So if you are like me, you care a bit about feeding your kids healthy nutritious food. You want to make sure you are sending them off to school with food that is going to help their bodies (and minds!) grow and develop as they need to. This post is going to explain how to pack a healthy lunch for school that will make sure they get what they need.
Serving my kids healthy and nutritious food is important to me. I want to be sure that as my kids grow up, they learn healthy eating habits that will benefit them as they get older. Being intentional about the food I feed them is a big part of that.
You can use these lunch guidelines for any meals that you serve them. I focused specifically on lunch because it’s one of the easier meals to miss in the rush of daily life.
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What goes into a healthy lunch for kids
A healthy lunch for kids is one that includes all 5 food groups. Most of the time. According to Choosemyplate.gov, the 5 food groups include grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, and dairy. Your child doesn’t have to eat each of those food groups at every meal, but it is a lot easier to be sure they eat each food group if they are offered as much as possible.
According to choosemyplate.gov, grains should make up slightly more than a 1/4 of our kid’s plates. Of that 1/4, they suggest half of that be whole grains. I consider that to come out to be about 1-2 servings of grains per meal. For example, 1 slice of bread is one serving. So if you made a sandwich with 2 slices of bread, you would meet the recommendation for the grains food group.
According to choosemyplate.gov, fruits should make up about 1/4 of our kid’s plates as well. The ideal way to get those fruits in is to use whole, real fruit. Juice or fruit with added sugars should be more of a last resort. Fruit is naturally sweet and most kids will enjoy it as is.
1/2 cup of chopped fruit is considered a serving. So you could serve 1/2 cup of chopped strawberries to meet the recommendation for the fruit food group.
Choosemyplate.gov recommends that 1/4 of your child’s plate be made up of vegetables. Vegetables are one of the best sources of vitamins and nutrients that their growing bodies need. My kids like vegetables, but they tend to be a bit selective on which ones they will eat. I typically make sure they see their favorites fairly often, and then I try to introduce new ones on occasion.
1 serving of vegetables is equivalent to 1/2 cup of cooked or raw vegetables. So you could serve 1/2 cup of raw carrots to meet the recommendation for the vegetable food group.
Protein can be found in a wide variety of foods including: meat, poultry, seafood, beans, eggs, nuts, peas, soy, and seeds. Choosemyplate.gov recommends that a little less than 1/4 of their plate be made up of protein.
This is one area I have to get a little creative with my kids. If left to their own devices, 2 of them would live off of peanut butter as their only source of protein. The oldest has grown into a more varied diet, so I’m hoping the other 2 will follow with age.
2-3 oz of meat or 2 Tbs of peanut butter count as a serving of protein. So you could serve a peanut butter sandwich with 2 Tbs of peanut butter on it and meet the recommendation for the protein food group.
The dairy recommendations are a bit lower than the other food groups, but it is still an important part of your children’s diet. My kids are not big milk drinkers, so I tend to add in yogurts, dairy-based dips, and cheese to their meals.
2 oz of cheese or 1 cup of milk counts as a serving of dairy. So you could serve 2 oz of cheese to meet the recommendation for the dairy food group.
So here are a few examples of lunches that meet all the food group requirements. This is what I would feed my 5-year-old. For my 9-year-old, I would increase the portion sizes a little.
Half a turkey and cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread, 1/2 a sliced peach, and 1/2 cup of raw baby carrots.
1/4 of a bean and cheese quesadilla, 1/2 cup of sliced strawberries, and 1/2 a sliced cucumber.
Buy a lunchbox that fits your needs
The next step to packing a healthy school lunch is to make sure your lunch box allows you to fit all those different food categories in one lunch box. I am a huge fan of bento box styled lunchboxes because they make it super easy to fit all the different food groups.
They are also great if your kids are like my middle child. If 2 foods touch or mix together, she isn’t eating either one of them. You can find my top pics for lunchboxes here.
I would also recommend getting some sort of thermos or insulated container that will allow you to pack hot or warm food. This really opens up your options for what you can pack for school lunch.
I would suggest getting 2 lunchboxes if you can. That way you aren’t having to rush every morning trying to wash it out if you forgot to do it the night before. (Like I totally would!)
Make a list of ideas to pack for school lunch
Making a list of food ideas to pack is a huge sanity saver! Rather than rack my brain for ideas of what to pack for school lunch, I simply go to my list and pick an item from each food group. It also helps me make sure that I’m not repeating the same foods over and over.
I have added a few ideas here to get you started. If you want an even longer list, sign up to get my FREE Lunch Ideas printable. It breaks everything down by food groups, so you can quickly and easily pack a healthy lunch for your kids. You can find it below this list.
Grains: bread, crackers, tortillas
Fruit: grapes, apples, strawberries
Vegetables: grape tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots
Protein: turkey, ham, pepperoni
Dairy: Yogurt, cheese, vegetable dip
Tips for packing a healthy lunch for school
Pick food that will travel well
Unless you have a lot of faith in your lunch box or lunch bag, I would not pack anything that is super runny in regular containers. I would stick to thicker foods like yogurt or dip for the regular containers. For things like soup, I would put those in a thermos or bottle that is designed to keep liquids.
Make sure the majority of the food is things your kids will eat
It’s important to expand our children’s menu, but if we don’t want them to come home starving, it’s best to do it a little at a time. I want my kids to eat a variety of foods, but I know that they are pretty unlikely to eat a whole meal full of foods that are not familiar to them. I like to keep 75%-80% of their food as familiar things that they like and I add in new stuff only about 20%-25% of the time.
Make it fun if possible
Now I’m not saying you have to go all out and make elaborate creatures with their food. I certainly don’t have time for that! What I do have time for is adding in a dip for things like fruit or vegetables. My kids also love when I put their food onto skewers. Another easy trick is to cut fruit or sandwiches into fun shapes with a cookie cutter.
So that’s how to pack a healthy lunch for school. If you need some more ideas for what to pack for lunch, check out 40+ Yummy Lunch Ideas for Back to School. You can also follow me on Pinterest here, for more meal ideas.
Please comment below and tell me how you make sure to feed your own kids healthy lunches. You can also email me at Candice@littlestepsbighappy.com.
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I’m a busy mom of 3 turned Health and Fitness Coach and Self Defense Instructor. I help inspire other moms to reach their health, fitness, and weight loss goals. You can usually find me chasing my kiddos around, training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or sneaking away to read romance novels. About Me