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Help your child eat a healthy lunch

When your child goes back to school you can't guarantee she will eat healthy food in her lunch every day, but there's a lot you can do to steer her in the right direction.

By GreatSchools Staff

Do you feel like it's a never ending challenge to come up with healthy lunch ideas that will entice your children? Use these tips to pique your child's interest in eating a healthy lunch:

  • Bring your child with you when you go grocery shopping so he can pick out foods he likes to eat. Read food labels together so he can see what makes one food better for him than another.
  • Encourage your child to pack her own lunch. Help her pick healthy choices that are fun to eat, such as string cheese, fruit, carrot sticks, and pudding cups. If she packs it, she will be more likely to eat it.
  • Keep a variety of foods on hand so you're not packing the same lunch every day.
  • Thermoses help to add variety with hot and cold foods such as chili, soups or smoothies. A cold pack can help keep yogurt appetizing - and safe from bacteria.
  • Encourage your child to choose 1 percent or 2 percent milk, even if it's chocolate. Milk is always a better choice than juice because most fruit drinks contain very little actual fruit.
  • Vary bread offerings. Include sliced whole wheat, raisin, pita, dinner rolls, tortillas or bagels.
  • Offer plenty of healthy snack food options such as fruit, cheese and crackers, hard boiled eggs, or peanut butter and crackers.
  • Make mini pizzas: Use toasted English muffins or round crackers, spread with tomato sauce, shredded cheese and pepperoni slices.
  • Try a sesame noodle dish or pasta with a favorite tomato or Alfredo sauce.
  • Pita pocket sandwiches are easy to make and offer an alternative to the usual sliced bread versions. Try stuffing pockets with hummus and sliced vegetables or cream cheese, cucumbers and shredded carrot.
  • Cut sandwiches into fun shapes. Use a knife to cut sandwiches into triangles or diamond shapes. Or for a variety of shapes, use cookie cutters.
  • Provide different shaped pastas. Although macaroni is a perennial favorite, other shapes including snowmen, bunnies and letters are also available. Offer with mild sauces or as a salad with olive oil, cubed meat, and Parmesan cheese.
  • It doesn't have to be a sandwich. Kids love dips. Try hummus or a cream cheese dip and veggies, or bean dip and toasted pita chips or bagel chips for a protein-filled addition.
  • Make a roll-up. Try spreading cream cheese and dates and/or raisins on lavash bread and roll it up. Shredded carrots and cucumbers or additional veggies can also be used instead of raisins.
  • Make fruit kabobs. Be sure to use fruits that aren't too messy and cut off sharp tips of wooden skewers before packing into lunches. Chunks of watermelon, pineapple and grapes are good choices.

