Chips, pudding cup, sports drink – check! Do you want to pack healthy lunches but are overwhelmed by all the options? Are you on repeat, packing the same kid’s lunch all summer long? Or is this the first lunch you’ve packed in over 18 months? Either way, we all need to hit refresh! Menus are outdated, kids and parents are bored, and some lunch staples are simply unhealthy! We’ll help you come up with healthy lunch ideas for kids so that you and your kids are happy, healthy, and not hungry!
We’ll go over some basic nutrition guidelines for kids’ lunches, then we’ll dive into delicious lunch and snack ideas that even picky kids are sure to enjoy!
COVID-19 & Nutrition
School doors are reopening and health is a top priority on every campus. Washing hands, using hand sanitizer, and following mask guidelines are all important for limiting the spread of germs.
Did you know that making healthy lunch choices can also decrease your risk of serious illness? What? Healthy lunch ideas?! Yes! Taking care of your health involves proper nourishment. With the right nutrients, kids can boost their immune systems and improve their ability to fight illness.
Learn more about how to cook through COVID-19 in this article.
MyPlate Plan for Kids
The MyPlate graphic provides a visual guide for planning well-balanced meals and is easy for the whole family to understand. MyPlate emphasizes making half of your plate fruits and veggies, one quarter grains, and one quarter protein. USDA recommends including dairy too, but we like to highlight Harvard’s Kids Healthy Eating Plate, which lumps dairy into the protein category.
Following Mediterranean Diet principles can also be a great tool for packing lunches. Don’t forget to include healthy fats and water too!
Pack Lots of Colors
Phytochemicals give plants their different colors, and different colors provide different health benefits. Color your kids’ plates/lunchboxes with a variety of fruits and vegetables to boost the nutrient content of meals. Adding a variety of colors to kids’ lunch boxes can boost their health and increase meal appeal. While we typically think of coloring as using markers and crayons, the colors in foods can be art too!
Say NO to Ultra-Processed Convenience Foods
Seriously. Just don’t buy it.
Make it easier on the entire family, and leave the unhealthy meals and snacks at the store. If these foods are in the pantry, they will probably end up in a lunchbox. There is tons of clever marketing around convenience foods for kids – don’t fall for it!
For example, Lunchables contains multiple food groups, have fruit juice, look colorful, and are super convenient. Seems healthy, right? But the packaging doesn’t tell the whole story. Convenience foods like these are often loaded with sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, and are lacking in essential fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein. Don’t be fooled by the nutritional claims plastered on their websites and packaging. Don’t buy it, so you don’t have to fight it.
Added Sugars in Packed Lunches
Added sugars can be sneaky! For children, try to limit added sugar ≤ 6 teaspoons/day (24 grams).
Think about added sugars like a bank account. Each day starts with 24 grams of added sugar in your child’s “account” – that’s their daily allowance. As your child eats and drinks foods with added sugars, subtract that amount from the day’s budget. For example, if you pack a cookie with 10 grams of added sugar, the child now has 14 grams of added sugar for the rest of the day. If you pack a granola bar for an after-school snack that has 12 grams of added sugar, they only have 2 grams left for the day! See how quickly that sugar allowance runs out?!
Luckily, fresh and dried fruits and non-flavored dairy products don’t count against added sugar budgets, so encourage those foods for sweet “treats” over highly-processed options.
What about juice? Although juice typically doesn’t contain added sugar, it is a very concentrated source of natural sugar, so it is higher in calories than whole fruit. Additionally, juice lacks the fiber found in whole fruits. Fiber helps to keep bellies full and energy levels stable – so important for a long day at school! The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting juice consumption to ≤4 ounces per day for toddlers (1-3 years), 4-6 ounces per day for children 4-6, and ≤8 ounces per day for children 7-18 years of age. Fruit juice is not recommended for children <1 year old.
Plan Ahead for Healthy Lunches
Waiting until the last minute to pack healthy lunches causes stress, and when you are short on time, you are more likely to reach for convenience foods. Pack a lunch while prepping dinner or putting it away. When slicing cucumbers for a salad, dicing fruit, or cooking pasta, set a little extra aside – no need to cook or clean up twice! Two meals with one clean up makes for happy adults and healthy kids!
Learn more about meal planning in these articles:
Involve Kids in the Packing Process
When we involve kids in the lunch-packing process, they are more likely to consume and enjoy their meal! Review the colorful MyPlate image while assembling lunch to encourage kids to select healthy choices. Have your child choose one menu item from each category. If you are running out of ideas or are repeating the same foods over and over again, take a look at the Plan MyPlate tool which provides samples of menu options in each category.
Lunch Boxes for Kids
Purchasing the right lunch box is a tall task. Is it durable? Will my child carry it? Is it dishwasher-safe? Will it leak? While there’s no perfect lunchbox, there are some that have special features that make them great for school lunches!
We enjoy the Bentgo Lunch Box (pictured below). Here’s why:
- Compartmentalized – a perfect reminder to fill with a variety of meal components
- Dishwasher-safe – no need to explain!
- Easy-to-open – two latches are kid-friendly
- Size – fits most lunchbox carriers
- Colorful – kids enjoy it!
School Lunch Recipes
Okay, so what should you actually put in a healthy school lunch then?
We’ve got lots of ideas beyond your traditional PB&J and “ants on a log”. Remember, a balanced lunch should include lots of colors, quality carbohydrates, and lean proteins to keep active minds focused and sharp. Try out some of our favorite, kid-approved recipes!
Grains + Protein
- Grain Salad Base Recipe (variations included)
- Turkey Meatballs Base Recipe (variations included)
- Oatmeal Energy Bites Base Recipe (variations included)
- Hummus Pizza Base Recipe (variations included)
- Whole Grain Pancakes Base Recipe (variations included)
- Baked Oatmeal Cups Base Recipe (variations included)
- Homemade Pizza Base Recipe (variations included)
- Hummus Veggie Wraps or Pinwheels
- Cherry Tomato Basil Pasta
- Banana Buttermilk Muffins
- Turkey Pesto Burgers or Sliders
- Homemade Granola & Yogurt
Fruits & Vegetables
- Hummus Base Recipe (variations included)
- Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges
- Roasted Chickpeas
- Spiced Cauliflower
- Rosemary Roasted Carrots
- Kefir Smoothie Base Recipe (variations included)
- Trail Mix Base Recipe
- Apple “Cupcakes”
Cold Lunch Ideas for Kids
Just because it’s served warm at dinner, doesn’t mean it won’t be delicious cold.
Our To Taste junior chefs love cold pizza, noodles, grain salads, tostadas, quesadillas, and even grilled cheese! While we traditionally eat roasted vegetables warm, adding properly cooled roasted broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots can help increase vegetable variety and consumption. Roasting vegetables caramelizes their natural sugars and increases their sweetness.
Try out any of the above recipes in a cold school lunch, then let us know how your kids liked them!
We hope that this article provided some helpful guidance on school lunch ideas for kids. We are strong believers in providing kids’ growing minds and bodies with good nutrients to promote happy, healthy, and strong students!
To YOURS and YOUR KIDS’ health this school year!