There’s an art and a science to packing your kid’s school lunch. An A-plus lunch, though, is one that contains foods that are good for your kiddos and that they’ll actually eat.
We turned to the experts — registered dietitians and nutritionists, as well as a doctor with a popular healthy eating blog — to find out what they pack their kids for lunch. Spoiler alert: Even our expert sources admit that it can be tough to get kids to eat those veggies. But their advice? Don’t give up!
Here’s a peek inside six expertly packed lunch boxes.
Hit 4 To 5 Food Groups
Brett Klein, a registered dietitian, encourages parents to think outside of the (lunch)box: While sandwiches are easy, wraps, skewers, cold pasta dishes, quesadillas and leftovers can pack a nutritious punch, too. She aims to get something from at least four to five food groups into her 8-year-old son’s lunchbox every day, and snacks hit two to three food groups.
What’s in the lunchbox: Klein recently packed her son a homemade “build-your-own taco” kit, with ground turkey, taco boats, cherry tomatoes, peppers, sliced cheese, sliced avocado, lettuce, plus some sliced apples. “My son was then able to use the ingredients to make his own tacos,” she says. “It got rave reviews.” Another lunch (pictured) contained lentil pasta, broccoli with Parmesan, a cheese stick, mango, cucumber, tomato, tangerines and a salted caramel energy bite.
Why it works: Klein says she always makes sure her son’s lunch has a fruit, veggie and whole grains because these items contain fiber and are “slow-release foods” that won’t lead to a quick burst of energy. Proteins and healthy fats also digest more slowly and will provide long-lasting energy to keep young minds focused throughout an afternoon of classes.
Bonus tip: Klein has more lunch-packing tips on her website, which includes a helpful chart that breaks down serving sizes by kids’ ages.
Be Consistent With Veggies
Research has shown that kids need repeated exposure to a new food to consider trying it, says Crystal Karges, a registered dietitian nutritionist, child feeding expert and mom of five. The key takeaway? Don’t give up if something you’re offering to your child seems to always come back home (like those veggies!). “Offering new foods, or foods that your child is learning how to eat, along with foods your child is already comfortable with, may increase their willingness to try out something new,” she says.
What’s in the lunchbox: For Karges’ 8-year-old daughter’s school lunch, she’s included trail mix (with a combo of nuts, dried fruit and chocolate), whole grain crackers with cheese slices, sliced cucumbers and baby carrots with hummus for dipping and a greek yogurt parfait with vanilla greek yogurt and mixed berries.
Why it works: The nutrient-dense lunch and snacks, Karges says, helps sustain her daughter’s energy throughout the day. She aims to have a combination of major macronutrients, including carbohydrates, protein and fats. “This helps keep her blood sugar and energy levels stable throughout the day while providing the nutrients needed to support her growth,” she says.
Avoid Pre-packaged Foods
Yes, pre-packaged snacks are easy, but there are healthy items that are just as convenient and can be tossed into a lunchbox, points out Sotiria Everett, R.D., a mom of three and a clinical assistant professor at Stony Brook University in New York. Her go-to’s: bananas, small apples, nectarines, pears and grapes. “It’s just as easy to toss these items in the lunch pack as it is to add gummy fruits, which don’t actually count as fruit!” she says.
What’s in the lunchbox: Everett packs lighter lunches for her kindergarten child and first-grader since they have early lunch periods not too long after breakfast. Her kids get half of a sandwich that’s typically made with whole-wheat bread, organic roasted turkey breast, cheese and some mayo, or sunflower butter and jelly. She adds in grapes, tangerine slices and carrot sticks. “I try to avoid disposable snack packs and have been more environmentally conscious by using a stainless steel mini thermal mug and filling it with yogurt or applesauce,” she says. “It goes in the lunch pack with an ice pack.”
