Back To School: Healthy Packed Lunch Ideas

by | Aug 20, 2012
by Savannah Grandfather

by Savannah Grandfather

“Over the summer, my family has adopted some new eating habits.  We are avoiding processed foods and sugar.  Trying for a lot more whole foods and I wanted to see if you have some ideas for school lunches.  The new school year is coming up and I don’t want to fall into old habits with sugary yogurts, chips and cookies.”

Habits are the essence of healthstyle. Good ones can make health and weight loss easy, bad ones can derail your most sincere dieting attempts. While habits are hard to break, once they’re formed they’re easy to keep around.

But here’s the thing about building habits:

If the healthy choices aren’t as easy and appetizing as the unhealthy ones, you probably aren’t going to stick with them.

So whatever you try, make sure it’s something you’re willing to continue doing for the entire year.

Though I do not have children and have not spent much time with them, I have been a student for the past 26 years and know a few things about toting lunch around. If you do have kids, feel free to chime in.

Healthy School Lunch Ideas

Fruits and vegetables. Make these as easy and fun to eat as possible. If your kids are resistant to fresh produce, my recommendation is to have them participate in the buying process. Make your weekly farmers market trip a family outing and explain to kids what it means for something to be in season. Show them how sweet and flavorful foods can taste when they’re at their peak and let them pick their favorites. Eating a carrot is much more satisfying when you’ve picked it out yourself. Pro tip: This trick works on adults too.

Here are some ideas for produce that can be cut, bagged and stored until lunch time: carrots, celery, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, sweet red pepper, sugar snap peas, apples, blueberries, grapes and melon.

Homemade granola. Store bought granola is usually more like dessert than a healthy snack, but you can make your own with less sugar and it is still delicious. Don’t worry about using butter if it is called for, especially for growing children. Granola can be made in big batches, is easy to store, easy to transport and is based on intact grains that are both healthy and satisfying. Put a serving into a small zip bag and enjoy.

Hummus. Hummus is a Mediterranean dip made from chickpeas that is delicious and easy to make. A small tupper of hummus is a perfect accompaniment to cut up vegetables, whole grain breads and crackers. It is also convenient because it can be made in huge batches and frozen in smaller containers. Here is my favorite homemade hummus recipe.

Cheese. In reasonable quantities cheese can be a satisfying snack. Some wonderful artisan cheeses can even be bought for reasonable prices. American cheddar is a perfect example. Just stay away from the really processed stuff at the grocery store–check the ingredients label and avoid long, scientific sounding words.

Peanut butter. Like hummus, peanut (or any nut) butter can be a wonderful dip for fruits and veggies. I know that many parents these days are hysterical about nuts, but if the idea doesn’t bother you too much it can be a very healthy snack.

The consistency of natural nut butters can take some getting used to, but I strongly recommend these over the homogenized processed kinds. Natural nut butters that have no added sugar, no added trans fat, are full of healthy fats (this is good) and must be stored in the refrigerator (real foods don’t have preservatives). If you’re new to nut butters, almond butter is a great place to start.

Trail mix. Similar to nut butters trail mix can be scary for parents worried about nut allergies, but if your child can tolerate nuts then trail mix is a fun and nutritious snack. Try different combinations of nuts and dried fruits. I’ve recently discovered the amazing dried Bing cherries at my favorite farmers market. For a special treat you can add a few small chocolate chunks, which is a better indulgence than cookies or chips.

Sandwiches. I’m not a big fan of bread (even “whole grain” bread), but sandwiches are a reasonable option on occasion. When choosing bread, look for artisan brands with few ingredients and no preservatives. This kind of bread is often found in paper bags and costs less than the fake-healthy soft stuff in plastic. You can cut up loaves and store bread in zipper bags in the freezer. To thaw, heat for a few minutes at 325 F or move to the refrigerator the night before.

Healthy sandwich choices include: hummus, avocado, peanut/almond butter, soft fruit, canned Alaskan salmon, cheese, roasted chicken or turkey, egg salad, mixed veggies, etc. Try not to choose deli meats as your standard choice, since they are highly processed and have been tied to all sorts of health problems. Likewise, limit canned tuna to once per month (especially for children) because of the high mercury content. Mercury can damage developing nervous systems and has been tied to lower IQ scores.

Popcorn. For a crunchy, salty alternative to chips you can try popcorn. Though the instant kind can be hit or miss in terms of health, natural popcorn is relatively healthy and can be very easy to make. Explore different spices and flavor toppings such as cheese, cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, garlic salt and other spices. You can make this a weekend project and let the kids choose their own flavors, store it in air-tight containers and use it during the week.

Please share your favorite tips in the comments

Updated August 22, 2011.

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30 Responses to “Back To School: Healthy Packed Lunch Ideas”

  1. Sudeep says:

    Hey ,
    Nice article and good alternatives … Just have few thoughts more to add .
    1] Wraps could be nice to add to .. fresh vegetables , some eggs scrambled may be healthy too .
    2] Boiled Beans: In India beans are the huge protien provider in the food chain … just boil them , add salt pepper , some spices as ur test and try it … just taste yummy and the kids love it .

