35 tips for packing a lunch your kid will eat

About four in 10 elementary school students bring lunch from home. But it's not likely to be a good one, according to a 2014 study from Tufts University.

Not one of the lunchboxes examined met all five National School Lunch Program standards, and only 27 percent of the meals met at least three NSLP recommendations (fruits, vegetables, low- or nonfat dairy, whole grains, and meat or meat alternatives).

Almost 25 percent of the brought-from-home meals lacked an entrée and, instead, were made up of packaged snack foods and desserts. Only 5 percent of the meals contained any vegetables.

On this kind of food, they're learning?

Sure, it can be challenging to pack 180 healthy lunches a year, especially if your little scholar is a picky eater. But don't give in to requests for Nutella on white bread every day. A bit of creativity and prep work will result in healthy — but still tasty — noontime meals.

With the following tips, nutrition is in the bag. Plenty of them will work for grownup lunchboxes, too.

Fruits/vegetables

1. Avoid the prefab. Canned fruits or those squeezable tubes of applesauce are extremely expensive (and may be full of sugar). Get yourself a bunch of small containers and then get happy with grapes, peeled and sectioned mandarin oranges, all-natural applesauce or homemade fruit cup.

2. Buy what they love. If your kid can take or leave celery, don't put it in his lunchbox. Instead, pack the stuff he enjoys, such as sugar snap peas, carrot sticks, grape tomatoes, cucumber slices, broccoli and cauliflower “trees,” and strips of pepper or jicama. Some days include a container of hummus, guacamole or other dippables. Grapes, mandarin oranges, melon balls and “lunchbox-sized” apples are good bets, too.

3. Incorporate them. Lettuce, baby spinach, tomato and cucumber all go well on sandwiches. A lunch salad could contain grapes, orange or other fruits.

4. Dry up. Mango, papaya, pineapple, apricots and cherries all taste sweet when dried (look for big bags at the warehouse club), as do banana chips and raisins. Let your child make up his own mix of fruits and some nuts. Bonus: They take up less space and don't get bruised.

5. Think “lunch salad.” Mixed greens, grape tomatoes, leftover grilled chicken and a touch of grated cheese make a nice meal. Substitute drained tuna for the chicken and call it salade Nicoise. Or mix a bowl of baby spinach with chopped egg and crumbled bacon. Pack dressings separately.

6. Keep it cold. Freeze a BPA-free bottle of water to chill the lunchbox and keep foods safely cool. Junior can drink the water with lunch. Wrap it in a washcloth or tea towel to absorb condensation.

Low-Fat or Nonfat Dairy

7. Milk. If it can be purchased separately in the cafeteria, problem solved (that is, if you're sure your kid is drinking it). If not, freeze half a bottle of the stuff and then fill the rest of the way. It'll need a good shaking before consumption, since freezing milk makes it separate a bit.

8. Cottage cheese. This is good topped with fruit or eaten with chopped veggies. (My 9-year-old nephew likes it plain.)

9. Yogurt. Avoid the highly sweetened varieties. Mix a bit of good-quality low-fat yogurt with fruit or fruit compote and freeze until at least halfway solid. That plus the frozen water bottle will keep it cool and safe.

10. Yogurt dip. Turn plain nonfat yogurt into a savory vegetable dip by adding herbs and spices. Or mix with a bit of honey and cinnamon and provide strawberries, pineapple chunks or a banana for dipping. Recipes abound online.

11. Cheese. This can be loaded with fat, so keep portions small or find lower-fat versions your child will actually eat.

12. Homemade pudding. Look for recipes that are low in sugar; this is also a good place to sneak in some raisins, berries or other fruits. Your kid will be the envy of the lunch table when he opens his container of rice, bread or vanilla pudding.

Whole Grains

13. Non-boring breads. Look for whole-grain varieties that don't offend a child's tender palate (no brick-like slabs of 100 percent whole wheat). But don't stop at slices. Vary the lunches with pita, flatbread, bagels, focaccia or other savory loaves. Or pack whole-grain crackers with a side of meat and cheese or a container of tuna salad or nut butter (see below).

14. Muffin, man. Look for healthy recipes, which do exist; my sister bakes muffins with practically no sugar and fortified with grated cheese, chopped apples and walnuts. Pack one or two muffins along with string cheese and fruit.

15. That's a wrap. Roll sandwich fillings inside a whole-grain tortilla. Serve as-is or slice into “pinwheel” sandwiches.

16. Tortilla chips. Buy the most nutritious tortillas you can find and cut them up for baking (preferably) or frying. Serve with a container of salsa or homemade guacamole.

17. Pita chips. Same thing: Buy healthy pita and cut up and toast in the oven. Pack it with hummus or any other dip your kid likes, or with tuna, chicken or egg salad.

18. Granola. Search out simple, healthy recipes online; you can prepare a good-sized batch in just a few minutes. (Hint: Encourage your kids to make it with you, or even on their own.) Pack in a bowl and include a spoon, and your kid will definitely use that milk.

