What Can I Pack my Kids for Lunch?

Families, Food and Fitness November 28, 2011 Print Friendly and PDF

What Can I Pack my Kids for Lunch?

Every fall, as school starts, many parents face the dilemma of what to pack for lunch. What can I pack that won’t spoil bylunchtime and contains a well-balanced selection of healthy foods that my child will eat?

Here are some tips to help you and your child select and pack a healthy, safe and tasty lunch:

  • Make a list of all the food options your child will eat by food group: grains, fruits, vegetables, meat/protein, dairy, and other foods such as dips, sauces, snacks and desserts. Get kids involved in making the list.
  • Indicate which food items will need refrigeration or an insulated lunch box and a frozen gel pack. A frozen juice box or frozen water bottle can be used in place of a gel pack for keeping food cool and safe until lunchtime.

Sample Food List

Grains (make at least half of your selections whole grain) X = Needs Refrigeration
Crackers, Bread Sticks  
Bread, Muffins, Biscuits  
Tortilla, Pita  
Rice cakes, Popcorn  
Dry cereal  
Fruits (some fruit leathers and fruit snacks have very little fruit and a lot of sugar)  
Fresh, whole (apple, orange, pear, peach, kiwi, banana, etc.)  
Dried (fruit leather, raisins, cran-raisins, etc.)  
Canned in juice or light syrup (fruit cups, etc.) X If can or cup is opened.
Vegetables (some vegetable juices are high in salt)  
Fresh (raw carrots, celery, pea pods, broccoli or cherry tomatoes, etc.) X Cut tomatoes need refrigeration.
Dried (carrot or zucchini chips, etc.)  
Canned (vegetable juice, vegetable soup, etc.) X If can is opened.
Protein - Meats, Nuts, Beans & Cheese  
Fresh meat (sliced cooked meat or left-overs) X
Peanut or tree nut butters (check with school for allergy restrictions)  
Cheese, slices, cubes or sticks (string cheese) X
Beans (refried, hummus, pork and beans, etc.) X If fresh, or can is opened.
Hard boiled egg X
Tuna X If can or pouch is opened.
Dairy (cold fluid milk is often sold at school)
Choose low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt.
Fluid milk X Unless the package states it requires no refrigeration.
Yogurt X
Yogurt Drink X
Pudding made with milk X Unless the package states it requires no refrigeration.
Cottage cheese X
Others (limit these)  
Cookies, Chips, etc.  
Dips for vegetables or fruit. (salsa, ranch, yogurt, etc.) X If container is opened.


  • Take kids shopping, or let them choose from the items you bring home to build their lunches. Provide a variety of whole grains and foods naturally low in fat and added sugar. Limit the number of salty, high fat and high sugar treats they pack to one a day. Children often eat these tasty foods first, instead of the other healthy foods in their lunch, making it hard for them to get all the nutrients they need each day.
  • Have plenty of snack and sandwich size plastic zip bags or reusable containers on hand.
  • Ask kids to pick and pack at least one serving from each of the five food groups.
  • Have a few gel packs, 100% juice boxes or water bottles frozen and ready to use.

Lets Talk: Letting kids help choose what goes into their lunch is a great way to start a conversation about nutrition and health. Encouraging them to choose at least one item from each of the major food groups helps them understand the concept of eating a variety of food everyday.

Don’t worry if kids come home with food that was not eaten. Some days children will be hungry and focused on eating. Other days they might not be as hungry, perhaps they were distracted or had a food treat in the classroom before lunch, etc. Occasionally ask children if they think they’re packing enough, too much, or want some different food choices. Assure children that these questions are not meant to make them feel bad that they didn’t clean their plate/lunch box. But it helps them make adjustments to how much and what they pack the next time.

Recipe for Health:

Bean Dip

Picture of bean dip

Kids love to dunk crackers and veggies into this dip!


1 can (16 ounce) fat free refried beans
½ cup mild salsa


  1. In a mixing bowl, combine refried beans and salsa.
  2. Divide bean dip into reusable plastic containers (1/2 – 2/3 cup per serving).
  3. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

For a well-balanced lunch include ½ cup - 2/3 cup bean dip, 6-12 whole wheat crackers, 4-6 carrot sticks, a stick of string cheese and an orange (whole, peeled or quartered). Pack in an insulated lunch box with a frozen gel pack. Buy cold low-fat milk at school or pack a bottle of water.



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