top of page

School Lunches: Fun with Balance

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

Sending your kiddo off to school with a healthy lunch that won't end up in the trash or traded for artificial junk posing as "food" can sometimes feel like a challenge. Here are some tips on packing balanced meals your kids will love to eat:


Fun foods for grown-ups include party fare like crackers with fancy cheeses and cold cuts, a bento box of sushi and tempura goodness at a Japanese restaurant and just about anything dipped in a cheese or chocolate fondue. Experiment with the kids' version of adult fun for a new twist on school lunches. Create a healthier array of lunchables with foods like whole grain crackers, organic cheese and turkey slices. Dips, such as yogurt-peanut butter, bean or hummus, guacamole, and organic dressings can make cut-up veggies, such as bell peppers, cucumbers and sugar snap peas, more appealing. Finger foods are great fun! Presentation also matters so consider upgrading the usual lunch bag to one of the new, hip bento lunchboxes.


Lunches are not a time to experiment but rather a time to go with what "mostly" works. Always have a "winner" in the lunch. Pair a couple of familiar winners with a new item. Include a favorite fruit, sandwich and/or snack-type food. Adding fun to the familiar: try a new recipe together, pick a fun name to encourage trying the new item: princess peas or pirate's papaya - it works! Recently my 2nd grader was willing to try Jasmine rice with the stir fry after she asked if we thought brown Jasmine (the name of a popular Disney princess) would like the rice. Another example of a good "food introduction" strategy is to keep the dip familiar and change up the veggie.


If you scan your little one's meal, do you see mostly beige? One of the signs of a healthy diet is lots of color from plant-based foods, such as veggies, fruits and legumes. Most people would benefit from eating more plant based foods - much more. Different colored produce tends to provide different vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, which protect cells and promote health in ways researchers are still learning about. Interestingly, combining colors has a synergistic beneficial effect (naturally, yellow #5 and red #40 don't count! ). If you're dealing with a picky eater, keep in mind it can take about 15-20 exposures to a new food before one learns to like it, so be patient and not pushy. There are no winners in a food battle!


If your child turns up his or her nose at the standard turkey or tuna salad sandwich, don't give up on protein altogether. Adequate protein at both breakfast and lunch helps with mental alertness and concentration for minds of all ages. Other good sources of protein include nut butters, cheese, yogurt, beans, edamame, tofu, and eggs. Children need a great deal of carbohydrates to support high energy expenditure compared to adults - keep the fruits and grains and treats as a part of a balanced meal with the protein.


Is there really a difference between an oreo and an organic sandwich cookie? In short, yes; organic snack foods are "cleaner" than their non-organic counterparts - made without synthetic preservatives, trans fats, or anything artificial. Adding a little fun food to the day can promote a sense of balance and keep the family from feeling deprived. Besides, the only thing forbidding foods accomplishes is making those very foods even more appealing. Incorporating a fun food with a nutritious meal teaches balance. And one of our biggest job as parents is helping our kids find balance. If your children love sweets, that's OK and most of us do like sweets. Include them in small amounts regularly so your children learn balance and don't look to find sweets elsewhere.


Eating less at first may be related to the desire to finish and go play, adjusting to the schedule and limited time to eat, or chatting with friends. Don't worry, they'll adjust and learn that they need to eat more to prevent this hunger as a result! This works much better than mom or dad nagging about the uneaten sandwich.


Take your children shopping and invite choices. What fruits should we buy for your lunch? This is a great opportunity to teach about local and seasonal foods. Fresh, dried and canned produce are all options! What vegetables would you like in your lunch? Protein? What balanced fun food would you like? How much would you like in your lunch? When would you like to pack your lunch? When children have a say and are involved in the process...they are more likely to eat what is served.


Yes, what you eat for lunches and the expectations you set at home and for yourself is more important than what you tell your children to eat! Let your children know that fruits, vegetables and a source of carbohydrates and protein along with fun food make a balanced meal. Water and skim milk are the best ways to stay hydrated - keep the juice or chocolate milk limited and make them the treat in the meal if your child so chooses. If we eat a balanced meal, we have energy and feel better throughout the day. Helping children connect energy levels with meals and snacks is a great way for kids to learn how food supports (or NOT) how they feel mentally and physically.


  • Turkey wrap with shredded carrots, mayo and whole grain tortilla, sliced peaches and a piece of chocolate

  • Cottage cheese, applesauce, peanut butter with whole grain crackers and 2 organic oreos

  • Pizza, cucumber slices with dip, a plum and a fruit roll up

  • Ham and cheese sandwich, baby carrots with dressing, and apple slices with cinnamon

  • Hummus and cream cheese bagel, cherry tomatoes, and whole grain fig cookies

  • Peanut butter and jelly on a whole grain roll, edamame, banana and chocolate chip cookie

  • Organic macaroni and cheese, hard boiled egg, sliced bell pepper, melon and a pack of natural fruit chews

  • Greek yogurt, nuts, berries, cabbage salad with honey vinegar dressing and a nut and chocolate chunk brownie

Most importantly, enjoy a variety of delicious and healthy foods yourself. Watching parents is how kids really learn about eating well in the long-term.

Kathleen Putnam, MS, RD is a nutritionist and parent coach at NutritionWorks Consulting. Minh-Hai Tran, MS, RD is a nutritionist and a sports nutrition expert at NutritionWorks Consulting.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page