school children eating lunch
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Look What I Got!

Remember being a kid and finding something delicious in your lunch box? Or did you take one look and swap with someone else? Now that you’re a parent, you’re on deck to pack something your child will love. It’s simpler, and takes less time, than you might think.

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pureed fruit in molds
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Cool for School

Freezing is a go-to technique. Fill muffin cups with yogurt and/or pureed fruit (no sugar added) and freeze overnight. This is a good way to make child-sized portions of meatloaf and quiche, too. As they thaw, these treats will help keep the other stuff in your kid’s lunch box cool at school. Many items -- meat, fish, eggs, beans, cheese, milk, rice, pasta, mayo, and butter -- need to be chilled.

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veggie loaded sandwich
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Veggies Made Easy

It’s easy to include a few extra veggies. Sandwich in cucumber slices and grated carrots to add color and crunch. Spinach or zucchini, chopped teeny-weeny, are easy additions to tomato sauce you can toss with whole-wheat pasta. Don’t hide them all, though, so your child still gets used to eating vegetables that they can see.

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insulated lunch bag
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Baggage Check

A princess or superhero makes a fashion statement in the cafeteria. But lunch luggage also needs to have form and function. Look for sturdy, reusable bags with ice-pack pockets inside. Test zippers, ties, and easy-open/click-shut containers. You can also look to see if they are BPA-free.

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ricecakes with tomato slices
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Make Your Own Munchables

Instead of buying packaged items filled with processed foods, come up with your own. It gives you total control over what's in there. Stock up on 100% whole-grain crackers and lots of stuff for your child to stack, such as turkey pepperoni, leftover baked chicken shreds, low-fat cheese, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, and sliced olives. The possibilities are wide open!

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girl helping pack lunch
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Keep It Rated PG

Let your kids join in picking, prepping, and packing their midday meal. The more involved they are, the more likely they will eat their lunch. Think “PG” for “parental guidance suggested.” Take them along when you shop so they can see, smell, and touch the food. Give them an aisle in the produce section of the store, and then set them free to choose which fruits and veggies they want.

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healthy packed lunch
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Pack a Lesson In

Loading a lunch box is a way for kids to learn how to make good food choices. Teach them the “My Plate” rule to show what goes into a balanced meal. Fruit and veggies take up half the plate, and the other half splits between grains and proteins. A circle, where their milk glass would go, is off to the side. Have them draw it themselves so it will stick in their minds.

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fun face shaped sandwich
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Don’t Be BO-RING!

Swap out what’s in your child’s lunchbox every now and then so it doesn’t get traded or trashed. Pack a black bean cake or soup for the main meal. Put PB&J on a cocoa-flavored rice cake or cinnamon-raisin bagel rather than bread. Make an inside-out sandwich by wrapping thin-sliced turkey or ham around a whole-wheat breadstick, pretzel, carrot stick, or low-fat string cheese. Mix up menu items to make them too tasty to swap!

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girl drawing with crayon
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In Their Dreams

Challenge your child to draw a picture of their dream lunch, and give them a big box of crayons. The brighter, the better. Apples, carrots, celery, grapes, tomatoes, beans, greens, oranges, and blueberries -- in any combination -- give kids the colors they crave and the nutrients they need. If they sketch nothing but candy, take the opportunity to inspire them about foods that help them learn and play.

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ants on a log
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Sweet Success

A little bit of sugar or fat is OK if it means kids eat more foods that are good for them. Try these trade-outs for healthier lunchtime desserts: 

  • Do: Whole-wheat graham crackers with natural peanut or almond butter instead of ...
  • Don't: Chocolate sandwich cookies
  • Do: “Ants on a log” (celery sticks smeared with peanut butter, topped with raisins, sprinkled with cinnamon) instead of ...
  • Don't: Fun-size candy bars
  • Do: A clementine instead of ...
  • Don't: A single-serve cup of processed, flavored applesauce

 

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boy drinking milk
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Last Call for Sugary Drinks

Take a hard line on soft drinks. On average, a 12-ounce soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar and 150 calories. Juice boxes, even 100% pure, are way up there in calories and sugars, too. Leave them out of the lunch box in favor of water and low-fat (1%) or skim milk, which are good gulps for kids.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 10/13/2019 Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 13, 2019

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

1) SolStock/Getty

2) Thinkstock

3) Lauri Patterson/Getty

4) Michael Powell/Getty

5) Thinkstock

6) Betsie Van Der Meer/Getty

7) Brett Mulcahy

8) Nata Vkusidey/Getty

9) Vanessa Morosini/Getty

10) Getty

11) Kidstock/Getty

SOURCES:

Consumer Reports: “How to Prep and Pack the Perfect School Lunch.”

SuperKids Nutrition: “10 Tips for Packing Lunch for Camp or Summer School” and “Seven Steps to a Successful Brown Bag Lunch.”

Boston Children’s Hospital: “Back-to-School Health Tips: What’s in Your Kid’s Lunchbox?

Spark: “Healthy Back to School Lunches.”

Patrick, H. Appetite, published online Dec. 8, 2004.

MyPlate.gov

ADDitude Magazine: “PB & J Again? Ideas for Diversifying Your Children’s Lunches, Even if All They Want is PB&J.”

American Diabetes Association: “Eating Colorful Food Has Health Benefits.”

Ma, D. AAP News, Sept. 2009.

News Release: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 13, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.