19. Salads. Mix quinoa, couscous, lentils, soba noodles or other healthy choices with diced vegetables and/or turkey, chicken or meat. Marinate the ingredients beforehand or pack a container of dressing.

20. Tea sandwiches. Cucumber and watercress come to mind, but any sandwich can be a “tea” sandwich if made on crustless bread and sliced into fancy shapes. (Cut the crusts off first, and save them to make croutons.) Include a side of cut vegetables and a container of your child's favorite tea.

Meat/Meat Alternatives

21. Soft tacos. Pack a tortilla plus containers of drained-and-seasoned beans, salsa, grated cheese and greens (lettuce, spinach or whatever your child will eat).

22. Rice and beans. If your child doesn't mind room-temp arroz y frijoles, pack a container of it with a side of salsa and maybe some grated cheese. Include a tortilla so she can roll it all up if she likes.

23. Hard-boiled eggs. Peel at home and put into a container. Include those tiny shakers of salt and pepper (worth the price if it'll get your kid to eat), a whole-grain roll with a little butter and cut-up veggies for a bit of crunch.

24. Spaghetti and meatballs. I used to eat this for lunch in seventh and eighth grade. It's surprisingly good cold.

25. Dogs and dip. Grill beef, chicken or turkey hot dogs (or sausages) and cut into chunks. Send along small containers of mustard and/or catsup, and maybe a cup of baked beans (which are also pretty good cold).

26. Meatball sandwich. Make with ground turkey if you like, and substitute rolled oats for the bread crumbs. Pack a whole-grain roll and his favorite condiments.

27. Edamame. Many kids love these cooked and seasoned soybeans — and half a cup contains more than eight grams of protein.

28. Hot dish. Preheat a wide-mouthed Thermos with boiling water and then pour in piping-hot chili, stew, soup, fried rice, casserole or anything else your little one likes.

29. Gyros. Pack thinly sliced meat, chicken or turkey with pita bread and a cup of tzatziki (made with yogurt and cukes).

30. Salad sandwiches. Tuna, chicken, turkey or egg — but don't stop there. Add chopped apples, grapes, celery or nuts.

Forget bread and pack a side of pepper strips or carrot sticks and let your child dip his lunch.

31. Go nuts! Mix peanuts, almonds, soy nuts or other varieties with raisins and/or bits of other dried fruit and call it “trail mix.” Leave out the M&Ms, though, and keep an eye on the fat/calorie content.

32. Go nuts, part 2. Peanut butter is ubiquitous — how about almond, cashew, hazelnut, pecan or some other variety on whole-grain bread?

33. Go nuts, part 3. Spread peanut butter on a hot-dog bun and pack a banana to be peeled and added at lunchtime. This is just fun.

Other Lunch Tactics

34. Introduce new foods slowly. Try that almond butter or edamame as a snack after a fun weekend activity. And here's a great, sneaky tip from ParentMap.com: If your kid's friend is an adventurous eater, break out the edamame or couscous.

35. Get good equipment. A wide-mouthed Thermos, leak-proof containers of various sizes and an insulated lunch bag broaden your menu options, according to Kelly Snyder of RedefinedMom.com. “Having a good arsenal of equipment allows you to try new and different recipes without having to worry the lunch will explode all over your kid's lunchbox,” she says.

Some of the tactics mentioned may seem daunting to busy parents. They needn't be. Every Sunday and every Wednesday evening, get your kid(s) to help you do one or more of the following:

  • Put some eggs on to boil.
  • Section/cut up fruits and fill small containers, or wash grapes and apples.
  • Grate some cheese.
  • Stir up a batch of healthy muffins.
  • Grill chicken and hot dogs or sausages.
  • Wash salad greens, and clean and cut veggies into strips or pieces.
  • Cook quinoa, couscous, lentils, beans or pasta.
  • Make a batch of meatballs and/or sauce.

Some of these things can be accomplished simultaneously, so multitask!

Learning basic meal prep is good practice for the kids, since they'll have to cook for themselves some day. Besides, they're more likely to eat something they've had a hand in preparing.

Readers: What lunchbox lore do you have to share?

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Beth
Beth
5 years ago

I don’t have kids, but many of these tips are useful for me too 🙂 Thanks!

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

You’re welcome.

Jon
Jon
5 years ago

I ate a cheeseburger and fries or a slice of pizza in the school cafeteria every day, and became a National Merit Scholar.

lmoot
lmoot
5 years ago
Reply to  Jon

That’s wonderful. What are your metabolic testing results?

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

Number 6: wrap the bottle in a cloth napkin, which the student can then use.

