Healthy School Lunches

Kids Need a Balanced Meal

By Jeni Wolanin, Labor and Delivery Nurse, The Family Birth Center at Northern Nevada Sierra Medical Center

Woman making a healthy lunchWe can’t believe we are saying it but, yes, back-to-school is here. There is so much excitement that goes along with sending kids to school, and we want to share helpful resources to ensure what goes in your kids’ lunchboxes is not only healthy but fun and fulfilling.

What are the essential food groups that should be included in a child’s lunch?

Kids, like adults, need a balanced plate or box at each meal to ensure they are getting needed vitamins and nutrients. This includes vegetables, protein, fruit, dairy and whole grains. When selecting these items for your child’s lunchbox, give different options as often as able so your child experiences variety in foods.

I also recommend including items they know and like. This will vary by kid, age range and personal preferences. Here are a few examples:

  • Vegetables: ants on a log (peanut butter or a nut-free spread with raisins), carrots and dip, corn inside a quesadilla
  • Protein: nut butters, yogurt drink, oatmeal, sliced turkey, smoothie, edamame
  • Fruit: banana, grapes, apples slices and peanut butter or a nut free spread
  • Dairy: cheese sticks, cottage cheese with fruit, fruit smoothie with low-fat milk
  • Whole Grains: popcorn, oatmeal, whole grain bread on a sandwich, whole grain pasta

How much water should kids drink during the school day?

It is also critical to ensure your child stays hydrated during the school day. Send your child to school with a 16-20 ounce water bottle that they can refill throughout the day. The recommendations state that a child should drink one ounce of water for every pound at half their body weight. For example, if your child is 50 pounds, they should drink 25 ounces per day. For kids who do not prefer plain water, you can add a fresh fruit filter or a no sugar enhancer to give them a flavor boost.

What are some of your kids’ favorite foods for lunches?

My kids are both unique in that they each like different foods. I usually start the lunchbox prep with a Bento box. Using this type of organizer for food is great for kids. Not only does it keep foods separate, it helps manage portions and gives a visual reminder that parents are packing different food groups. You can also purchase a Bento that holds hot and cold foods so your child is not limited on options.

Another option to consider is making their lunchbox fun. Pack a note, include a joke or cut their sandwich or bread into a fun shape. Here are some of my favorite kid lunches to make.

Make-Your-Own Pizza Lunch

*To save time, make the pizzas for your child (cooked or cold)

  • Mini naan bread
  • Pizza or pasta sauce
  • Shredded cheese
  • Pepperoni (uncured beef or turkey) – if preferred

Pasta + Bites

  • Whole-grain pasta salad with sliced turkey
  • Popcorn
  • Orange slices
  • Fun item such as fruit snacks, small piece of candy, or yogurt bites

PB&J Rolls

  • Whole grain tortilla roll with PB&J (nut free options: hummus, low-fat cream cheese, sun butter)
  • Apple slices
  • Trail mix
  • Low-sugar yogurt stick

Breakfast for Lunch

  • Mini pancakes or waffles
  • Grapes
  • Yogurt drink
  • Handful of chocolate chips to make their pancakes sweeter

For older kids who may have a wider range of foods they like, try some of these meal options. You can find reusable bowls and boxes that fit any age range. Don’t forget to check your child’s box to ensure it has a balance of food groups.

  • Burrito bowl (vegetarian or meat based)
  • Chicken or egg salad sandwich on a roll or bread
  • Tortilla (or lettuce) wrap with preferred meat, hummus, cheese and tomato
  • Whole grain bagel and low-fat spread
  • Protein box – hardboiled eggs, cheese slice, whole grain muffin, apple
  • Soft pretzel, vegetables with dip, orange

As you start to build your child’s lunchbox this school year, incorporate their ideas and ask for help to make the process collaborative.

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