Healthy Back-to-School Lunch Ideas

The beginning of each new school year brings a lot of emotions and thoughts for parents and children alike. Some kids may be thrilled to return to school while others wish that summer lasted forever. In the same way, some parents are excited for their children to be back in a normal routine, while others prefer the relaxed atmosphere of the summer months. Some families get excited about back-to-school shopping when it comes time to purchase new clothes, new shoes, and school supplies, while other families dread the planning and shopping time that comes every fall. One big thing that is on a lot of parents’ minds at the start of each new school year is lunches. Will your child purchase a lunch or will they bring one from home? Who will be responsible for planning lunches, shopping for ingredients, and putting together the lunches? Most importantly, how will you keep track of what your child is eating and ensure that they are getting healthy meals each school day? Some kids are happy to eat the exact same thing every day for lunch, but more often than not, kids would choose unhealthy and unbalanced meals for lunch if given the choice. Rather than stress about how to pack healthy meals at the last minute and resorting to lunch boxes full of chips, cookies, and pop tarts, start planning now. Come up with some guidelines for your back-to-school lunches and stick with them throughout the year to keep your kids healthy and focused during the school day.

Have a System and a Plan

The most important part of ensuring healthy lunches all year round is preparation. Make the list, buy the foods, and have them on-hand at all times. Planning ahead will make you less stressed about packing lunches, and have a solid system in place will help you breeze through lunch prep. You need to figure out what kind of system will work best for you and your kids, but we’ve got some excellent starting point ideas.

You may want to set up “stations” of some sort in your pantry and fridge that are just for lunches. Have one basket full of proteins, one full of veggies, one full of fruits, and a bin in the pantry with some snack-type foods. Each morning, every kid grabs one thing from each bin, tosses them in a lunch box, and out the door they go.

You may decide to cook some things ahead of time and freeze or refrigerate them for easy packing and healthy go-to meals. Egg muffins (think an omelet cooked in a muffin tin), burritos, meatballs or other “energy” balls, chicken tenders, sweet potato tots, and so on. These items could be integrated into the above system, or you could just grab individual parts of a meal out of the freezer on a given morning and stick them in lunch boxes.

Decide ahead of time who is going to pack lunches and when. Maybe you have to do it the night before in order to avoid chaos in the morning. Maybe you prefer to wake up before the kids do to get it taken care of first thing in the morning. Maybe it’s the kids’ responsibilities and they just need to be reminded that it needs to be done. No matter what works best for you, know your plan ahead of time so you’re not caught with two minutes until the bus arrives and have zero lunches made.

Remember that lunches don’t have to be basic or simple, and they don’t even have to resemble a full meal. Just because you ate a sandwich, apple, and chips every day for lunch growing up doesn’t mean your children have to do the same. Sometimes, it’s great to have a “main course” in their lunches, but eating a well-balanced mishmash of random foods is absolutely acceptable for lunchtime too. Check out a few of our key factors in implementing a system and a plan for packing healthy school lunches, and then read on for some specific ideas and examples of healthy lunches for kids of all ages.

Focus on Protein

Protein is a vital nutrient that is notoriously under-consumed. Not only are our bodies made up mostly of protein (aside from water, of course), but our brains absolutely need protein to function well. The way that the neurons in our brain fire and communicate with one another is through protein, and all of the body’s processes are controlled by hormones and enzymes that are made up of protein. Proteins help promote the manufacture of specific chemicals that help the brain stay alert and active, which is vital for students who spend their afternoons at school.

Remember that protein in your child’s lunch doesn’t have to just be meat. That is probably one of the easiest proteins to include, of course, but fried meats are not much better than just leaving out the protein altogether. Some great examples of proteins to include in lunches are roasted chicken or turkey, pepperoni or other deli meats, beans, hummus, cheese, eggs (hard-boiled or otherwise), bacon, and yogurt.

Include Fruits & Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are often overlooked in healthy lunch preparation because students often just don’t eat them. Parents don’t want to waste the food or the money spent on it, so they’d rather not send the fruits or vegetables because of that. That is absolutely reasonable. However, it’s very important for children to eat several servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, and lunchtime is a great time to get some of those servings in. Talk to your children about how important it is that they consume these healthier foods, and do some research together on the benefits and importance of the vitamins and nutrients in these healthy foods. You should also have a conversation with your kids’ pediatrician about important nutrients, and discuss with your kids what fruits and vegetables they like the most, particularly if you have picky eaters. You want them to try new foods, of course, but sending them fruits and veggies that they already know they like at lunchtime will increase the likelihood that they actually eat them. Talk about if they like raw or cooked veggies better, if they prefer to dip them into a sauce of some sort, and other ideas to make them more appealing. Fresh fruits are always best, but if your children prefer dried, canned, frozen, or other types of fruit, those are okay once in a while too.

Some fruit suggestions include fresh bananas, apples, oranges (or nectarines, clementines, or other varieties), grapes, watermelon, peaches, berries. Dried fruits may include raisins or craisins, apple chips, dried mango, coconut chips, and more. Vegetable ideas include raw broccoli, carrots, celery, cucumber, grape tomatoes, bell peppers, and snap peas. Frozen corn and green peas can often be put into a container for lunches still frozen, and you can also send already cooked vegetables, like green beans, broccoli, steamed carrots, and more.

Don’t Leave Out Healthy Carbs

Carbohydrates get a bad reputation sometimes, but they are important to your child’s brain function, so they should be included in their lunches. However, be aware that too many carbs and the simpler carbohydrates will lead to sluggishness and sleepiness in the afternoons, which is something you definitely want to avoid. Include some healthy grains in your child’s lunches so they can enjoy a well-balanced meal and get all the benefits of eating a healthy lunch.

Some ideas of healthy carbs include brown rice, whole wheat bread, tortillas, pasta, waffles, pancakes, pita, and tortilla chips.

Avoid Sugary Drinks

This should go without saying, but avoid sending sugary drinks with your child for lunch. Water is always the best option, but some smoothies can be good drinks to include too. Remember that you’re feeding your child’s brain too, not just their body, and sugary drinks offer them little to no benefit. You want them thriving and functioning as well as possible during the school day, so feed them nutrients and help them hydrate as healthily as possible.

Start the Year Right with Healthy Back-to-School Lunches

You want your children’s school year to start well, and one great way to do that is by following these tips to give them healthy back-to-school lunches each day. Your child’s pediatrician may be able to give you some more tips and guidelines to follow to ensure your child is eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting all the necessary vitamins and nutrients. At NCHS, our kids’ care pediatrics team is passionate about whole-body health and we provide excellent healthcare for the entire family. To discuss your child’s nutrition, health concerns, or overall wellness, contact our kids’ care pediatrics department at NCHS to set up an appointment with a pediatrician.