Back to School Lunch Ideas

It’s that time of year again! Summer is coming to a close, and families are gearing up for school to start! As students are headed back to school, many parents are thinking about what to feed their children for lunch.

School Meals

Consider utilizing the school meal program for a healthy meal option. As a mom of an elementary school student and a Registered Dietitian, I’ve found school meals to be a great option for our family. One thing I love about having my daughter eat “hot” lunch as she calls it, is that she can enjoy a warm meal and get food from all five food groups, and we don’t have to think about packing her lunch. School meals must meet certain nutrition standards. Did you know that all grains served in school meal program are whole grain-rich? In addition, students are offered a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the week. Reduced price and free meals are available for families that qualify. Reach out to your school district’s food service department to learn more.

For families who choose to pack their child’s lunch here are some things to consider.

Image: Choose My Plate graphic.

Use MyPlate as a Guide

Try to include food from all five food groups to better ensure that your child is receiving the nutrition they need to support their growing bodies. Consider including fresh, frozen, dried or canned fruits and vegetables. There are a variety of grains, such as bread, crackers, pita pockets, pasta and tortillas, that can be included as part of a healthy meal. Choose whole grains whenever possible. Include a variety of protein options from both meat (turkey, chicken, beef and pork) and non-meat sources (eggs, hummus, beans, cheese and yogurt). Don’t forget a cup of milk to wash lunch down. Most schools will sell a carton of milk to your child to complement the lunch they brought from home.

Plan Ahead & Get Kids Involved

Make a list of possible food options for lunches, and let your child choose what to include in their lunch. If children have a say in what is included, they will be more likely to eat it. Keeping a running list of lunch options will make grocery shopping and meal packing less stressful and will help ensure greater variety.

Food Safety is important!

Not only is a lukewarm meal unappetizing, but it can be dangerous as children are more susceptible to food-borne illness. Several hours will pass from the time your child leaves home until it is time to eat lunch. It’s important that cold food stays cold. To keep food cold, use an insulated lunch bag. Keep the lunch bag in the fridge until right before your child leaves for school, and throw in a frozen ice pack as they leave.

Start this school year on the right foot by ensuring your child has access to healthy foods, whether that be through the school lunch program or foods packed from home! Looking for healthy breakfast ideas? Check out these ideas for Fueling up with Breakfast.

Jill Ladd MPH, RD, LD

— Contributed by Jill Ladd, MPH, RD, LD