher in calories, fat, and sugar than school lunches. As a parent, here’s how you can avoid some common pitfalls:

  • Consider portion sizes: Be sure you’re packing the correct portion sizes for your child based upon healthy guidelines. For example, children need two or three servings of fruit per day. A serving of fruit for a child aged 4-6 is a half-piece of fresh fruit, but for a child aged 7-10 a serving of fruit is one whole piece of fresh fruit.
  • Make sure “kids’ food” is actually kid-friendly. Just because foods are packaged, marketed, or labeled “for kids” doesn’t mean they are the best choices for your child. Be sure to read the nutritional content and avoid foods that are high in sugar, salt, or have little nutritional value.
  • Stop the sugar. Unfortunately, many of the following foods often contain “sugar overload” for your child: peanut butter labeled as “low fat” which typically contains added sugar, packaged fruit (look for varieties packaged in natural fruit juices, not syrup), fruit leather (look for options without corn syrup, artificial flavors or colors), and yogurt.
  • Keep it colorful. Appeal to your child’s creative side and be sure to include colorful, inviting foods. Be sure to rotate choices so you’re not including the same items every day.

Healthy and Handy Ideas

Whether you plan lunchbox menus in the morning or the night before, there are lots of time-saving, healthy lunch options at your fingertips:

  • Look for fresh, pre-packaged convenience foods in the produce section of your grocery store such as pre-cut apples or bagged carrots.
  • The dairy section also contains lots of time-saving options perfect for little fingers, like single-serving cheese wedges or string cheese, mini-sized smoothies containing both yogurt and fruit, or kid-sized yogurt containers.
  • Don’t forget to pack the protein by including pre-packaged granola bars or perfectly-sized pre-packaged bags of almonds.
  • Prep and bag homemade snacks ahead of time. Homemade trail mix is something your child can help you make and package. Use your favorite nuts and dried fruits, such as unsalted peanuts, cashews, walnuts, or sunflower seeds mixed with dried apples, pineapple, cherries, apricots, or raisins. Add whole-grain cereals to the mix, too.
  • Keep a basket, canister, or other container in your pantry specifically for lunchbox snacks and let your child pick one or two for each lunch so that they help make some of the lunch choices.
  • Similarly, keep a container, bin, or designate a drawer in your refrigerator specifically for lunchbox items. This makes lunchbox packing much easier!

Sandwich Burnout?

If you and your child are tired of the same old PB&J sandwiches (although a great nutritional option!) here are some ideas to spice up your sandwich game:

  • Pack a bagel with cream cheese instead.
  • Take cubes of leftover cooked chicken, and mix them with pasta and a veggie like peas for a quick, easy, and healthy pasta salad.
  • Combine low-fat turkey cold cuts or diced leftover chicken, mustard, lettuce, and tomato on a whole-grain tortilla.
  • Pack a serving of leftoverpasta in a container. Let your child be creative with toppings they can add: mozzarella cubes, grape tomatoes, turkey or chicken, and Italian vinaigrette.

Don’t Forget Drinks

Staying hydrated is also critical to your child’s health. Here are some quick tips for healthy sips:

  • Refillable water bottles are great options!
  • Juice boxes or bottles make lunch packing easy. Be sure fruit juices are 100% juice and not labeled as “juice drinks” with added sugar. Only one serving of your child’s fruits should come from juice.
  • Treat flavored milk as a treat to include once in a while due to the high sugar content.

Sweet Treats at Lunch?

Nutritionists agree it’s okay to include your child’s favorite sweet treats occasionally, and in moderation. Here are a few tips for treats that can easily be popped into a lunch box:

  • Fruit such as strawberries, paired with Nutella for dipping.
  • Pudding, sold in convenient single-serve cups.
  • Cookies and other treats found in single serving-size bags—just be careful of the sugar content.

Lastly, keep an eye out for colorful, reusable lunch containers to make lunch packing a “snap.” And don’t forget to include a small ice pack to keep fresh items cold. Frederick Regional Health System wishes you and your family a very healthy school year filled with fun, delicious, and healthy lunches!