Make a nutritious lunch part of your child’s school day


Schools today are empowering students to make healthy choices by providing balanced and nutritious lunch options. Gone are the processed foods and sugary drinks, and in their place are fresh ingredients, including fruit and vegetables, low-fat milk, and whole grains. Even with this shift, many students are still opting to pack a lunch. It’s important to know which foods serve as healthy fuel for growing bodies and minds in order to ensure the packed lunch is just as nutritious as what the school offers.

If you pack your child’s lunch for school, you know which foods they are eating, but your child may not like what you’re packing. Get them involved. When kids help pack their lunch, they’re more likely to eat that lunch. Plan ahead and use this meal prepping time as family time. Explain to your child why you’d like them to consider packing certain items and how eating a well-balanced meal will benefit them.

Short on time? Think about using your homemade leftovers from a family favorite dinner for a next day lunch. Use a thermos to keep foods hot or cold until the lunch bell rings. Common options that pack well are vegetable-based soups, spaghetti, and grilled chicken. Be sure to add a fresh snack option like apple slices or a piece of fruit with the leftovers to help balance out the meal.

If your child doesn’t like sandwiches or leftovers, get creative and let them play with their food. Try packing a healthy dip option. There’s plenty of options: pear slices with low-fat plain yogurt or peanut butter, carrots and sweet pepper strips with hummus or fresh salsa, and whole-grain crackers with homemade bean dip.

Need a little help navigating a healthy plate? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers MyPlate, a tool designed to illustrate how to build a healthy meal. By following the guidelines below, you can provide your children with the energy they need to grow and learn.

Fruits and Veggies

With each meal, half of your child’s plate should consist of fruits and vegetables. Any canned, dried, fresh, or frozen fruit or vegetable, or 100% fruit or vegetable juice, can be counted toward your child’s daily serving.


Grains are divided into two subgroups: refined grains and whole grains. White bread and white rice are considered refined grains. Whole grains include foods such as oatmeal, brown rice, or whole wheat breads. With each meal, half of the grains your child eats should be whole grains.


Protein options should include lean or low-fat meat, poultry, seafood, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, eggs, and processed soy products. As an alternative to meats, which are often difficult for children to keep at the ideal temperatures throughout the school day, trail mix with a variety of nuts can serve as a good source of protein.


Milk, cheeses, soy milk, and yogurt can all be counted toward your child’s dairy requirement. Squeezable yogurt pouches can be frozen – keeping the rest of your child’s lunch chilled, if necessary and they typically thaw out by lunch time.

To search healthy recipes, educational games and activities for your kids, and to find an extended listing of foods in each group, visit the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov.


Kayleigh E. Ney is a clinical dietitian with UPMC Susquehanna. She is a graduate of West Chester University where she obtained her Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)