The Best Foods and Tips for Packing School Lunches

  • Pink lunch box for little girl
    It's All About Good Nutrition
    Packing your child’s school lunch can be an economic alternative to buying lunch. It can also allow more choice and control over your child’s nutrition. Many families choose this option, with about 50% of preschoolers bringing lunch from home and 30% of adolescents. Consider the following strategies for maximizing nutrition in your child’s bag lunch.

  • Healthy Afternoon Snack
    1. Lunch Basics
    There are some general rules for packing a lunch. You want to include as many whole foods as you can and limit processed foods. Make sure you pack foods with protein and fiber to keep your child full and whole-grain carbohydrates for energy through the day. Remember to use variety and creativity. And involve your child. It will increase the likelihood that your child will eat the food and not trade it or toss it.

  • Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Series
    2. Protein Powerhouses
    Prepackaged lunches and processed lunchmeats are tempting for their ease. But there are better sources of protein. Instead, go with low-fat deli meats, low-fat or reduced-fat cheese, low-fat yogurt, hummus, hard-boiled eggs, and peanut butter. Be sure you know and follow your school’s peanut policy so you don’t endanger another child. Some schools ban peanut products altogether, while others allow it in specific areas.

  • Loaf of bread
    3. Whole Grain Goodness
    Whole grains provide fiber for fullness and complex carbohydrates for lasting energy. So skip the white bread. Substitute it with whole-grain breads, pitas, bagels, or tortilla wraps. If your child isn’t into sandwiches, think about sending whole-grain pasta or brown rice. Other whole grain options include corn muffins and oat bran muffins.

  • Children holding out fresh fruit
    4. Fiber Fullness
    High-fiber foods add volume to a meal, making you feel full. They also take longer to digest. This reduces abrupt fluctuations in blood glucose, and helps you feel full for a longer time. These are both good things for a kid trying to get through the school day. Increase the fiber in your child’s lunch by using whole grains instead of highly processed grains, and whole fruits—either fresh or dried—and vegetables. Remember, the closer a food looks to its original form, the less processed it is.

  • zucchini-baba-ganoush
    5. Try Adding Taste
    Some kids like their sandwiches and food very plain. And if that’s your kid, go with it. But if your child craves a little zing, add some taste. Mustards or low-fat dressings are healthy alternatives to smearing on the mayonnaise. And low-fat cream cheese and dips pair perfectly with fresh fruits and vegetables. Let your child lead the way and explore other healthy seasonings to tickle the taste buds.

  • Little Boy Reaching for a Pretzel
    6. Crunchy Cravings
    The saying goes that crunch makes lunch better! But skip the chips. There are many ways to add crunch to lunch without their empty nutrition. Instead, think about pretzels, air-popped popcorn, baked chips or crackers, veggie sticks and low-fat dip, pickles, and trail mix.

  • Dried fruit
    7. Sweet Treats
    A little sweet with a meal seems to make it complete, especially if your child has a sweet tooth. And there are ways to satisfy it without giving your child highly processed sugars. Instead of packing processed cookies, think outside the lunchbox. Try cookies with whole grains, such as oatmeal cookies. Granola bars, flavored gelatin, low-fat pudding, applesauce, and fresh or dried fruit can also serve as a sweet treat.

  • elementary school-aged smiling boy sitting in school cafeteria with lunch tray containing bottle of water, apple and snack bag
    8. Think About the Drink
    Think about whether you will send a drink in your child’s lunch. You may decide it’s easier to let your child buy a drink. Many elementary schools will only offer milk for purchase. And that’s a nutritious choice. But middle schools and high schools offer a much wider assortment. Encourage your child to choose milk anyway. If you decide to send a drink, go with plain bottled water, flavored water, or 100% juice boxes. Stay away from sodas and sports drinks.

  • cropped shot of woman's hands packing lunch in insulated container with cold pack
    9. Follow Food Safety Guidelines
    Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. This can be challenging for packed lunches. In fact, one study found that over 90% of lunches from home did not keep foods at safe temperatures. Use a thermos for hot foods and temper it—fill it with boiling water for a few minutes before filling it with hot food. And use ice packs for cold food. It’s a good idea to pack a moist towelette or hand sanitizer in your kid’s lunchbox, and wash lunchboxes, utensils and thermoses regularly.

  • small boy eating an apple
    Tips to Take Away
    With a little thought and planning, you can create a healthy lunch your child will enjoy at school. Remember to involve your child in the process. It will be a good learning experience and it will help ensure that your child eats what you send. Talk to your child about nutrition and encourage healthy food choices. Someday, your child will have to make those choices without you. So start early and keep the conversation going.

The Best Foods and Tips for Packing School Lunches
  1. Almansour FD, et al. Temperature of foods sent by parents of preschool-aged children. Pediatrics. 2011;128(3):519-23. 
  2. Conway TL, et al. What do middle school children bring in their bag lunches? Prev Med. 2002;34(4):422-7.
  3. Ten Tips for Enjoying & Preparing a Safer Packed Lunch. Institute of Food Technologists.
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Last Review Date: 2019 Sep 17
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