Once you've packed your child off to school with a healthy lunch, how do you make sure he's not trading it for a friend's corn chips or just throwing the whole bag away? You probably can't. But don't despair. Dietitians say it's important to focus on what your child eats throughout an entire day, rather than just concentrating on lunch. If you plan a balanced breakfast and dinner, that gives you two meals and at least one snack to pack in a full day of nutrients.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/30/2012:
"I am a 6th grade student and i weigh 105.3 pounds is that bad should I go on a diet? "
09/1/2009:
"I am a 6th grader and I want to eat healthy foods but when you are at school it is hard to do that so thanks for the comments that you guys have wrote so it is easy for me to eat healthy!"
03/23/2009:
"''i am a mother of a 4 grade daughter her school has a lot of junk food she nevers eats it only pizza. sometimes she brings her lauch. because she never likes it."
08/5/2008:
"i am a middle school student going into eighth grade and in all the yers ive been going to school cafeterias, nobodys ever been bullied for bringing their own lunch. "
01/28/2008:
"Very good article for new moms! Thank you"
01/28/2008:
"Kids need to eat healthy but some of you are just silly. Why would you want to get rid of cupcakes for parties. That's ridiculous. Children should have an occasional treat and definitely at a party. If all you push on them is healthy and never allow them 'fun' snacks they will rebel against you. They will eat junk w/o you knowing and will have worse habits when they grow up.We need to encourage our children to eat a variety of foods. My daughters allowed 1 junk food snack a day and 1 small cup of soda a day. It's up to her when she has them. This gives her power over the food she does like. You could also bake your own healthy treats. Pumpkin muffins are a favorite of my daughters."
01/24/2008:
"I have a printed list of options for the kids, such as their “main course”, fruits, morning snack, etc. and then I laminate it. This allows the kids to circle what they want using a dry-erase pen. They can make their choices before they go to bed and then I pack what they asked for later that night. One laminated list can usually make it through a school year before it gets hard to erase. "
01/23/2008:
"LAVASH breads and DIP! This sounds like my lunch. I have found that it is ussually healthier to think of what I would eat and not try and give the 'typical child' lunch. Who came up with those typical child favoritre standards anyway? Soup in a thermos is a hit in the winter and very filling with a piece of wheat toast... Well, as long as you get the thermos back it i a good idea:) Happy Lunch making Mom's and Dad's!"
01/23/2008:
"Great article and very helpful. Thanks!"
01/23/2008:
"i am a concerned parent. i often feel my child is not eating as healthy as she could be at school. my kids receive free lunch and i am working, but sometimes cannot afford to do these things on a daily basis. do you have any tips for low-income families who still want to provide their children with healthy lunch ideas. "
01/23/2008:
"I help my daughter wiht apples by giving her an aple slicer so she can 'do it herself' without brown coloring. She has braces so that is another obstacle to overcome with tthe slicer. just an idea. "
01/23/2008:
"These tips are very useful for daily routine .From today i will give my kids the healthy foods .Thankyou....."
01/22/2008:
"Milk is NEVER a better choice over REAL juice. "
12/17/2007:
"How about dealing with the reality in the Middle School lunchroom - the other kids will bully and tease kids who bring their own lunch until the child is in tears or just doesn't bring the lunchbox into the cafeteria. And the school administration doesn't think this is their problem. It's gotten out of control, and is affecting the health of our children. The lunch offered by the schools is carbo-loading at its best, and would make a marathon runner proud. Not a lot of nutrition there. I don't know what's worse - the bullying or the unhealthy food!"
08/19/2007:
"As a mother of a 4th and a 6th grader I wonder how to send hot foods to school, besides soups or similar in a thermos. Any ideas? In regards to the question what if they don't eat what you send them? I'll tell you what I do: I let them trade things of similar value fruit for fruit, veggies for veggies, etc., but not candy. I hold them accountable and reward them for helping me and helping themselves to keep helthy habits."
06/20/2007:
"In order to provide my two children with a hot lunch, I use a hot/cold thermos. In the morning I heat up their meals (spaghetti and meat sauce, chicken and rice, anything left over from the night before) and put them in the thermos. It keeps the food warm enough to eat at lunch. "
06/7/2007:
"When I was a child everyday I wanted a lettuce and Mayo sandwich but my mom refused to pack it because it didn't have meat. I threw my sandwich out every day for years! I now will pack what my daughter wants even if it is a cheese sandwich or at least find an alternative that satisfies us both. "
09/5/2006:
"I give my boys lots of choices and always healthy options. I also allow them to take one small treat to eat. I let them tell me what kind of sandwich, juice, pudding or yogurt, string cheese etc. that they want. so they get a decision in what food they eat. After all they are the ones who have to eat it. And I can tell that my boys eat or when they dont eat by how hungry they are when they walk in the door after school. I also send a snack for their morning snack that has peanut butter in it to help hold them over since lunch isn't till 12:30."
09/5/2006:
"I am blessed as my son seems to like eating the healthier foods choices. We make our own PB crackers (w/natural PB) in place of a sandwich, we make our own pudding and/or jello cups with sugar free options. (this also eliminates the preservatives in the pre-packaged brands) He is allowed to choose the schools hot lunch 1 x week so we keep it to a minimum (not to mention the cost) Also in his lunch I will include a pickle, fruit, pretzels (sometimes we make a trail mix w/the pretzels, raisins, sunflower seeds, etc) and a sugar free drink (usually not milk as it is hard to keep it cold enough to enjoy). Good Luck!"
08/24/2006:
"Our school is doing a great job offering healthy school lunches like pizza with whole wheat crust and reduced fat mozzerella cheese and milk and water. Now if I could just get his teacher to stop the back to school cookie and cupcake parties! "
08/21/2006:
"Our middle school offers Subway sandwiches every day and Jamba Juice once a week at lunch. It's too expensive to do everyday, but it's nice that the students get a 'cool' yet healthy choice."
08/14/2006:
"My 7 yr old is very picky and wont eat public school lunches, cant blame her, we eat a healthy breakfast and pack lunch. She mainly likes pb&j sandwiches. I let her use cookie cutters to get rid of the crust, and its fun. Add bag of carrots and nutragrain bar and voila! Healthy and simple."
08/14/2006:
"I pack my son's lunch daily because it is less expensive; however, one day a week he is allowed to buy his lunch at school. His school only offers healthier meal choices so there is nothing to worry about. There is no soda or sugary snacks offered at school either. A lot of schools are getting rid of their soda machines and only offering juices and milk. Ambler, PA 8/6/06"
07/20/2006:
"schools should not have vending machines with unhealthy food!please replace the bad snacks for better!schools are making a profit from sales anyways."
08/29/2005:
"Middle School is a growing time for these kids and sometimes they may want seconds. Having fresh fruit available is great to top off a lunch they might not get full on."
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