Back to School: How to Pack Your Kid's Lunch Like a Dietitian

Whether you’re the parent of a toddler, preschooler, middle schooler or high schooler; whether you pack your child’s lunch every day or just occasionally, all moms or dads face the challenge at some point. Cafeteria food has a reputation of being not-so-healthy, so many parents choose to pack instead, adding yet another thing to their to-do list every night before school. I’ve heard many parents say that their kids get tired of them packing the same foods time after time, and they need some fresh ideas. 

What kids are eating at school does make a big difference; children who eat a nutritious lunch are more likely to have higher test scores. Some kids are skipping lunch at school because they don’t like what’s being offered in the cafeteria. If you want your kids to eat the school lunch sometimes, most schools will provide a list of what will be in the offered in the cafeteria each week, so it’s a good idea to go over the menu with your kids to see which meals they want to eat from the cafeteria and which days they’d rather bring their own lunch. 

mom and kid making lunch

Here are some tips to make packing lunches streamlined, low stress and nutritious! 

How to Pack Your Kid's Lunch Like a Dietitian 

1. Plan 

Just like you plan your meals for the week, plan your kids’ lunches, too. To get your kids more engaged and excited about their lunches, let them help you plan. Ask them what fruits and veggies they’d like in their lunchbox that week or give them the choice between options that you approve of. You can also have them help you pick out some foods at the grocery store. It’s especially fun to have them find one new fruit or vegetable each week that they haven’t tried before. In each day’s lunch box, plan a carb, vegetable, protein, and healthy fat.

One idea is to create a chart with a list of foods in each of these categories; each week have your child look through the list and pick out which options they’d like that week from each category. Even if the foods they pick don’t seem like they go together, just go with it and let your child have fun making up their own food combos. As long as they choose one food from each category, it will be balanced. If you’re planning lunches for five days a week, aim for two lunchbox combos that you can alternate each day. 

If your child is in after-school programs, pack an extra snack that they can have between school and their activity to avoid energy crashes before they can get home for dinner. Just make sure that just like at lunch, their snack is also balanced with some fat and protein so they stay full longer. The size of their after-school snack totally depends on what their after-school activity is, and it might vary throughout the year. Maybe in the fall, they go to football practice where they would need a pretty hefty snack; later in the year maybe they go to debate club after school where a smaller snack will suffice. 

kids eating lunch at school

Below are some examples of lunch combinations, but there are countless more options to choose from. Tweak serving sizes based on your child’s age, activity, and appetite. As you can see, some options cover more than one category. For some kids with larger energy needs (high schoolers in sports), choosing more than one food from each category can help them get variety and all the energy and nutrition they need. 

Fruit or Other Carb

Veggie

Protein

Fat 

Apple

Cucumbers

Tuna salad w/almond flour crackers

Tuna salad w/almond flour crackers

FitJoy Pretzels 

Carrots

Grass-fed beef jerky

Almond butter (use as a dip for pretzels) 

Lentil chips 

Cherry tomatoes 

Hard-boiled eggs

Guacamole 

Banana 

Homemade kale chips 

FitJoy Protein Bar (mini or full size, depending on your child’s energy needs)

Cashews 

Chickpea pasta tossed with basil pesto and chicken 

Sugar snap peas

Chickpea pasta tossed with basil pesto and chicken

Chickpea pasta tossed with basil pesto (the olive oil is the fat) and chicken

Hummus

Celery

Uncured deli meat rolled up in lettuce 

Avocado slices


2. Prep

Instead of making the next day’s lunch each night, spend Sunday evening making lunches for the week all at one time—depending on how perishable the items are that you’re using. Some lunch items for later in the week you might have to wait on, but do whatever prep work you can ahead of time. Maybe it’s chopping up all the fruits and vegetables or maybe it’s putting nuts and almond butter in individual containers.

Anything you can do beforehand will save a lot of time on busy weeknights.  A lot of parents are using the bento-style lunch boxes (one container with multiple compartments for food). One possibility is to have five (or however many you need each week) bento boxes so that you can make them all at one time and each day pull one out of the fridge, ready to go. Or you can also just use individual food containers and baggies to store food. 

healthy lunch in bento box

Since most school lunch periods are short, taking an extra step to make eating lunch easier like slicing an apple, peeling an orange, etc., will help your child have more time to eat their meal before the lunch period is up. Having enough time to eat their food will help them to stay focused and energized at school and after-school activities. 

Depending on how old your children are, have them help with lunch prep! The more involved they are with mealtimes from the planning to the prepping and cooking and even cleaning out their lunch box, the more likely they are to eat their meal. This will save you time, take some load off your shoulders, and will teach them kitchen skills and responsibility that they will use their whole life. 


Lindsay Nelson, R.D., L.D.

Lindsay Nelson, R.D./L.D., is a freelance dietitian based in Kansas City, Missouri. Most of her time is dedicated to her 3-year-old and 1-year-old boys, teaching them all about cooking, gardening and nature.  Her husband and boys are great guinea pigs in the kitchen, always willing to try her latest food creations. On the weekends you’ll usually find them outside on a trail, hanging out with friends and family and always eating good food.


related articles

    5 of the Best Back-to-School Snacks

    The school year is officially in full swing! It seems like just moments ago we were packing up our beach bags and enjoying long days by the pool, but here we are with a new school year ahead of us and the fa...

    Grain-Free Strawberry Pretzel Dessert Parfaits

    All those nostalgic flavors of the 80’s infamous dessert made healthy enough to be enjoyed for breakfast! My Healthy Strawberry Pretzel Dessert Parfaits are made with strawberry chia jam layered with Greek y...

    High Oleic Sunflower Oil: Long Name, Great Benefits

    Have you noticed the term “high oleic” in front of oil callouts recently? You’re more likely to see this term used on an ingredient list for a packaged product rather than finding it in a bottle on a shelf—a...