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The Informed Parent

Healthy School Lunches

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Apr. 06, 2009

School lunches can be a challenge. While perhaps they are doing a better job than in the past, many cafeteria lunches are less than ideal. Packing lunches at home takes time. Keeping them varied and interesting stretches the imagination.

What’s more, parents may discover that children aren’t eating much lunch. In their effort to get out and play they eat the minimum required by lunchroom staffs before heading to the playground. Often children trade lunch items and aren’t eating what you have packed for them.

Years ago one of my daughters complained, “Mommy, no one will trade lunches with me because mine is too healthy.” That was the day we began making lunches together. While I thought that I was packing kid friendly lunches, clearly, I had a lot to learn.

If your children are picky eaters, complain about the lunches you pack, or if they are old enough to help pack their own, the following tips may pique their interest.


A number of steps can be taken to begin preparing your children for thinking about healthy food. If you serve a well-balanced breakfast and dinner they probably are used to eating well. And it isn’t until their lunch is compared with others that they become aware of differences. Start the healthy thinking habit together.

  • Look at pictures of food in magazines. Talk about which ones build strong bodies. Focus on color, balance, and portion size.
  • Read labels. Assist them in understanding the need for looking at kinds of fat and total fat, amount of sugar, and additives. While kindergarteners, first and second graders won’t be able to read the words, they can begin to understand the concepts. It becomes a game if you allow enough marketing time to incorporate this into the process.  If this isn’t possible, read labels on food you have at home.
  • Brainstorm options. Talk about types of bread including pita, rolls, tortillas and bagels. Consider various toppings like peanut butter, cream cheese, fruit spreads, and olives. Discuss fruits that pack well.
  • Ask whether they would be willing to take hot food in a thermos and cold food in a cold pack. This increases options. Yogurt, leftovers, soup and pasta can be included in lunches.
  • As you talk about these things create a list of desired choices and keep it accessible for easy referencing.

Have It On Hand

If children are to be healthy eaters and assist in packing their own lunches, the ingredients must be on hand. It’s frustrating to have a lunch idea but not to have the ingredients available.

  • Take them to the market with you. Prepare a list before hand so that you don’t get caught buying more than you intended. Before going you might say, “You may choose one bread, two toppings, and two kinds of fruit.” This kind of preparation reduces the number of times you need to say “No” to a choice during the shopping trip.
  • Keep a variety of breads in the freezer. They last up to a month or two and longer if double wrapped.
  • Have two or three kinds of fruit available.
  • Keep several kinds of cheeses: cheddar, string, and cream are good choices.
  • Hard boil eggs and keep them in the refrigerator for easy packing.
  • Fruit mixed in cream cheese, salsa and hummus keep well and provide variety.
  • Keep a variety of yogurts on hand.

Fun Foods

All of these foods won’t appeal to all children, but many will. Each is a tried and true lunch choice, though, and might work in your family. Add them to the list you started during the preparation period. Keep the list growing so that many choices are available.

  • Fruit smoothies
  • Fruit kabobs
  • Dried fruit
  • No sugar added fruit cups
  • Cheese or peanut butter and crackers
  • Mini pizzas made on English muffin halves--kids don’t mind these cold.
  • Pita or pocket bread sandwiches.
  • Baked chips and salsa, hummus, or egg salad.
  • Vegetable sticks and cream cheese, hummus, or salad dressing
  • Ants on a log--stuffed celery with peanut butter or cream cheese and raisins pressed on top
  • Sandwiches cut into fun shapes with cookie cutters
  • Happy face sandwich--cut bread into a round, spread with topping, make a face with raisins.
  • Pretzels
  • Small bag of nuts, popcorn or granola.

Surprises And Compromises

Take time every week to tuck a surprise into the lunch bag. This could be an “I love you” note, a sticker, a cookie, or fruit leather. If you watch sugar intake, buy  cookies at the health food store that are sweetened with applesauce or prunes. When kids are used to highly sugared cookies, it takes some time to get used to less sweet treats, but usually they end up liking them.

Be willing to compromise. You can’t expect to move too quickly into more healthy lunches. Kids will end up not eating them. When my daughter began making her own lunch choices, she wanted peanut butter on white bread--the soft airy kind. She didn’t want the bread cut but folded over. She took her special sandwich for weeks. As long as she had that, she was willing to include some healthy additions in her lunch bag. We both compromised.

Making school lunches a joint project provides learning and fun. By moving slowly and consistently into healthy eating, you are helping your child develop positive life-long nutrition patterns.

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