    • Darya Pino says:

      Great to know kids love beans, I was scared to include them. Thanks!

      • Lori Carraway says:

        Good tips! Very reasonable ideas that most kids will eat! One thing we incorporate is we allow our kids one “treat” (i.e. – cookie, ice cream, chocolate) a day. They get to choose whether they have that at lunch or after dinner. They also know that if someone brings a treat to school for a birthday and they choose to eat it, then that is their one for the day. Bottom line is balance – they eat healthily each day but we do allow them their treat. My parents were very restrictive with sugar when I was young, and that backfired – I became obsessed with sugary treats and over indulged whenever I had the opportunity. It has taken me some time as an adult to retrain my thinking and allow myself a small indulgence here and there as part of my healthstyle. By giving my kids the option of having a treat I have found that they are far less obsessed about sugar and don’t feel deprived – many times they just skip the treat all together because they are full from dinner and don’t want it.

      • Darya Pino says:

        Thanks for your insight Lori! I would certainly be wary of food restriction for exactly the reasons you outline. But I would also be wary of food as a reward. Regular intervals that make foods treats but not as a reward for good behavior sounds perfect!

      • Lori Carraway says:

        Absolutely! We never use “treats” as a reward – they are just part of the normal diet – even when the kids are acting up we don’t change their diet as a punishement!

    • Kristine says:

      We only eat Adams peanut butter (the most widely available brand that needs refrigerating once it’s open). I grew up with sliced and reconfigured apples which had peanut butter in the middle in my lunch box. Delicious! As an adult, I still like to eat that as a substitute for sugary desserts.

      Unfortunately, there is some cause for alarm when it comes to peanuts or other types of nuts. I have a friend who’s highly allergic to all nuts except peanuts and just had his worst ER visit ever a few months back. My little nephew, who’s just starting kindergarten this year, is seriously allergic to both peanuts and cashews, which is a concern since kids tend to share their food pretty freely and might not have any idea what their packaged foods or homemade goodies really contain.

      On the bright side, I must say, my nephew’s mom is awesome about teaching him healthy eating habits since she grew up eating and cooking fresh, healthy foods in a rural farming area of Japan.

  2. I use wraps as well. And pita bread too. I think every meal I prepare for my kids gives them another step on the way to preparing them to make their own choices.

    I like all of your ideas. I printed them out, because I don’t want to forget them!

  3. Allie says:

    Makes me wish I had kids so I could pack them healthy lunches!

    Lori: Nice job teaching that indulgences are OK in moderation. That is definitely an idea that I think is often lacking in our society. Interesting that not eating much sugar when you were young made you overindulge later, though. When I was young, there was never sugar available in my house and, as a result, I now strongly dislike sugar. Then again, my parents were not restrictive, they just never kept it around so maybe that is similar to what you are doing.

    Finally, I remember when I was younger, a thermos full of hot soup was the ultimate treat in my packed lunch. (Especially after recess in the middle of winter on the east coast) Making an easy, homemade, vegetable or bean-laden soup on the weekend would be an easy way to make this a very healthy lunch!

  4. Amanda Vega says:

    This is an awesome post. We have a client who makes some great, healthy and organic juice. (First Juice It is a great addition to kid’s lunches because it is healthy and a great soda alternative, but also because is it has BPA Free Screw Tops, so kids can drink it throughout the day unlike a juice box, and also re-use the bottle (maybe fill it up with water later in the day). Check them out!

  5. Olga says:

    I am always surprised when in my state, although they say it is healthy, the kids have chicken nuggets, corn, and something icky and pink they call applesauce for lunch. i have no idea what is the healthy part of this lunch. so i usually pack my kids lunches. sandwiches are not the only option! I pack soups or chili, which they love, particularly in cold days. they also love quinoa salad, particularly if it is made with feta, tomatoes, and carrots. i also pack “skewers” with different meats, cheeses, veggies and fruits. these are toothpicks with little stuff skewered on. many times we make the lunchbox together and they get to fix what they want from some options. since treats come in different shapes, sometimes it is a special fruit, other times a cookie, and most of the times a loving note from mommy. and i seldom give them juice, most of the time, it is a bottle of water, or some iced tea green tea with fruits i brewed for them.

  6. Holly B says:

    Hi Darya!

    I’m a big lunch-packer for work and really appreciate this post 🙂 I know you aren’t a big fan of breads in general, but I am currently head-over-heals for the Ezekiel brand sprouted grain breads. Would you say they measure up any better than most of the other whole grain plastic-bagged breads out there, or is this yet another marketing ploy to make the consumer think he/she is making the “better choice”?