Jennifer Gwennifer
Jennifer Gwennifer
5 years ago

I’m shocked by the lack of veggies, but then I live in the sticks where there’s a farmstand every five miles. Growing up I would get to pick two hot lunch days from the school menu every week and bring a lunch from home the other three. Lots of veggies, simple sandwiches, string cheese. The small cans of pears, pineapple (in juice, not syrup) may be more expensive but are a lot better than having a swamped lunch box from a leaking Tupperware.

lmoot
lmoot
5 years ago

In retrospect I think I got pretty much the same thing every day, every year lol. I now know it was an extremely high salt diet (something I still struggle with). Basically I got some sort of deli meat sandwich, a pickle, string cheese or baby bell, and carrots/celery with ranch, and a fruit snack, and grapejuice in a thermos. IMO an ideal lunch for anyone would be: I don’t agree with whole grains, meat and no/low fat dairy to be a necessity of a healhty lunch. At least not everyday. In some cases it can be detrimental to a… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica
5 years ago

Yeah, right. When I packed lunch for my oldest child her kindergarten year, she’d come home with almost all of it still intact. This was stuff she supposedly “liked”, like pb&j and an apple, or a cheese stick and crackers. It didn’t matter what I sent. I tried the thermos thing with mac & cheese. I tried slicing the apple. I tried EVERYTHING. She didn’t eat it. Then our district began universal free lunches. To relieve myself of the frustration and headache, I told her to start getting the school lunch in 1st grade. The only problem was that the… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Jessica

Every kid is different, obviously.

I remember being ravenously hungry as a child and eating every speck of the very good hot lunches (small school, lunch ladies who cooked a lot from scratch). How kids get through the afternoon without lunch is a mystery to me.

Ali @ Anything You Want
Ali @ Anything You Want
5 years ago

These are great tips for my adult “lunchbox” too! I bring my lunch to work every day and sometimes I get so bored with the food that I simply don’t eat it. Bad moods ensue. Love these tips to get more excited about my homemade lunches.

Sarah
Sarah
5 years ago

I don’t understand the focus on low-fat or non-fat dairy. Fat is important for brain development for little kids, and an important part of kid/adult diets alike. All the studies now say fat is fine.

Usually low-fat or non-fat stuff 1) tastes bad 2) is full of sugar or 3) both.

Brendan
Brendan
5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah

THIS!! Fat is good for you: nuts, seeds, avocados, full-fat dairy and other fats with high omega 3:6 ratios are good for you (in moderation, of course). It also helps keep you feeling full longer. And as Sarah said, most “low-fat” foods have unhealthy additives – primarily sugar. High-fat foods are calorie dense, so should be eaten in moderation, and with less calorie dense/high fiber foods like vegetables. I get that this is for kids lunches, and what you suggest is better than fried school lunches or lunchables from the supermarket, but telling parents to buy low-fat foods for their… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  Brendan

Perhaps the USDA assumes that kids are getting plenty of fat elsewhere — fast food, ramen, mac and cheese and other things that U.S. kids enjoy regularly.

Or from things like nuts and nut butters (both of which I mentioned in the piece), olive oil, fish (which a lot of kids just won’t eat) and other healthy sources.

Moderation in all things, including moderation.

Jane
Jane
5 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

But the items you mentioned in your first list (fast food, etc) isn’t even “good” fat.

Juli
Juli
5 years ago

I pack my first-grader’s lunch every day because he refuses to eat the hot lunch they serve at school. Maybe it’s just our area, but I have not been impressed with the hot lunch offerings here. His lunches from home may not be perfect, but they seem to be at least as healthy as school lunch. He will bring either a sandwich, homemade lunchable (crackers, meat, and cheese), and something like that. Plus some fruit and maybe another side. He is not a huge eater, so if I send more than that it will be wasted.

AJS
AJS
5 years ago

It was easy for my mother to pack my lunch. I insisted on a liverwurst sandwich every day for about 3 years, and then I switched to tuna fish for the next few years. After I got into high school, if I wanted to bring my lunch, I had to make it myself. I also ate an orange every day at lunch for years and years.

Sarah
Sarah
5 years ago

This is quite helpful apart from the out of date obsession with low or non fat dairy!

Charles
Charles
5 years ago

This story is woefully behind on food research. Fat is not bad for you. Sure, it’s calorie-dense, but it provides a feeling of satiety which more than compensates. Why would you feed your kids low-fat cheese? It’s gross, flavorless, and highly processed. Feed your kids REAL FOOD.

Here’s a fun story on the subject:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/26/opinion/bittman-butter-is-back.html

Kelli B
Kelli B
5 years ago

Great tips for kids and adults alike! I think there’s the assumption that if you “brown bag it” it is automatically healthy… definitely not true!

If you’ve got a picky eater on your hands, be sure to check out these 25 healthy kid approved lunch ideas: http://www.freebiefindingmom.com/25-kids-healthy-lunch-ideas/

Cookster
Cookster
5 years ago

Great ideas for me too. I get tired of sandwiches every day. My kids loved home packed lunches. Every Sunday night we would prepare 10 sacks with napkins, salt, pepper, apples, and horrors! a bag of chips, etc. Then we would make sandwiches (which the kids loved) and freeze 8 of them. A couple of homemade cookies were packed for each day. All we had to do in the am was assemble. At night we always had veggies, fruit, and a good sensible dinner, so I wasn’t too worried about the nutritional value of lunch. They ate them and were… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago

@20 (Jane): That was kind of the point I wanted to make.

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