Pack a Healthy Lunch

— Written By Christine Smith and last updated by

It’s that time of year again – time for kids to return to school. For many moms that means a return to packing lunches.

Have you given much thought to what favorite Lunchables you will pack in your child’s lunch box? Will your child’s lunch box contain ‘goodies’ that will enhance their nutrition or add empty calories loaded with high fats, sodium, and sugar? With the incidence of childhood obesity rapidly rising throughout the world, it is important that parents help children make healthy choices about what they choose to eat for lunch.

Many moms’ are probably saying, “I don’t have time to eat breakfast, not to mention pack a lunch box.” Packing a healthy lunch does not have to be hard or labor intensive. You’ll be surprised to learn that with adequate planning, you too can pack a lunch box filled with lots of love and good nutrition.

It is important to involve kids in the planning, selection, and preparation of their school lunches. Not only do most children want a say in what they are going to have for lunch, but parents can also use this time to teach them about good nutrition, how to make healthy choices, and food safety. These lessons, will, in most cases, stay with them for the rest of their lives.

We know that kids are more apt to eat foods they help prepare so capitalize on this fact to ensure that your child will eat what’s inside their lunch box instead of swapping it out for unhealthy choices from friends.

 Ideally, you want to choose something from each of these groups: Protein, Fruits & Vegetables, and Whole Grains. Try these healthy lunch box suggestions:

  • Sandwich on whole wheat bread, bagel, or English muffin with lettuce and tomato, hard cooked eggs, hot soup in a thermos, pasta salad with veggies, chicken, tuna, or egg salad with pita bread.
  • Dried raisins or plums, orange slices, snack-size applesauce, raw veggies with low-fat dressing.
  • Nonfat or 1% milk, 100% fruit juice box, water.
  • String cheese, popcorn, pretzel sticks, yogurt, or trail mix.
  • Make bite-sized and mini versions of regular foods like sandwiches. They work well for small appetites and are more likely to be eaten.
  • Add grated veggies to sandwiches and wraps for crunch – your kids won’t notice they’re eating something that’s good for them!
  • Leave out the bags of chips and junk food in your brown bag. Instead, substitute with containers of trail mix, pieces of fruit, dry unsweetened cereal, or carrot sticks.

To better utilize your time, prepare extra servings of food when cooking dinner. Store the leftovers in ready to go plastic containers in the refrigerator and they are ready to go the next morning.

By the way, don’t forget to make sure school lunch boxes stay safe. Packing a lunch that will be safe when your child eats it is just as important as packaging healthy choices. Follow these tips to help keep bacteria at bay:

  • Purchase well insulated lunch boxes or bags and ice packs.
  • Wash hands, food preparation surfaces, and utensils with hot soapy water before making lunch-box fare.
  • Wash raw fruit and vegetables thoroughly.
  • If sending perishable foods for lunch (such as hard-boiled eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese or a sandwich with meat, chicken, turkey or tuna), include a frozen icepack to help keep them cold until lunchtime. A frozen individual juice box or water can help serve as a cold pack.
  • Teach children to wash their hands before digging into lunch. For extra protection, pack moist towelettes in the lunch box or bag.

If you don’t have time to pack a lunch, encourage the child to eat lunch at school. Be sure to discuss with the child healthy options and discourage a-la-carte items that are also offered. These items are generally higher in fats and calories.

Whether kids bring a lunch from home or enjoy the meal provided by their school, it is important that they get the nutrients needed to learn and succeed in their day. Making good choices now will set children up for a lifetime of healthy eating behaviors.

Thoughts to ponder:

  • “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” – Unknown

Christine Smith is an Extension Agent in the department of Family & Consumer Sciences with N.C. Cooperative Extension, NCSU, Wayne County. Information on other services available can be found online at or call me at 731-1525 for additional information.

Written By

Photo of Christine SmithChristine SmithExtension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences (919) 731-1525 christine_smith@ncsu.eduWayne County, North Carolina
Posted on Sep 25, 2013
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