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How to Pack Healthy School Lunches

Give kids a midday boost with a tasty, healthy lunch.


Updated August 09, 2012

Girl eating an apple

Apples are a popular choice for healthy school lunches.


I don't exactly enjoy packing my children's lunchboxes, but I try to remember that healthy school lunches can really make a difference. Kids feel better and learn better when they fuel up with a nutritious meal. These guidelines will help you pack school lunches with kid appeal.

Goals for Healthy School Lunches

First of all, you want your child to eat the lunch you pack! That means: packing foods you know he likes; talking with him about what you're putting in his lunch (and teaching him how to do it himself!); and making changes gradually—no sudden switcheroos.

A second and similarly important goal is to make a lunch that adds nutritional value. This midday meal should help your child get her daily dose of protein, fiber, fruits, and vegetables. Look for foods that are high on nutrients and low on sugar and ingredients that add only calories.

Best Choices for Healthy School Lunches

Include complex carbohydrates to help your child feel full, protein to replenish energy, fruits and vegetables for their antioxidants and fiber, and a small treat or love note so he can start the afternoon with a smile.

  • Whole grains: For breads, wraps, pasta, and other starches, choose whole-grain varieties whenever possible. Make this a gradual change if kids resist—mix brown and white rice, for example, or make a sandwich with one slice of white bread and one slice of whole wheat.
  • Protein: There are lots of ways to go beyond peanut butter and lunch meat. Check this list of healthy protein suggestions for choices that your kids might like.
  • Fruits and vegetables: I like to include one of each. Remember, your child needs at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, so why not check off two of them at lunchtime? Also remember that whole fruits are a better choice than juice (even 100% fruit juice) because they contain less sugar and more fiber.
  • Treats: If you want to add a fun little extra, try these suggestions for sweet and salty snacks that still have some nutritional benefits.

Make Lunches More Appealing

I'm not saying you should trick your child, or spend hours crafting a sandwich that looks exactly like his favorite superhero. But these tried-and-true tactics can often entice kids to eat a little more of their lunch in the limited time they have.

  • Make it a mini. Small versions of everyday foods (tiny sandwiches, baby corn) have a cute factor that counts with kids.
  • Select a special shape. If what you're serving is relatively flat, you can cut it with a cookie cutter: sandwiches, pancakes, cheese slices, melon wedges, and more.
  • Dip is a definite do. Whether it's ketchup, salad dressing, yogurt, hummus, or cheese, pack a small container of dip and watch dunkables like veggie strips, fruit chunks, and crackers disappear.

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