You have two options to make sure your child eats a healthy lunch at school: teach your child to make healthy choices at school or you have the daily grind of making a sack lunch.
As a mom to four kids, I’ve done my fair share of packing lunches for school.
Taking a box lunch to school doesn’t always have to be created by mom or dad. Packing school lunches gives your child autonomy while teaching him how to choose healthy foods. And it saves time for the family during the hectic morning routine.
Teach your child to pack his own sack lunches with the step-by-step guide below.
5 Tips for Packing School Lunches
Here are some quick tips from this pediatric nutritionist and mom to help you keep nutrition front and center.
1. Include Most Food Groups in School Lunch
The 5 food groups are: Whole grains, fruit, vegetables, meat and alternatives, dairy and dairy products. Try to include a serving of each food group.
At a minimum, target 3 to 4 food groups for a healthy balanced meal.
Here are some healthy packed lunch ideas for kids:
- Hard-boiled eggs, toast with nut-free butter like Wow Butter (cut into fingers and wrapped in foil to maintain crunchiness), red pepper slices, and grapes.
- Tuna wrap with lettuce, baby carrots, applesauce, and milk to drink
- Whole grain bagel with cream cheese and turkey, fresh berries, and a frozen vanilla yogurt stick (wrapped in tinfoil to prevent “sweating”)
2. Cook Food in Bulk
When you have some extra time on weekends or evenings, bake a big batch of whole grain muffins or oatmeal cookies and freeze in plastic zipper bags.
When you’re cooking the evening meal, make extra that can easily become a leftover lunch.
Cooking in bulk not only saves you time when packing a sack lunch, it also adds some great variety to the usual lunch choices.
3. Plan the Lunch Menu and Prepare in Advance
As much as possible, cut up vegetables on the weekend, clean fruit when you purchase it, portion out yogurt or leftovers into individual containers or fill drink containers the night before.
The more you can prepare in advance, the more likely you will pack healthy foods and avoid the morning rush.
4. Ensure Your Sack Lunch is Safe
Use an insulated lunch bag with ice packs to keep cold food cold.
If you’re planning on packing something warm like chili, soups, spaghetti or scrambled eggs, don’t forget to warm up both your food and the thermos in which you are putting the food.
Discard any uneaten chilled food to avoid food borne illness.
5. Involve Your Child in Food Decisions for School Lunch
Get your child involved in preparing his/her lunch in a way that is age appropriate.
Younger children can help portion things like yogurt or trail mix; older kids can make their own sandwiches or wraps.
List healthy food options your child will eat. When you’re wondering what to pack on a particular day refer to this list. Revise and update it often with your child as the year progresses along.
Healthy Lunch Box Planner
I created a step-by-step process to help kids pack a box lunch for school.
Here are the steps:
- Include at least 4 food groups.
- Let your child choose between two options.
- Encourage independence
I love it when you can systemize things.
A school lunch planner can help you map out the week of food, get input from your child, and ease the morning chaos.
What About Division of Responsibility?
Melissa, a reader whose 6-year-old son is selective with food, follows Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) and is running into a challenge with school lunch.
She wants to know how to encourage her son to pack his own school lunch box without sacrificing health.
My son goes to a small private Montessori school, and while we love everything else about the school, we have been somewhat frustrated with their approach to food.
They have a strict policy to not pack sweets in lunches and emphasize “healthy, organic” foods. I have suspected that this may play a role in my son’s continued avoidance of more challenging foods due to the pressure, though I can’t be sure if we are doing it as well.
Now that he is in 1st grade, he is expected to pack his own lunch.
We find it very difficult to practice Division of Responsibility (DOR) when packing lunches, since it is not a sit down meal where everyone shares it.
Lately, I feel we have been getting off track because he will only want to pack, for instance, a bun and 3 homemade applesauce roll-ups. I have been telling him that he needs to pack some sort of protein, which was working okay, but I am again feeling like it is pressuring him further away from eating proteins.
Also, I’m not entirely sure it is developmentally appropriate for the kids to be packing their own lunches at this age, and we are open to packing the lunches for him. I am interested in gaining more structure around this, if you have any suggestions?
Here are the guidelines I shared with Melissa that you can use to teach your child to pack his own healthy lunch while following the DOR.
DIY Guidelines for a Healthy School Lunch
First graders are at a great age to take a role in packing lunch.
But they need some help-
- They don’t really know what goes into a balanced, healthy lunch.
- It’s still hard for them to prepare food quickly, so assembly needs to be easy.
No matter your child’s age, you can support him by setting guidelines about what goes into a lunch and then let him make a reasonable choice.
For example, teach your child about what a healthy lunch menu includes by setting some guidelines:
Food Groups for a Healthy Lunch
- Protein sources
- Fruit and/or vegetables
- Dairy (or a non-dairy substitute)
- Healthy fats (optional)
Encourage Autonomy With Options
Next, enable his independence by giving him reasonable options for each of those key foods. For example:
- Protein: Turkey or yogurt
- Grain: Bread or crackers
- Fruit: Grapes or applesauce
- Veggie: Carrot coins or celery sticks (you can alternate fruit and veggies or if he will eat both, do both)
- Dairy: Cheese or milk
This is a systematic approach that builds in more structure, lets you determine the nutritional quality and balance of the lunch, and allows your son a little more say in what he packs.
In other words, he ultimately packs his own choices from the options you provide.
Well, Melissa went right to it. She changed up the system for packing a box lunch at home to ensure her son had healthy options he could independently include in his lunch.
So how did things go with Mellissa’s son?
Here’s what she had to say:
Just wanted to update you–we have 3 bins in our refrigerator–one for fruit and veggies, one for protein and one for grains, and I try to keep them stocked. My son has to pick something from each bin. He really likes it, especially because it makes it easier for him to pack his lunch. Working out very well so far!
Does your child pack his own lunch? How do you make sure it’s healthy?
Involving your child not only teaches him how to plan a healthy school lunch for himself, it eventually reduces one task for you.
Here’s to a healthy and fun school year! Happy packing!