10 tips for healthy school lunches
The end of summer vacation brings up this perennial question: What healthy foods can I pack in my child’s school lunch? And, perhaps more important, will my child eat them?
We know it’s a tricky question, so we consulted wellness dietitian Chelsey Lindahl, from the MultiCare Center for Healthy Living & Health Equity, for tips.
1. Plan lunches one week in advance
We know it’s not always possible to plan ahead, but when you can pull it off, you’ll avoid the mad rush the night before school — or the morning of. Planning lunches in advance will also help you craft a grocery list so you’ll have everything you need on hand. Avoiding multiple grocery store tips saves time and money.
2. Try a bento box
Tired of sending your kid to school with multiple plastic containers — and losing track of all those lids? You can buy a bento box for less than $20 online or in local superstores. Bento boxes contain multiple compartments, which makes it easier to hit all the food groups. See our bento box cheat sheet for tips and sample lunches.
3. Buy in bulk and pack in preportioned containers
For the most cost savings and convenience, buy in bulk when you can. Divide the food — such as baby carrots, grapes or nuts — into single-portion-size containers. When it’s time to put together your child’s lunch, you’ll have a convenient supply you can easily transfer to your child’s lunch bag or bento box. Plus, when healthy foods are prepped and ready to eat, we’re more likely to reach for them as snacks.
4. Choose colorful fruits and vegetables
The more color variety, the greater variety of nutrients. Ideally, fruits and vegetables should take up about half of your child’s lunch to ensure a proper amount of nutrients such as calcium, fiber, iron, potassium and Vitamins A and C. Aim for 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
5. Rethink structured “lunch”
Lunch doesn’t always require a main dish. Try turning healthy snacks such as whole grain pita, hummus and vegetables into a meal by doling out larger portions.
6. Look for low- or reduced-sodium foods with 140 mg or less per serving
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 9 in 10 children eat more sodium than recommended. Children should eat less than 2,300 mg per day. Aim for low- or reduced-sodium breads, crackers, hummus and so on. Keep in mind most fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium.
7. Vary protein sources
Protein doesn’t always have to mean deli meats. In addition to lean turkey, try black beans, chickpeas, edamame, hard-boiled eggs, nuts and seeds. By varying protein sources, you receive a wide range of nutrients and amino acids.
8. Use a Crock-Pot to make batch lunches
Make soups, chili or shredded chicken for salads in a Crock-Pot on the weekend and portion out the food for a week’s worth of lunches. Freeze half so you’ll have more for later!
9. Repurpose leftover dinner items for lunches
Have an assortment of leftovers? Turn them into another meal for your child’s lunch. Leftover veggies, meat and beans can be turned into tacos or burritos, for example.
10. Choose whole grain
Unlike refined grains, whole grains contain fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants. Seek out whole-grain breads, pasta and crackers by looking for “whole grain” on the food package or in the ingredients list. Replace white rice, a refined grain, with brown rice or quinoa. Aim for 3–5 grams of fiber (or more) per serving. Did you know popcorn is a whole grain? Just go light on the butter for a lower-calorie option.
Need more tips?
This story was originally published in September 2015 and updated in August 2016.