Providing your child with a lunch that is both healthy and appealing may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. If you have a young child starting school, you may be wondering what the healthiest lunch options are for them—especially if you have a picky eater. Plus, there are other factors to consider, such as the amount of time and money that you are willing to put into your child’s lunch.
Like many parents, you are probably wondering what even makes a healthy lunch. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a nutritionist to put together a quick and healthy meal for your child. While you may think you need to pack your child’s lunch, some schools have been changing their menus to provide more nutritious lunches as well.
With so many options, choosing what to feed your child at lunch time can be a little overwhelming. But following a few simple guidelines can help you provide your child with a tasty and healthy lunch every day.
What Makes A Healthy Lunch?
Variety is one of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to your child’s lunch. Your child should be eating something from every food group. This includes protein, grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. This is true for every meal your child eats. It’s always a good idea to limit added sugars and salt in your child’s lunch as well.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has some helpful nutrition guidelines for feeding your child, and recommends including the five major food groups in your child’s lunch. This will help to ensure your child has the fuel they need to tackle the school day.
The AAP recommends the following minimum servings of each of the major food groups every day for kids:
- Vegetables: 3-5 servings
- Fruits: 2-4 servings
- Grains: 6-11 servings
- Proteins: 2-3 servings
- Dairy: 2-3 servings
If your child enjoys fresh vegetables like carrots, celery sticks, or bell peppers, try including about ½ a cup in their lunch so they get a full serving. If you have a picky eater you may need to sneak shredded or pureed vegetables into their food. In that case, smoothies or applesauce that contain vegetable purees can be helpful.
A serving size of fruit can be one whole fruit or ½ a cup of chopped fruit. Bite-sized fruits like berries or grapes are an easy option for transporting in your child’s lunchbox. While fresh fruit is preferable, fruit juices often contain about a serving of fruit as well.
If you pack a sandwich in your child’s lunch, they are already getting two servings of grains. A serving size can include one slice of bread or about ½ a cup of pasta. Try to opt for whole grains whenever possible. These often include more vitamins, minerals, and fiber and less calories. If your child will only eat white bread, look for bread that has been fortified, since these contain vitamins and iron.
A serving size of protein foods could include 2-3 ounces of cooked meat, one egg, about ½ a cup of beans or tofu, or 2 tablespoons of nut butter. Keep in mind that dairy foods often contain protein as well.
Many children get all of the dairy they need if they drink two or three cups of milk a day. One cup of yogurt or 1 ½ ounces of cheese would also count as a serving of dairy. When possible, include plain milk without any added sweeteners.
Packed Lunch Vs. School Lunch—What’s Better?
Whether you choose to pack your child’s lunch or buy it from the school depends on several factors. You need to consider the cost and amount of time you have to invest in your child’s lunches as well as nutritional value. If your child has any special dietary needs, you will need to keep that in mind also. What works for one family may not work for others.
If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on your child’s lunches, you may be able to receive free or discounted school lunches from your child’s school. The National School Lunch Program helps feed millions of low-income children every day. The program aims to provide nutritious lunches at little to no cost for eligible students every day. However, if you are not eligible for the National School Lunch Program, it could be more cost-effective to pack your child’s lunch.
If you are a busy parent, you might not have the time to put together a healthy lunch for your child every day. It does involve some preparation and some extra dishes. This may cause you to opt for packaged foods that contain high levels of salt, sugar, and fat. If that’s the case, you might be better off having your child buy their lunch at school.
Research has found that children get about half of their daily calories from school lunches. Unfortunately, many schools are still working on incorporating more nutritious meal options in their cafeterias. Look at your child’s school lunch menu to see what is available. If you think you can provide a more nutritious meal, packing your child’s lunch may be the best option.
If your child has food allergies or dietary restrictions, it might be easier for you to pack their lunch. While some schools are cutting out common allergens like peanuts, you will have to check with your school to see if your child has options.
6 Tips For Packing A Healthy Lunch
If you choose to pack your child’s lunch, there are a few steps you can follow to keep things simple.
1. Use a lunch box with compartments
To avoid sending your child to school with a squished sandwich, look for a reusable lunch box with compartments. This will help keep your child’s lunch organized and visually appealing. Plus, it will remind you to use fresh foods from every food group.
2. Include fresh foods
While some packaged foods may be advertised as healthy options, this is often misleading. If you are trying to pack healthy foods for your child, fresh is always best. Including fresh fruits or vegetables in your child’s lunch doesn’t require any extra effort, and you can be sure there is no added salt or sugar.
3. Limit sugary drinks and packaged foods
Consumption of packaged foods has increased over the years, leading to obesity and other health problems. There are often more calories, fat, sugar, and salt in packaged foods. While it doesn’t hurt to give your child a treat in their lunch, it’s best to limit these items.
4. Aim for variety
Aim to include each of the five main food groups in your child’s lunch. Incorporating different colors and textures will make your child’s lunch more appealing and ensure they are getting all of the nutrients they need.
5. Get your kids involved
If your child gets to make choices, they are more likely to eat their lunch. Make a menu for them to choose items from or ask them to help pack their lunch. Just be sure not to overload them with options and include mostly healthy choices.
5 Healthy Lunch Ideas For Kids
If you still aren’t sure where to start, here are a few lunch ideas to get you started. Each of these ideas contains each of the major food groups. We’ve included options for plant-based and nut-free diets as well.
- Turkey and cheese on a whole-wheat tortilla
- Carrot sticks
- Low-fat milk
- Sunflower seed butter and banana sandwich
- Cucumber slices
- Cream cheese and veggie wrap
- Apple slices
- Low-fat milk
- Black bean quesadilla
- Bell pepper slices
- Build your own cheese and deli meat cracker sandwiches
- Hard-boiled egg
- Orange slices
- Celery sticks
Making healthy lunch choices for your child doesn’t have to be complicated. Once you have a basic formula down, you will find that getting all five major food groups into your child’s lunch is easy. It just takes a little extra time to make sure you are prepared each week. You may even be able to prep a few lunches at a time to make things really easy on yourself. And while you want to limit sugary items and packaged foods, remember that these items are okay in moderation.
“Hi! My name is Lydia and I’m a freelance writer who specializes in parenting and education. I have a bachelor’s degree in English and worked as a teacher and tutor before deciding to stay home full-time with my two young children. As a mom, I’m passionate about early childhood education and am always looking for fun and practical ways to teach my kids at home.”