Why it works: When packing her kids’ lunches, Everett aims to reduce food waste and avoid overly processed foods. When it comes to foods that are processed — like bread — she looks for items that have minimal additives. She also makes sure her kids are exposed to high-nutrient fruits and veggies at most meals. As an after-school snack, she bakes muffins for her kids, using half of the sugar the recipe calls for, and adds in naturally sweet fruits like sweet potatoes and bananas.
Bonus tip: Dinner leftovers, such as pasta and veggies, pita pizzas or soups can make great lunches the next day.
Don’t Just Add Fruits—Add Veggies, Too
Registered dietitian Paige Handler says the lunch she packs for her son, who is 2 1/2, is quick and easy, and incorporates the food he needs for growth and development. While he loves fruits, veggies are hit-or-miss. Handler says she consistently packs the veggies, though, so he has them as an option.
What’s in the lunchbox: Lunch often consists of a sunbutter (sunflower seed butter) and jam sandwich (his school is nut-free) on whole-wheat bread with sliced vegetables and fruit on the side, such as sliced strawberries, Persian cucumber rounds and sliced cherry tomatoes. PB& J is his favorite and the sunbutter made with sunflower seeds works at his nut-free school.
Why it works: “This lunch is well balanced and provides energy from carbohydrates, protein for his rapidly growing little body, fats for his developing brain and essential vitamins and minerals,” Handler says.
Pull Out The Cookie Cutters
Never underestimate the power of cute shapes, says Esther Schultz, M.S. and the co-founder of Pacific Nutrition Partners, who showed us the cute ghost sandwich that made it into her daughter’s lunchbox. Another lunch-packing trick: Pack bite-sized foods that are easy to eat, even when kids are chatting with their friends. “I also give them some input into what goes into their lunches,” Schultz says. “I ask them to pick things out at the grocery store and check in periodically to see if they still like certain foods.” She says she also perseveres with the fruits and vegetables, even though they come home untouched most days. “By seeing them in their lunchbox every day, it teaches my children that they form an important part of a healthy meal, even if they choose not to touch them at this stage,” Schultz says.
What’s in the lunchbox: This lunch for Schultz’s 5-year-old daughter in kindergarten contains a ghostly cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread, carrot sticks and cucumber slices, a small tub of hummus, grapes and a mini peanut butter Larabar.
Why it works: Each lunch contains protein, whole grains, veggies and fruit, plus a nutrient-dense sweet treat that’s not too high in sugar. Protein is important for growth and development and keeps kids full for longer, Schultz says. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of fiber and important vitamins and minerals. And the nutrient-dense sweet treat? “That’s my insurance policy,” she says. “It ensures that my children eat something when I’m not there to give them a verbal prod.”
Bonus tip: Buy a bento-style lunchbox. “It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it will change your lunch-packing life,” Schultz says. “There is something about being faced with small compartments that makes it far easier to decide what lunch should be. Rather than facing the overwhelming task of putting together a meal, you just have to find suitable bite-sized foods for each compartment.”
Don’t Get Stuck In A Rut
Dr. Sonali Ruder, an emergency medicine doctor and author of The Foodie Physician blog, suggests mixing things up to make lunch fun for your kids so they want to eat it. “Something as simple as cutting their sandwich into fun shapes with cookie cutters or making rainbow kabobs with colorful fruits could get your kids excited to eat lunch,” she says.
What’s in the lunchbox: For her 5-year-old daughter’s lunch, Ruder often packs a slice of whole-grain toast that she spreads with almond or peanut butter and tops with a homemade blueberry chia jam. “It’s a healthier take on a traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she says.
Why it works: The blueberries are a good source of vitamin C and fiber, says Ruder, who is an ambassador for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. “Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and helps support the immune system and fiber helps keep kids feeling full for a long time so they can focus in school,” she says. The toast provides whole grains and the nut butter supplies healthy fat and protein to give kids long-lasting energy. The chia seeds add omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and fiber. “This combination will help prevent big fluctuations in blood sugar that can leave kids feeling starving and sluggish.”