Packing Lunch for Your School-Aged Child

As school resumes and extracurricular activities begin, planning out meals can become quite a task. Getting your child the fuel they need to grow and develop does not have to be difficult or stressful. If your child prefers a packed option in lieu of eating the school’s provided lunch, you can rest easy using these tips to send them with a nutritious meal from home.

What should I pack in my child’s lunch?

Aim to include one item from each of the following categories: fruit, vegetables, protein, whole grain, and calcium-rich food. Whole grains include fiber, which helps keep kids full and sustain their energy throughout the day. For calcium-rich dairy, select fat-free or low-fat varieties when able. For dairy alternatives, soy-based items are preferred as they provide a good source of protein. Be aware of the inadequacies of many other dairy alternatives such as oat, rice, and nut beverages, as these are not typically a good source of protein, and often lack vitamins and minerals that your child needs to grow.

How do I make nutritious food more appealing?

Do not pressure or force your child to eat certain food. Instead, consistently offer a variety of options and get them involved in the process of preparing their lunch. Keep your conversation about food positive and allow them to have input. The more frequently they’re exposed to an unfamiliar item, the more likely they are to eventually accept and consume the item. If their fresh vegetables keep returning home untouched, try adding some dip or dressing to enhance the flavor.

What foods should my child avoid?

The only foods that should be completely avoided are items that contain known allergens, spoiled food, or are raw or undercooked. It’s important for children to understand that they can and should enjoy all foods in moderation, including the occasional sweet. All foods fit in the typical diet, and it’s vital to ensure your child develops a healthy relationship with food by allowing them to be exposed to a wide variety as often as possible.

How much food should I include?

Whole grain foods: At least half (3 ounces) of the grains eaten daily should be whole grains.

  • On food labels, look for a whole grain (such as whole wheat, brown rice, or whole oats) as the first ingredient on the ingredients list.

Calcium-rich foods: Your child should drink 2 to 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or eat the equivalent amount of low-fat yogurt and/or cheese every day.

Fruit: Aim for 1½ to 2 cups of fruit daily.

  • Choose fruit that are fresh, frozen, canned, or dried, without added sugar.
  • 100% fruit juice should be limited to 1 cup daily.

Vegetables: Aim for at least 1½ cups of a variety of vegetables daily.

  • Include dark-green vegetables (such as spinach, broccoli, and kale) and orange vegetables (such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin).

Protein foods: Choose lean cuts of meat, poultry, and fish prepared without additional fat or oil (for example, baked, broiled, or grilled), nuts, beans, and lentils. Your child should eat 5-7 ounces daily.

Maura Woolsey, Registered Dietitian