bento box with banana, carrots and sandwich make healthy lunch boxes

Helpful Tips for Healthy Lunch Boxes

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It’s time again for packing healthy lunch boxes

School’s back in session and it’s time to start thinking about packing healthy lunch boxes for your kids. The carefree days of summer are over- the end of summer camps, picnics, and summer vacations. And with it comes the end of an open pantry or fridge where kids could grab what they wanted to eat, when they wanted to eat.

Returning to school’s more structured environment means kids need to stay focused and seated for long periods of time, with no time for snacking, and limited lunch periods. Because of this, you’ll want to pack healthy lunch boxes that has well-balanced sources of energy and nutrients that will keep their brains and bodies fueled throughout the whole school day. 

What nutrients are kids missing

A healthy lunch box  includes a good source of carbohydrates from whole grains, a quality source of protein, and a fruit and/or vegetable and dairy serving.  Many children are not meeting the recommended intake for some key nutrients including vitamin D, calcium, dietary fiber and potassium as defined by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

They are also not eating enough whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy foods. And a recent report by the CDC shows that 90% of children ages 6-18 consume more than the recommended amount of sodium each day.
In fact, a study looked at the nutrient differences between lunches from home and the National School Lunch Program, and found that lunches packed at home have fewer fruits and vegetables, less fiber, but more total calories. 

Are your kids eating what you’ve packed in their healthy lunch box

Parents can face an uphill battle figuring out how to balance packing healthy lunch boxes with what their kids will actually eat (and have time to eat!).  And then, even when you know you’ve packed a healthy lunch box that gives kids everything they need, there’s the inevitable food trade at the lunch table–your child trades the yummy whole grain crackers you packed for a sugar laden cookie. 

Or at night when you’re getting backpacks and lunches unpacked, you find that more than half the lunch you packed is still sitting in the lunch box. You can find ways to help your child meet his nutrient requirements at other meals.

Planning ahead for healthy lunch boxes

  • Get your kids involved. Have them help pick out healthy lunch box choices at the grocery store. This way you’re more likely to get things that they will actually eat. There are some great resources for sharing with kids and learning how to build a healthy lunch. This includes the MyPlate.gov website that has a great visual chart for kids.
Food prep with kids to prepare healthy lunch boxes
  • Pack ahead. Pack as much of the lunch as you can the night before. This helps alleviate the morning stress of figuring out what to put in lunches while you’re also making breakfast, brushing teeth and hair and getting them dressed. 
  • Make extras. Make enough food for dinner that you’ll have leftovers to pack in lunch boxes. A healthy lunch box meal doesn’t have to be a sandwich. Leftover pasta salad or a chicken breast with rice also fit the bill.

Make packing healthy lunch boxes fun and easy

  • Easy to open containers. Make sure the containers you send to school are easy to open.  Otherwise your child may have to wait to eat until an adult can help them open it. There are fun container options like bento boxes that make the food presentation more pleasing and enjoyable. You can also buy lunch boxes with built in ice to keep the foods safe and cold.
  • Provide bite-size portions. Cut up foods in small pieces and include dipping options like hummus, low fat yogurt and ranch dressing.
  • Use fun shapes. Make sandwiches or foods in different shapes using cookie cutters. Your child will be the talk of the table and won’t want to give up their food.
School kids enjoying their healthy lunch boxes

Key nutrients when packing a healthy lunch box

Include a mix of foods from each of these groups to ensure that your kids are getting a well-balanced lunch:

Carbohydrates (whole wheat and whole grain):

  • Breads, tortillas, pitas
  • Pasta salads
  • Pitas crackers and rice.

Protein:

  • Chicken breast or low fat cuts of meat
  • Nitrate free deli meats
  • Beans, hard boiled eggs, tofu, 
  • Peanut/nut butters (if allowed at school), 
  • Hummus and other bean based dips
  • Quinoa salads

Dairy: 

  • Low-fat milk, non-dairy alternatives that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D
  • Yogurt 
  • Cheese, string cheese

Calcium

  • Cottage cheese, low-fat milk and yogurt, string cheese.
  • Leafy vegetables, broccoli.

Fruits and vegetables

  • Grapes, apple slices
  • Berries
  • Raw vegetables are easy to pack, and stay fresher longer
  • Roasted vegetables provide a nice carmelized flavor that kids enjoy (my kids love roasted brussel sprout leftovers in their lunches!)

And a couple extras to pack

Consider packing a water bottle so that your kids can stay hydrated throughout the day. Additionally, if your kids have any after school sports or activities you might want to consider packing a few extra snacks to help tide them over until dinner. Check out our other blog posts for more ideas.

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