Back to School Lunches! Tips and Tricks from a Registered Dietitian

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Whether your kids are going to be in person or virtual, we are all gearing back up for this challenging school year. One thing parents consistently seem to dread is fixing school lunches.


This post is also beneficial for adults who pack their lunch for work or are simply making lunches at home!


Here are some of my recommendations, tips and tricks for easy, nutritious and delicious lunches!


First thing is first, start each school day by feeding your child Breakfast!


It can’t be said enough, make sure your child eats a healthy breakfast every day. It has been proven that students concentrate better, enhance problem solving abilities and have fewer behavioral problems when they are sent into each school day with a full stomach. Not to mention the positive effect it has on their body weight. Kids who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight.

The Basics of a School Lunch: Balance

BALANCED BACK-TO-SCHOOL LUNCH INCLUDES CARBOHYDRATES, PROTEIN, FRUITS, VEGETABLES, AND FATS.”

Use The “Rule of Four”


Focus on real, whole foods first, and always include at least four items in lunches, for balance and variety — kids tend to eat more when there’s more to choose from and it means that there’s a nice balance of nutrients too. If you get your kids involved in making lunch box choices or even let them help build their lunch, it will increase the chances of them eating it too!




1. Fruit (Pack At Least One)

Examples:

· piece of fresh fruit

· fresh, frozen or unsweetened canned fruit

· unsweetened fruit and veggie purées

· unsweetened dried fruit


2. Vegetable (Pack At Least One)

Examples:


· leafy greens (ie. leftover salad)

· raw veggies cut up

· cooked vegetables

· homemade salsa or bruschetta

· vegetable soup


3. Protein-Rich Foods (Pack Two)

Fish, chicken, beans, red meat, legumes or yogurt are needed for their wonderful amino acids. Amino acids have bigger roles than building muscles. They also help make antibodies to fight off infections and other very important functions.

Examples:

· leftover meat, poultry, fish

· eggs

· milk

· yogurt or Greek yogurt

· cottage cheese

· cheese

· beans/lentils

· seeds or seed butter


4. Whole Grain Or Starchy Vegetable (Include At Least One)

Starches or grains (which can all be interchangeable) are used for energy. If you do not think your child doesn’t need energy because they are sitting all day it the classroom, think again! Carbohydrates are the brain food or the food that your brain can only use to function appropriately.


Examples:

· whole grain bread, tortilla or pita

· homemade muffin or loaf made with whole grain flour or oats

· oatmeal

· whole grain pancake, waffle or French toast

· leftover brown rice, quinoa, barley

· corn

· potatoes/sweet potatoes/yams

Bonus:


5. Dairy: should also be included for an excellent source of protein and calcium and bone health. Often dairy products can fall under a protein source such as string cheese, milk, cottage cheese or yogurt. It’s recommended that children get 1200 mg of calcium a day!



6. Fats: are so important for our nails, skin, and hair and help keep satiety as well as many other important roles. Fats can also be found under protein sources. Aim for healthier fats (monounsaturated) such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.


7. Desserts: chips and other foods should be provided at parent’s discretions and are very important to include.

Most high schoolers and children will want to eat like their peers and they will find a way to consume foods that aren’t packed in their lunches so make sure to include these foods!



If you balance out your kid’s meals, they will feel energized throughout the rest of their school day and will not feel deprived and lead to disordered eating.



Tips for Packing Back-to-School Lunches

  • Try and pack the night before. It makes the morning rush a little less hectic. As your cleaning up the kitchen, have your child or high schooler pack up their lunch or vice versa (kids aged 4 and older are really good dish scrubbers)! Use leftovers as a lunch idea or make a sandwich and that way cleaning up the kitchen is all done at once.


  • Plan lunch menus together – Just like schools have a lunch menu, you can create your own at home. Give your child a list of foods-including ones they love, and ones that you want them to eat. On a dry erase calendar have them write which foods they want on which day. This makes them more aware of different foods, and may make it more likely for them to eat their packed lunch knowing that they were involved.


  • Talk Nutrition – Whenever you are preparing or cooking with you child talk about the nutrition of foods. You may not think they are interested, but they love hearing the relation between foods and how it is affecting their body. Examples include preparing a fruit salad while teaching them about vitamin c, what fruits and veggies have a high amount, and how it protects us from catching a cold.


  • Combine Familiar Foods with New Foods- You may be eager to get your child to try something new or find a way to get in more veggies, only to find that these foods always come home. Don’t despair! Research has shown that kids need repeated exposure to a new food to consider trying or even accepting, so don’t give up if something doesn’t go over well the first time. Offering new foods, or foods that may not be as favored, along with foods your child is comfortable with, may increase their willingness to try out something new!


  • Give food fun names – A study showed that elementary school students were more likely to try vegetables when they had a fun name attached to them such as “x-ray vision carrots” rather than the “veggie of the day”.


  • Bento Boxes! Bento boxes have small compartments that make it quick and easy to think of the various food groups. Some bento boxes even have the labels that tell you what to place in each box. Bento boxes are currently trendy and an easy way to add variety.


  • Dippers – Kids love to dip anything! Take advantage of this and always offer veggies with hummus, tahini, or cottage cheese. Put yogurt in a bowl and tell them it is a sweet fruit dip. Other options include:

  1. Fruit slices with yogurt or nut/seed butter for dipping

  2. Veggie sticks with their favorite dressing or hummus

  3. Chips with guacamole, salsa, or bean dip,

  4. Whole grain crackers in veggie soup

  • Swap out sugar – If your kids drink juice, buy the large bottles and transfer them into a new bottle where you can dilute it with water.


