What Can I Pack for a Healthy Lunch?

Families, Food and Fitness November 18, 2009 Print Friendly and PDF

This question has baffled parents for years. We might remember things like warm yogurt and brown apple slices in our school lunchbox and lots of salami because mothers thought it wouldn’t spoil by lunch time. Today, it’s imperative that children’s lunchboxes contain a well-balanced, healthy, and appetizing selection of foods that can be kept cool until eaten. Appetizing is probably the key as we want children to EAT the foods we pack.

Picture of bag lunch

Here are some tips to help you pack healthy, safe, and appetizing lunches:

  • Introduce children to a variety of whole-grain breads and rolls. If your child doesn't like sandwiches, try an unassembled one they can eat in stages.
  • Try “planned-overs” like hearty soups, chili, or spaghetti from the night before. Use a container that can keep foods hot.
  • Pack cheese sticks by cutting your own. Children need calcium each day, so include cheese even if milk is served.
  • Veggies and dip are always a hit. Cut up carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, or cauliflower and pack with a small container of your child’s favorite low-fat dressing.
  • Offer beverages like water and low-fat milk; 100% fruit juice should be an occasional beverage.
  • Minimize the salty and sweet treats in the lunch bag. Items like chips, “fruit” roll-ups, and cookies in the lunch bag make it tough for small stomachs to get all the nutrients needed for good health and growth.
  • Include a favorite item along with new foods. This way if the child doesn’t care for the new item, he or she will still have the old favorite.
  • Involve children when planning lunch bag menus. They’ll look forward to lunchtime knowing they’ve helped create the menu.
  • Keep foods safe. Use insulated bags with reusable ice packs to keep foods cool. Use a lunch box with rigid sides to keep foods from getting crushed.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.