How to Pack a Better School Lunch

A sandwich, bag of pretzels and an apple is the classic packed lunch—and boy is it boring. And for kids, boring means one thing: not eaten. This year, make sure your child’s lunch goes straight to her stomach—not the trash or someone else—by packing it with purpose. Keep the focus on fun and follow the guidelines below to create meals that are fresh, healthy and cost-effective.

  1. Bump up the color. Bright colors are the easiest way to increase the “wow” factor in your child’s lunch, says Catherine McCord, founder of Weelicious, a website filled with recipes the whole family will love. It’s fun, inviting and, better yet, nutritious when the color comes from all-natural foods such as carrots, cucumbers, blueberries, cherry tomatoes and strawberries.
  2. Have fun with shapes. “There’s something about a sandwich that seems daunting to kids,” says Charlene Prince Birkeland, parenting expert for Yahoo! Shine. She recommends using cookie cutters to pare down the size and add a little flair. Buy a range of cutters, using holiday shapes for Halloween and Christmas, and triangles, circles and small squares throughout the year. Shapes can also be created using fruit and cheese—slice them into circles, triangles or squares; for larger fruit like cantaloupe, use a melon baller to create small fruit spheres. “Being creative can make produce more appealing and enticing,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Child to Eat—and Eat Healthy.
  3. Offer variety. Tanya Steel, editor-in-chief of and author of Real Food for Healthy Kids, recommends packing at least three different types of food every day. “Think of the lunchbox as a meal on a plate, with protein, complex crabs, fresh produce and a wholesome treat on the side.” For example, she suggests a turkey and coleslaw wrap, pita chips, berries with a dollop of vanilla yogurt and a granola bar or trail mix. A cute bento-style container with separated food compartments allows kids to look—and pick—at everything all at once. (Plus, they’re reusable, which will help you save in zip-top bag costs over the long haul!)
  4. Choose easy-to-eat foods. Though you may not mind peeling an orange or biting into an uncut sandwich, your kid most certainly does—especially when she’s at the lunch table, where socializing, not eating, is a priority. Instead, pack foods that can be easily snacked on: sugar snap peas and other vegetables, like zucchini, cucumber and carrots, which can be sliced into more manageable matchsticks, and small bites of the main meal, such as sandwich triangles, pizza cut into small squares or cut up pita bread paired with hummus.
  5. Get a little goofy. Skewers are a kid favorite according to Birkeland. “It’s a lot easier to eat and it looks cool. As a kid, you care about that and in the lunch, it looks fun,” she says. Stack toothpicks with various fruits, cheeses or alternate grape tomatoes and small mozzarella balls.
  6. Create smaller portions out of bulk goods. Snack-size items are always ideal, but that doesn’t mean you should buy them that way from the store. “Buy proteins in bulk, then date and store them properly,” Steel suggests. The same applies to sides, treats, and fresh fruits and veggies. You’ll save money by buying in bulk and, if you get into the habit of cutting and portioning the food out on Sunday night, you’ll also save time during the hectic school week.
  7. Get creative with what’s available. Lunch doesn’t have to be made with same standard staples (bread, deli meat, etc). Go beyond the basics by using last night’s leftovers in a new way. “Repurpose everything,” McCord says. “If you have chicken fajitas Monday night, then it’s chicken quesadillas for Tuesday’s lunch. I would dare say almost anything you make for dinner can be put in a quesadilla the next day.” McCord is also a fan of making pancake sandwiches with breakfast leftovers, layering the pancakes (or waffles) with cream cheese and preserves. Steel advises parents to “make dinners with lunches in mind—roast chicken or turkey can be turned into sammies later in the week, pasta can be used in salads or made into pasta primavera.”
  8. Give your child options. “Empower your child,” Steel says. “The number one tool in getting your children to eat healthy every day, while they are at school and away from your prying eyes, is to get them involved in choosing what they want to eat.” But having a say isn’t the same thing as free-reign; narrow down the options—at the supermarket or at home—and then let your kid choose. McCord recommends offering two choices, such as a peanut butter and jelly or a tuna salad sandwich; pasta or rice. “So instead of them opening their lunchbox and being like, ‘Oh, I don’t want this!’ you’ve already set them up for success.”
  9. Recreate popular foods to fallback on. Kids will invariably go through phases of what they like—and what they envy about other kids’ lunches. If those foods are too expensive or not nutritious enough, get inspired by them. Birkeland suggests asking your children what they like about a particular food, so you can invent a creative alternative. In response to her children’s cries for Lunchables, she’s created less expensive, more nutritious “Momables,” using whole-wheat crackers, organic meats and cheeses (cut into circles), and a small brownie. Pantley offers up another suggestion: “Substitute half the ingredients with healthier options, such as making a sandwich with one piece of white bread and one piece of wheat, mixing half high-sugar jelly with an all-fruit spread or half processed peanut butter with all-natural nut butter.”
  10. Get your kids into the kitchen. “I think we don’t give our kids enough credit. They get excited, they get to help you make their lunch, and they have a part in it,” McCord says. Steel agrees. In addition to helping you shop, have them be as active in the preparation and packing of food as possible. “Whether it’s baking oatmeal cookies or granola or assembling a wrap, have your child help out to help ensure he or she feels good about eating it.”
  11. Rely on inexpensive staples. Whole-grain pasta, wraps and bread can take you far, especially when paired with simple basics like cream cheese and jam, nut butter or, in the case of pasta, a little Parmesan or pesto. “My kids will eat beans and rice until they’re blue in the face,” McCord says. “Serve it with a little salsa or something like that, and it has tons of nutrition.”
  12. Include a treat. There’s no getting around it: children love sweets. Make it work for both of you by re-thinking what and how much you give them. McCord will pack treats with substance, such as homemade banana muffins, sweet potato muffins or Rice Krispies treats made with peanut butter instead of marshmallows. Birkeland favors Clif Kid Z Bars, which offer sweetness without any additives. If you prefer to pack more traditional sweets, simply reign in the size. “They don’t need 15 miniature cookies; just give them one because they’ll eat the 15 over the sandwich,” Birkeland says. McCord agrees: “That way you’re not stuffing them. If you put one or two small things, they’re still going to be hungry, even if it’s the first thing they eat.”
  13. Create unique combinations. All of us eventually get tired of eating the same foods every day, and your kids are no different. To avoid afternoon meal burnout, think outside of the lunchbox and embrace atypical lunches. For ideas, see some of our favorite combos below:
  • Hummus and sugar snap peas
  • Edamame salad with corn and tomatoes
  • Apples or bananas with nut butter
  • Greek yogurt swirled with honey and served with preserves, granola or trail mix
  • Nut butter wrapped in lettuce leaves with dried raisins or cranberries
  • Cheese sticks and dry cereal or popcorn
  • Vegetable sticks with dip (bottled dressing, nut butter, plain yogurt)
  • A thermos of homemade nacho cheese dip with baked corn chips
  • Fruit in mashed cottage cheese or yogurt

Your chiropractic physician is another great source of information on nutrition and dietary tips.  Find a doctor of chiropractic near you here.


Source: Major, Mandy.  Woman’s Day.  August 28, 2012.