School Lunches, Healthy Choices

Packing up a healthy school lunch is easy with these tasty tips.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 04, 2010
5 min read

When you're busy getting kids ready for school in the morning, a healthy school lunch can get lost in the shuffle. You may think your child's lunch rates an "A," when in reality, it doesn't make the grade.

Yet a few simple changes can turn lackluster school lunches into healthy midday meals your child will actually eat.

"Parents can pack the 'perfect' meal, but if their child won't eat it, it's not right for them," says Sandra Nissenberg, MS, RD, author of Brown Bag Success: Making Healthy Lunches Your Kids Won't Trade.

To make sure your kids eat the school lunch they take, have a talk. Find out their food preferences: what they need and when they need it. For example, what's best for the morning snack? Or the afternoon pick-me-up? Then think outside the lunch box with these mealtime tips from the nutrition experts.

Banish Bread Boredom. Trade your child's typical bread choice for:

  • Whole-grain pita
  • Tortillas
  • Raisin bread
  • Mini or full-size bagels
  • Colorful sandwich wraps
  • Whole-grain hot dog or hamburger buns, or whole-grain white versions

Focus on Fillings. Tantalize taste buds by infusing interest into ordinary sandwiches:

  • Stir chopped celery, cashews, or water chestnuts into tuna or chicken salad.
  • Spread cranberry sauce on sliced, cooked turkey or chicken.
  • Add shredded carrots or dried fruit to any nut butter or sunflower seed butter sandwich on whole-grain bread.
  • Spread a whole-wheat tortilla with hummus; add a tablespoon or two of tabouli; and sprinkle with reduced-fat feta cheese and chopped cherry tomatoes.
  • Try a banana "hot dog": Pack a whole-grain hot dog bun spread with almond butter or sunflower seed butter, and a medium banana. Just before eating, your child can peel the banana and place it in the bun for eating.

Search for Sandwich Alternatives: No sandwich? No problem. These combinations get high marks as balanced meals.

  • Whole-grain crackers, string cheese, single-serve applesauce, low-fat milk
  • Whole-grain roll, hard-boiled egg or two (peel at home), baby carrots, low-fat milk
  • Carton of yogurt, whole-grain crackers, fruit
  • Hummus, whole-grain crackers or pretzels, celery sticks, low-fat milk
  • Reduced-sodium condensed tomato soup made with milk instead of water with cooked macaroni or other grain stirred in; fruit, and carton of yogurt
  • Reduced-sodium canned lentil soup, whole-grain roll, baby carrots, carton of 100% orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D
  • Fruit salad topped with yogurt and sprinkled with whole-grain cereal (package cereal and fruit separately to avoid sogginess)
  • Fruit and cheese kabobs: Alternate chunks of fruit with small cheese cubes. Serve with whole-grain roll and 1% low-fat milk or 100% fruit juice.
  • Cooked tortellini tossed with grated Parmesan cheese and cooked (good hot or cold), diced vegetables, fruit, 1% low-fat milk

You can get a healthy midday meal together fast when you've cooked it up that morning -- or the night before.

Leftovers for Lunch. When dinner is a hit, dish it up again the next day for lunch. These leftovers work well in a thermos or insulated bag:

  • Sloppy Joes: Serve with bread sticks, crackers, or a roll, baby carrots or celery sticks, and 1% low-fat milk
  • Pizza, fruit, and 100% fruit juice
  • Shepherd's pie, stew, macaroni and cheese, Chinese food, or pasta and meatballs; fruit, and 1% low-fat milk

Lunch on Breakfast. Kids love to mix up meal times. They'll look forward to lunch with these midday meals in the bag.

  • Dry whole-grain cereal, slivered almonds for mixing with cereal; thermos of 1% low-fat milk (or purchase a carton at school); fruit
  • French toast cut into strips, single-serve container of applesauce for dipping, carton or thermos of 1% low-fat milk
  • Whole-grain bagel or mini bagels spread with low-fat cream cheese, carton of low-fat yogurt, banana
  • Waffle sandwich: two whole-grain waffles, spread with any nut butter or sunflower seed butter, carton of low-fat yogurt, fruit

Deal With Dessert.When other kids are eating cookies, candy or other treats at lunchtime, it may be difficult for your child to go without. So pack these treats:

  • A mini candy bar or a mini muffin works well to satisfy a sweet tooth; 100-calorie packs of lower-fat cookies, such as animal crackers, are a happy compromise, too.
  • Dessert doesn't have to be sweet. Pack a single-serve bag of low-fat popcorn (it's a whole grain!); sliced hard cheese and dried fruit; or a small amount of snack chips.

A great way to be sure kids want to eat right is to make them part of the process. Some good ways to do that include:

  • Have Everyone Jump In. Muster enthusiasm for the midday meal by having kids participate in planning and assembling their own lunches. When children help, making healthy school lunches becomes second nature, and they'll soon be doing it on their own.
  • Get Kids Excited. Let kids choose a lunch box or insulated bag; a thermos; and small reusable hard plastic containers for taking lunch to school. A small freezer pack keeps food cold. Have them decorate them with stickers, markers, or paint. Children who brown-bag it can decorate a different bag every day.
  • Shop Together for Healthy Choices. Take your child to the grocery store to pick out healthy ingredients. "At the very least, lunch should include a source of protein, such as turkey, chicken, beans, eggs, nut butters, or sunflower seed butter; grains; fruits or vegetables; and a nutritious beverage, such as low-fat milk or 100% fruit juice," Nissenberg says.
  • Make Compromising Cool. When kids clamor for fatty luncheon meats, chips, sugary drinks, and desserts -- compromise. Have them concoct their own healthier versions. Purchase reduced-sodium deli meat; reduced-fat cheese; whole-grain bread or crackers; small fruit, such as clementines and tangerines; cartons of 1% low-fat milk or 100% fruit juice; and mini candy bars.
  • Check Up on Lunch.If you're curious what your child is actually eating what he packs for lunch, ask him to bring home any uneaten food.

Millions of American school children line up for school lunch every day. Even so, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) catches a lot of flak.

"Could school lunches be better? Sure. But the perception that school lunch is bad is largely unfair," says Andrea Giancoli, MS, RD, nutrition policy coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Children who participate in the NSLP are twice as likely to eat vegetables, consume more fruit, and take in less sugar at lunch as kids who don't eat NSLP meals, according to a study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research.

The problem comes when schools allow snack bars, vending machines, a la carte meal choices, and school stores that offer higher-fat fare. Then it's more likely that kids will make a meal from chips, sugary soft drinks, Frenchfries, candy, ice cream, and other low-nutrient foods.

So it turns out you don't need to choose packed lunches vs. school lunches. Just be sure kids take along a home-made healthy meal, or understand that, when eating lunch at school, you expect them to choose lower-fat entrées, nonfat or low-fat milk, and a fruit or vegetable.