Packing a Healthy Lunch

By: Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing Email
By: Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing Email

The basics of a healthy lunch box
Tips for packing a nutritious lunch to fuel your child’s learning, growth and development

Outfit for the first day? Check. Backpack? Check. Lunch box? Check. A nutritious lunch to pack in that new lunch box? Oops.

Don’t worry; you’re not alone. But with childhood obesity levels more than tripling in the last 30 years, packing a nutritious lunch is becoming more and more essential.

“Packing a healthy lunch is a great way to provide children with the proper nutrition they need to perform well in school. Unfortunately, lunch boxes are often crammed with prepackaged foods full of calories, sugar and sodium,” says Alison Pittman, M.S.N., RN, CPN, assistant professor in the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing. “This excess can leave kids feeling lethargic and unmotivated by mid-afternoon and ultimately contributes to long-term health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

When packing a lunch, one of the easiest ways to stay healthy is to follow the MyPlate guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Pittman says. MyPlate can serve as a guide for packing lunches that taste good and provide the energy and nutrients children need to excel during the school day.

MyPlate includes five food groups – fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy – and suggests planning daily lunches that include at least three of these. The following are major recommendations from MyPlate that will help you pack a lunch your child will enjoy:

1. Make half of your child’s lunch consist of fruits and vegetables.
This can be challenging when you have a picky eater, but research shows that if we continue to offer new vegetables to our children, even as early as infancy, they will eventually try them.

Another way to combat picking eating is to have your child help pick out fresh fruits and vegetables at the store or farmer’s market and then help prepare lunch the night before. Preparing their own lunch may encourage your child to taste what he or she is creating.

Kids love to “dip” foods, so try providing a small container of dip like ranch dressing, peanut butter or hummus.

2. Make sure half the grains in your child’s diet are whole grains.
This is becoming easier as more whole grain breads, crackers, bagels and even pretzels show up on store shelves. Try brown rice instead of white rice, or whole grain noodles instead of traditional pasta.

3. Pack water or low-fat, unflavored milk instead of sugary sodas and juice drinks.
Pack a water bottle with lots of ice in his/her lunch box so it will still be cool at lunch time.

If you do provide juice, make sure it is 100 percent fruit juice and limit to 8-12 ounces per day for the school-age child (4-6 ounces for preschoolers).

4. Watch the sodium content.
The updated USDA guidelines recommend 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day for children. When you consider that most fast food kid’s meals contain over half this amount, it’s easy to exceed this guideline.

Foods prepared at home are often lower in sodium (and fat and calories, for that matter) than commercially prepared foods.

“With a little planning, creativity and input from your child, packing a healthy lunch that includes the essential food groups will become more of a routine than a daunting chore for parents,” Pittman says. “After all, starting your kids off on the right track by packing school lunches with nutritious foods will help them establish healthy eating habits for life.”
For more information, including helpful posters for the fridge, sample lunch and snack ideas and other tips, visit


Plan weekly menus – It’s easier to make lunches packed with good nutrition if you plan lunch menus for an entire week. Here is a sample weekly meal plan that will make your kids excited about eating, and most importantly, provide them with their daily nutritional needs so they can power through the day.

Monday - Turkey, brown rice, cucumbers and ranch dip, sliced apples and oranges
Tuesday - Chicken fajita wrapped in whole grain tortilla, carrots and celery, blueberries and strawberries
Wednesday - Leftover chicken enchilada soup, a slice of whole grain bread with cheese, green peas and cantaloupe
Thursday - Hard-boiled egg, rye crackers, celery, watermelon and grapes
Friday - Leftover steak cut into bite-size pieces, brown rice, corn and fruit salad

Find more lunch menu ideas on Pinterest by clicking on the link below.

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