How to pack healthy school lunches your kid will actually eat

Yes, it is possible to create a school lunch that’s both healthy and tasty. Tips from a registered dietitian and mom of two.

My youngest son is starting kindergarten this year. As a dietitian, I know that a healthy lunch will provide him with the energy he needs to thrive at school. But as a mom of two, I realize that sending children out the door with a kid-approved meal can be a challenge. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few strategies to make this parenting milestone a bit easier.

Get the right gear

For kindergarten-age kids, I recommend bento-style lunch boxes. These kits are fun—once the lid is open, everything is accessible—and they make it possible for you as a parent to whip up a Pinterest-worthy meal (if that’s your goal!). Silicone baking cups make colourful dividers if you need more compartments. A leak-proof water bottle that is easy to open is a must. Twist caps are challenging for little hands, so I recommend a pop-up lid and a straw, like the Thermos FUNtainer.

Practise at home

Start serving lunch in their lunch boxes in the summer. Try out everything that they will be using at school—the containers, snack packs, water bottle and lunch bag. Set a time frame for the meal. Most schools provide 15 to 30 minutes for lunch. The goal is to make sure your kids can unpack and open their food as well as tidy everything up at the end of the meal by themselves. Working on these skills at home will go a long way to help kids feel confident and eat better when they are distracted, have limited one-to-one adult support, and are time-crunched.

Plan ahead

A weekly lunch and snack schedule eliminates the stress of wondering what to pack the night before or during the morning rush. Many kids don’t love opening their lunch box to a “surprise” meal, so having a planned menu may increase food acceptance. Bonus points if you involve your child. Even young kids can brainstorm lunch and snack ideas. Having them help with simple food prep on the weekend—like portioning snacks, washing fruit and cutting up vegetables—not only makes packing lunches easier but encourages them to interact with the food ahead of time, which, in turn, may lead to them actually eating these foods when they show up in their lunch box.

Keep it simple

Parents often ask me how much variety they should be providing. For many kids, the simpler, the better. It is OK if you offer pretty much the same lunch regularly, just try and mix up some of the sides or snacks. Always include one favourite food item your kid will eat if hungry. Focus on whole foods that are minimally processed as these will have more staying power. Ideally lunches are made up of 1 to 3 ounces of protein (tofu, dairy, meat, fish, legumes), 1 to 2 slices of bread or 1/2 cup grains, some fat (avocado, yogurt, pumpkin seeds, mayonnaise, margarine), and a few pieces of fruit and/or vegetables. Try not to get too hung up on what your kids “should” be eating.

Avoid these foods

  • No peanuts or tree nuts. This restriction is pretty universal due to food allergy precautions. Some schools have further allergens that are not allowed, based on common food allergies within their student population.
  • Don’t pack anything that goes against school rules. This might include things like juice, pop and candy.
  • Avoid foods that your kids don’t like. Kindergarten school lunch is not the time to work on encouraging adventurous eating.
  • If your child can’t yet open individually packaged foods like applesauce, yogourt cups, cheese strings or bagged snacks, don’t put them in their lunches.
  • Consider leaving pungent foods at home as many kids are sensitive to strong smells and may react negatively.
  • Really messy foods—like yogurt tubes, spaghetti bolognese, any food with a lot of sauce, and items that aren’t packed properly and may spill in the lunch bag—are a recipe for disaster.
  • If utensils are a challenge for your kid, stick to finger foods and save meals that require cutlery for home.

Editor’s note:

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