Kids Need Real Happy Meals

Here's how to give kids the fun lunch foods they crave — without sacrificing good nutrition.

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 02, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

This year, start a new tradition pack a healthy school lunch for your kids.

A nutritious lunch from home helps kids stay away from the high-fat, high-sugar, and high-sodium stuff in school cafeterias and vending machines. Research shows that America's children are missing out on five essential nutrients to their growth and good health: calcium, fiber, magnesium, vitamin E, and potassium.

An ideal lunch provides good nutrition plus just enough calories to fuel body and brain throughout the day. Sandwiches are fine for the first few weeks, but after that, kids get bored, says Elizabeth Ward, author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids.

You can't be too hard-nosed about it, Ward adds. Ask kids what they want favorite fruits, vegetables, dips (kids love dips). Let them have choices, but make the choices healthy ones. Let them choose a trendy lunch box or attractive insulated bag that looks like a fashion accessory. And don't worry, slipping an occasional soda, bag of chips, or candy bar into that new accessory is not a problem.

Basics for a Five-Star Healthy School Lunch

Kids need lots of variety to keep them interested. For balanced nutrition, make meals with adequate servings of at least three of these five food groups:

  • Dairy: string cheese, cheese cubes, low-fat cottage cheese, low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk, pudding made with low-fat milk, calcium- and vitamin D-fortified orange juice.
  • Fruit: fresh fruit such as orange segments, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, pears, apples, dried fruit, 100% juice boxes, canned fruit cups in juice.
  • Vegetables: baby carrots, grape tomatoes, celery sticks, salsa, tomato juice, red bell peppers, broccoli.
  • Whole grains: whole-grain bread, tortillas, wraps, cereals, crackers.
  • Lean protein: beans, nuts, turkey, chicken, tuna, lean lunch meat, peanut butter, veggie burgers, bean salad, hummus.

Happy Brown-Baggers

These are some kid-approved favorites. Don't forget to include a frozen 100% fruit-juice box to keep foods cool until lunchtime.

  • Today's PBJ. Whole-wheat bread, peanut butter, banana, and chopped dates make a good sandwich.
  • Sticks To Go. Mozzarella cheese sticks with baked tortilla strips, a container of salsa, and orange segments are treats, too.
  • Pocket Change. Stuff a pita pocket with fat-free refried beans, shredded cheese, chopped tomatoes or salsa. Add a carton of milk and fruit.
  • On a Roll. Scoop out a whole-grain roll and fill it with tuna salad made with chopped apples and celery. Add cheese cubes and baby carrots.
  • It's a Wrap. Fill a colorful tortilla with sliced turkey, Swiss cheese, a few spinach leaves, and cranberry relish. Add a can of tomato juice and a piece of fresh fruit.