  • All shapes and sizes – For younger kids you can cut sandwiches and fruits into shapes like stars and moons. If you are trying a new food like a whole wheat bread, they may be more likely to try it if it looks exciting.


  • Get them involved – Kids are always more likely to try new foods when they have picked them out themselves. Take them to the grocery store and gather snacks for after school. Emphasize the nutrition of each food and what it will do for them ex.) give them energy for soccer practice. Make a homemade granola and have them choose the nuts, oatmeal and the dried fruit. Put it together when you get home and package into baggies.


  • After school snacks – Kids are always hungry after school and they usually grab whatever they can see when they walk in the door. Always have portable fruit on the counter – apples, oranges, clementine’s, peaches, bananas. Keep trail mix and fresh popcorn in little baggies instead of the typical junk food snacks.



Repurpose Dinner Leftovers!


Why not maximize your efforts when preparing a dinner meal, and make extra so that you can send it as leftovers or repurpose part of it for school lunches the next day? I’m all about efficiency when it comes to food prep — it makes life so much easier! Here are some great ways to use leftovers for school lunches.


Try these:


· leftover spaghetti and meat sauce + raw snap peas + organic fruit and veggie pouch + whole grain granola bar

· leftover taco meat + fixings (cheese, salsa, lettuce, crushed taco shell) + an apple + homemade wholegrain muffin + milk

· leftover lentil soup + whole grain crackers + fresh blueberries + carrot sticks + hummus + Greek yogurt

· leftover homemade Hawaiian pizza + sliced pear + veggie soup + homemade protein balls

· leftover pulled chicken or pork + whole grain bun + organic fruit and veggie pouch + school-safe kiddie trail mix (seeds, unsweetened dried fruit, whole grain cereal) + bell pepper strips

Serve Breakfast For Lunch



Breakfast-for-dinner is a thing, so why can’t breakfast-for-lunch be a thing too? I don’t know about your kids, but my kids love breakfast foods and they make for easy and nutritious lunch box options!


Try these:


· leftover French toast + Greek yogurt for dip (Greek yogurt + seed butter + chia seeds or hemp hearts + cinnamon) + sliced peach + cucumber strips + dip

· leftover muffin-tin veggie omelet + fruit salad + cottage cheese + homemade granola bar + cucumber strips + milk

· whole grain pancakes + Greek yogurt + berries + little bit of maple syrup + carrot sticks + hummus

· homemade flourless zucchini blender muffin + leftover breakfast sausage + banana + yogurt or cottage cheese + assorted raw veggies

· build-your-own Greek yogurt parfait (Greek yogurt + whole grain granola + sunflower or pumpkin seeds + berries) + unsweetened fruit and veggie pouch + homemade granola bar


Serve A Finger Food Lunch


The easiest and most fun-to-eat lunches are the ones that you can eat with your fingers — no utensils required!


Try these:


· whole grain crackers + cheddar cheese cubes + length-wise sliced grapes, raspberries + snap peas + dip + roasted chickpeas + protein/energy ball

· leftover hamburger/turkey burger cut into bite-sized pieces + ketchup to dip + homemade yam fries + apple slices with cinnamon sprinkled on top + baby tomatoes + homemade or whole grain granola bar

· sliced hardboiled egg + whole grain waffle strips + yogurt to dip + watermelon sticks + carrots + cucumber + dip

· homemade whole grain mini muffins + nectarine slices + turkey pepperoni sticks + kiddie trail mix (seeds, unsweetened dried fruit, whole grain cereal) + milk

· tortilla “sushi” (whole grain tortilla with either seed butter or cream cheese + fruit, wrapped up and sliced into bite-sized pieces) + raw veggie strips + hummus + apple slices + Greek yogurt to dip

Re-Think Sandwiches


Sandwiches are an easy lunch to pack and most kids are pleased with them. A sandwich can be really healthy, or unfortunately they can be loaded with sodium, fat and refined and processed ingredients. Some healthy spreads and add ons include: hummus, avocado, tomato, cucumber, sprouts, and crushed beans. Always make sure your bread or tortilla is %100 whole grain (always check the first ingredient on the list, never trust the front of the label!) Or you can get crazy and put all sandwich toppings in a romaine leaf to make lettuce wraps, they stay great in Tupperware.


Try these:


· whole grain tortilla wrap with leftover meat, cheese, spinach + unsweetened fruit sauce + leftover broccoli salad + homemade whole grain banana loaf

· mini whole grain pitas + cheese and leftover meat or chicken + bell pepper strips + hummus + pear slices + whole grain granola bar

· tuna salad or egg salad sandwich on whole grain bread + fruit salad + snap peas + homemade protein/energy ball

· wafflewich (whole grain waffles + seed butter + banana slices) + homemade veggie soup + melon cubes + cottage cheese or yogurt

· crackerwiches (whole grain crackers + deli meat + cheese) + leftover roasted veggies + roasted chickpeas + homemade whole grain muffin + milk


Hopefully these ideas help to re-motivate you to pack better school lunches (that your kids will be excited about) get you through to the end of the year (and the start of next year!).


Other ideas!

1. Turkey, bacon and cream cheese wraps.

2. Fruit salad with yogurt and drizzled honey.

3. Hummus with carrot sticks and pita triangles.

4. Bagel pizzas (tomato sauce, chunky roasted chicken and shredded mozzarella).