Create Healthy School Lunches

Most parents welcome the transition back to school and a return to routine, yet packing school lunches can pose unsettling challenges – how do we create nutritious, homemade lunch that our kids will actually eat? Factor in the food budget and limited time, and our intentions to provide well-balanced meals can suddenly seem disrupted.

Step 1: Create expectations – and stick to the plan. Kids typically like routine, so when a child anticipates a sandwich every Monday, she can help switch up the ingredients from week to week. Serving the same, exact type of sandwich fuels picky eating habits, while serving the same type of meal on a schedule is a win-win – we have consistency and, when the child can choose something different each week, she takes ownership of her meal and her palette expands.

Step 2: Plan ahead. A meal plan will simplify weekly lunches. Anticipating salad wraps on Tuesdays, batch cooking will save effort. For example, while grilling chicken for dinner, set some aside and roll it up in lettuce with thinly sliced carrots and cheese. Next day, your child will eat a different version of last night’s dinner, with more variety, and less boredom. Taking advantage of already being in the kitchen. Especially while kids are finishing up dinner or dishes, prepare lunches with leftovers and allow children to verbalize some choices.

Step 3: Involve our kids! Invite them to come up with at least one idea to contribute to each lunch: ask for a type of meal (hummus on Wednesdays, salad on Thursdays); select certain ingredients (which vegetables or protein to include in a meal); or help prep (mix dried fruit and nuts, or choose favorite vegetables while grocery shopping).

Step 4: Prioritize whole foods. Ensure that every lunch as at least one vegetable, and it’s ideal if it’s a vegetable that your child already likes (lunch away from home is not always the best place to experiment with new foods). To diversify, try cheese slices in lieu of ‘goldfish’; provide home baked fries, roasted vegetables or kale chips rather than potato chips; choose actual fruit or add lemon to a water bottle instead of fruit juice. Kids love sides of whole olives, cherry tomatoes, or ants on an almond-butter log and – it’s easy to include these foods instead of pre-packaged, processed, and nutrient-poor alternatives.

Step 5: Make meals easy to eat. Our kids have limited time to eat at school. Lunches should be cold (saving time in line for the microwave), or served in a container that stays hot through lunchtime. Finger foods are helpful, and offering a variety of 3-4 colorful and familiar options ensures a child will eat more than when packing 6-7 choices.

Step 6: Keep trying! Lunches may return partially consumed – don’t give up or be frustrated! In a positive manner, ask the child about his environment and preferences. Perhaps he was too busy socializing, or he simply didn’t like one aspect of the meal. Learn. Then transform meals together.

Providing whole foods equates to better quality food with ingredients and nutrients to support proper growth, development and learning. A child’s brain requires almost twice as much energy intake to function as an adult’s brain; therefore, a student’s cognition, behavior and learning may be greatly affected by nutritional content. Mental wellness, social conduct, physical abilities and academic aptitude are all affected by food intake (Adolphus et al, 2013).

Let’s improve our kids’ lunches a little bit, every day. Our kids – plus teachers and other parents – will be grateful that we prioritize wellbeing.



Adolphus, K., Lawton, C.L., & Dye, L. (2013). The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7: 425. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00425.

Rose, D.