7 Tips for Packing School Lunches with a Nutritional Punch

Since my oldest child was born 10 years ago, making healthy eating enjoyable for my family has been a priority. Before starting a family, I had a similar focus for others, working in a variety of settings as a registered dietitian.

One of my recent family projects is lunch — a meal that needed a little more attention and creativity in my home. It was also the focus of a 2014 Tufts University study, which showed that packed lunches typically fall well short of general nutrition guidelines.

The study examined the packed lunches of third-and fourth-graders in 12 schools in Massachusetts, to see (among other things) whether they included fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. These basic five food groups are also the required components of the National School Lunch Program. Of the 626 lunches evaluated, not one single lunch included all five food groups, and only 27 percent included at least three.

After reading these results with some initial shock, I considered the packed lunches I have seen while visiting my children’s school, as well as the lunches I packed the previous school year. Especially towards the end of the year, I admit I fell into a rut. I packed the same sandwiches and vegetables, and frequently those vegetables were returned uneaten. On occasion, I gave in to requests to substitute the vegetables and whole grains I typically included for less healthy options. After all, I wanted my kids to eat and enjoy their lunches, not send them home.

I knew I needed a new plan, so at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, I adopted a fresh approach to packing lunches. The result was boosted nutrition that also made the mid-day meal more fun. Here are my tips to school lunch success:

Kids Menu

1. The kids are involved in the planning. I want them to be excited about opening and eating their lunch at school, so their opinions count. Ideally, we talk about lunch ideas before the week starts, and I take their suggestions into account when planning.

2. Mom preps and kids pack. I provide the options and they decide how much of each they include in their lunch. They assemble their lunches as they wish, hopefully making lunch packing fun and less of a chore. As they pack, I encourage them to try new foods and to “eat the colors of the rainbow” by choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables, but ultimately, what they add to their lunch is up to them.

3. The five food groups. We aim for a balance of the five food groups. If researchers come to our school, my third- and fourth-graders’ lunches should pass the test and include all five!

Drink Menu

4. Meeting USDA dietary guidelines (choosemyplate.gov). The key idea here is making vegetables and fruits half of the plate or meal. Sometimes the lunches the kids pack will surpass this goal, and other times, they may fall short. Hopefully though, over the course of the week, our lunches will meet these goals.

5. Variety with some frugality. I stock up on seasonal produce and take advantage of grocery sales, so certain fruits and vegetables are incorporated into meals more than a few times when they are readily available.

6. Loving leftovers. After my two oldest pack their lunches, the remaining prepped food ideally becomes lunch or part of lunch for those of us eating at home (including myself, my preschooler and often, my husband). I am happy at noon when I can open the fridge and find that lunch is ready to eat. If I don’t use leftovers then, I may save them for dinner. For example, chopped veggies are great additions to our evening salad.

Special Menu

7. Fun ways to include new foods and new ways to incorporate foods we typically eat. When you’re 3, sometimes it takes a cute edible sheep before you are willing to take a bite of cauliflower. While I don’t include food art in lunches daily, it’s fun to do when I can, especially with my preschooler. And I’m always on the lookout for new ideas for foods we love to pack, and recipes that allow the kids to be flexible with the ingredients.

It’s a long school year ahead, but I hope my kids will be proud to say, “I made my lunch,” and I will be proud to send them to school with the meals they’ve packed. Here’s to a year of great lunches!

Karen Prem is a registered dietitian and stay-at-home mom of three kids living in Northern Virginia.

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