  7. aubrey says:

    i’ve been on a huge lettuce wrap kick lately- fill them up with leftovers from the night before and it’s an easy, portable lunch.
    once the weather gets cold again, i migrate towards warm, soupy lunches. the bonus of those is that they are easy to make in advance and keep in the freezer. (but make sure you aren’t using plastic containers to stick in the microwave!)

  8. Sandra says:

    Frozen, fully cooked edamame is a lunch box staple at our house. It is perfect if I am pressed for time. I don’t have to prep anything and it is perfectly thawed by lunchtime. My kids love them.
    A plastic container with some plain yogurt or cottage cheese is also popular. Sometimes I will add a drizzle of honey or other times some fresh fruit.
    I would also add seeds. My daughter has a nut allergy and so we eat a lot of roasted pumpkin seeds, which are great. I also buy her sunflower butter which is a really delicious no-nut option.

  9. Janet Nezon says:

    Great post Darya!
    All of your ideas are great, and I love the ideas posted in the comments too. Lunches seem to be the biggest stress for many parents as the back-to-school season approaches, and your suggestions should make it easier for most people. I’d like to stress that, whatever is on the menu for lunch, it will have a much greater chance of being eaten if the kids are involved in making and packing it! The “what did I get?” scenario tends to lead to lunch-dumping, or trading at school! I always prepared a selection of healthy options (including “treats”) in kid-friendly formats & sizes, and let my kids put their own lunches together. My level of involvement evolved & backed off as my children grew up. Most kids, when faced with a variety of fresh, tasty foods, will actually put together a reasonable and balanced lunch. Parents just need to take responsibility for what’s on offer, and let the kids choose what & how much they want. I also think that parents tend to send too much food with their kids, and a lot of it ends up getting wasted.
    Some people might call me lazy, as I delegated lunch-making to my kids as soon as they could pack a bag, but 2 of my children are now away at University and they are doing a great job of independently feeding themselves very well! My 19-year old son actually did most of the cooking for his roommates last year!

  10. Dan H says:

    The original question mentioned sugary yogurts. We started buying one large container of plain yogurt. Each day we fill a small cup with a serving of yogurt & a separate contain with a bit of honey. My daughter loves mixing the two together herself, we get to use higher quality yogurt for a much lower cost than individual kid-sized store cups, & we get to control how much sugar (honey) she’s getting. In theory we could experiment with fruit-based fillings that she’s willing to eat, but my daughter eats fruit separately & I don’t mess with what works.

    • Suzanne says:

      Straining Greek Yogurt in a collander with a dish towel really reduces the lactose sugars. I use this approach to manage my blood glucose successfully when I want to eat yogurt, but even for people without any health challenges, adding back honey to strained yogurt reduces total sugar content lower than processed yogurts.

    • Madalon says:

      We also buy the large containers of plain yogurt. My kids like to mix in homemade jam. Yum.

  11. Kat says:

    I’m starting college again next Monday and I may be using these tips with my own lunches since Tuesdays and Thursdays I won’t be done until 2:45.

    Lori: That’s how my parents brought me up. We had a candy drawer and I can’t even stand the candy we had in that drawer now. Good on you for teaching your kids moderation and not depriving them of the option. 🙂

  12. Natalie says:

    I just cook bigger portions for dinner and we eat the leftovers the next day, or the day after, for lunch. Insulated jars are really great to keep food warm, or cold! They had a quinoa salad in their jar today and fresh cut cantaloupe for dessert. Takes 5 min to prepare, only add the dressing/olive oil at the last moment. They both ate everything and loved how refreshing it was (90 degrees outside today). 🙂

  13. Greg says:

    I’ve become a huge fan of Greek yogurt as well. The straining reduces the sugar content, which has the added benefit of concentration the protein. My kids like it, too.

  14. I LOVE dried cherries! I use them for trail mixes and oatmeal.

    There are also some great recipes out there to make your own granola or muesli bars too that you can make in advance and cut up for lunches.

    My son is not school aged yet, but I use a lot of these things for packing my husband’s lunch (healthier for him and saves $)!

  15. Yep, Greek yogurt is great. Twice the protein or most regular yogurts and tastes much fuller.

  16. Just a note about peanut butter. More and more of the natural/organic brands are adding palm oil, which is an unnecessary addition of saturated fat. Peanut butter is already chock-full of healthy fat, no need to add more. Ready labels, and watch out “easy stir”, that’s a tip off that palm oil has been added.

  17. Dee says:

    Darya, to make my very busy life simple, i cook to suit me. I just give them (yes even the 2 year old) whatever I eat…. Brussel sprouts-whatever. Her palate has been trained, she eats grown up foods.

    What I do differently for kids is cut the food in child size pieces, give raw veg/ fruit as snack, use prettycookie cutters for sandwiches, serve them whole milk and I butter the bread most times.

  18. Jack says:

    Another topping for popcorn is yeast flakes. Very tasty!
    East Wind nut butters are very tasty and are available in many health food stores and coops.

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