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How to pack mighty tasty and healthy lunches for your kids

August 18, 2017

Lori Mager, M.B.A., RDN, LDN, CDE, Clinical Nutrition Manager, and Dipti Shah, M.S., RDN, LDN, Registered Dietitian at Northwest Community Hospital

It’s that time of year again—back to school season! Start thinking of healthy lunch ideas since a well-balanced meal consisting of nutrient-rich foods will help fuel your children’s growth and development, and help them perform better in school.

Components of a balanced lunch should contain foods from each of the five food groups:

  • Grains/starches – bread, tortillas, crackers, rice, pasta, quinoa, oats, couscous
  • Protein – lean meat/poultry, fish, eggs, beans/lentils, seeds or tofu
  • Vegetables or salad
  • Fruit
  • Dairy – milk, cheese or yogurt

But how do you come up with healthy meals your children will actually eat? For starters, include your children in planning and preparing their lunchtime foods. They will be likely to eat more and waste less. Start by looking through the grocery store sale papers together and have them help you add ingredients to your grocery list. Then have your children help prepare their lunches the night before to avoid contributing to the morning rush.

Try some new twists. A lunch does not need to include a traditional sandwich, although it can be a great choice. Other fun ideas may include:

  • Salads – Pasta, quinoa, couscous, bulgur wheat with plenty of vegetables (try broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, tomatoes, celery, onions, radishes or colorful peppers, plus some meat or cheese for protein)
  • Kebobs (food on safe sticks) – Go for chicken, beef, pork or cheese with pieces of fruit or vegetables in between
  • Wrap it, roll-it, fold it, slice it, dip it – Try spring rolls, using rice wrappers to surround leftover meat, rice/rice noodles, vegetables and a little sauce; quesadillas filled with cheese, vegetables and meat, if desired, pre-cooked and served cold; roll-ups with meat and vegetables, with or without a whole-grain tortilla; pinwheels (cheese, lean/nitrate-free deli meat, tomatoes, spinach) rolled tightly and sliced; dip hummus, tuna or chicken salad with pita triangles, pita chips or vegetables
  • Different types of sandwiches – Go for whole-wheat breads, use a cookie cutter to offer a new shape; sample mini-bagels filled with meat, cheese or hummus or two pancakes with sunflower butter in between
  • Sides – Whole fruits are recommended over fruit juices to avoid extra sugar, but if buying juice, look for 100 percent fruit juice; nut-free trail mix, popcorn, yogurt-topped with granola, cheese stick, veggie sticks or baked vegetable chips
  • For those who prefer a hot lunch – a good Thermos® will allow for soup (with lots of vegetables), macaroni and cheese with added vegetables or leftovers from the night before

Be sure to keep lunch food safe. It is important to practice safe food handling when packing a school lunch. If they are not refrigerated, after about two hours, the food can begin to grow harmful bacteria that may cause foodborne illnesses. To keep a lunchbox at a proper temperature, use an ice pack in an insulated lunch box or freeze a bottle of water overnight to function as an ice pack (it can be a great drink at lunch and through the afternoon too).

Keep in mind that limited time often is a factor in decreasing intake at lunch. This emphasizes the need for that next important period of intake—the after-school snack most kids need. So, whichever foods your children didn’t work in at lunch can become a snack. Just remember to leave room for dinner!

After-School, No-Bake Energy Bites

Note: Contains nuts


  • 2 cups pitted dates
  • 1 ½ cups of walnuts (or nuts of your choice)
  • 1 cup dried fruit of your choice (e.g., cherries, cranberries, apricot)
  • ½ cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp flaxseed or chia seeds
  • ½ cup chocolate chips (optional)


  • In a food processor, pulse the nuts and coconut until crumbly. Add in the rest of the ingredients until a sticky uniform batter is formed.
  • Scoop the dough and then roll between your hands to form balls.

Note: The energy balls could be altered to your taste by adding in or substituting ingredients in the recipe above. Oats and nut butter could be used instead of dates. Or, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds could be used.