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The ultimate lunchbox packing list

July 26, 2019
The ultimate lunch box packing list

Breakfast may hold the “most important meal of the day” title, but when it comes to providing kids with fuel for busy school days, lunch carries equal weight. 

“A well-rounded lunch with protein is key for helping kids get through afternoon classes and after-school activities,” says Jennifer Thompson, an advanced practice dietician with expertise in pediatric nutrition therapy at Johns Hopkins. “Also, it will help prevent overeating later in the day.”

Want to pack a healthier lunch for your child each day but don’t know where to begin (or feel like you don’t have time)? Here’s a full list of expert-approved foods to always have on hand so you or your kids can make quick, easy, well-balanced lunches, along with tips for getting kids to eat said lunches. 

The makings of a healthier school lunch

Pediatric and family nutritionist Andrea Berez recommends using MyPlate as a guideline when packing your kiddo’s lunch. MyPlate easily lays out and gives options for the five recommended types of foods to have in each meal:  

  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Protein

  • Grains

  • Dairy 

“Begin with a selection from as many food groups [from MyPlate] as you can,” Berez says. “Choose whole grain breads, low-fat and low-sodium luncheon meats for protein, and include at least one serving of fruit in every lunch.” 

When it comes to veggies, Berez recommends either cutting them up as a side or packing them into a sandwich. And if your child is able to have dairy, she advises sticking to low-fat options of milk, cheese or yogurt.  

Of course, the children who will (or who can) happily eat a serving from every food group are few and far between. So, don’t sweat it too much if your child picks the turkey off of his sandwich each day and only eats the cheese. 

“It’s OK to have calcium-rich dairy foods, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, count as your child’s protein source at lunch,” says Thompson. 

Whatever you do, just don’t skip the protein altogether because it helps keep hunger at bay and gives kids sustained energy for the rest of the school day.

The ultimate lunchbox packing list 

While making the same exact lunch each day for your kids isn’t recommended, Thompson and Berez, respectively, advise having a selection of the following foods in your house at all times (a few from each group!) for a variety of well-balanced lunch options. Keep a list of these foods in the kitchen for each mix-n-match lunch packing for the whole family.

Proteins:

  • Beans

  • Lentils

  • Lean, low-sodium deli meats, such as turkey and chicken breast

  • Water-packed tuna fish

  • Hard-boiled eggs

  • Hummus

  • Guacamole

  • Nut butters, such as peanut or almond 

 Vegetables:

  • Cucumbers

  • Peppers (in a variety of colors!)

  • Cherry tomatoes

  • Zucchini

  • Carrots

  • Celery

  • Snow peas

  • Jicama

  • Green beans

  • Lettuce

Fruits: 

  • Natural fruit sauces, such as applesauce

  • Dehydrated or dried fruits

  • Apple slices

  • Orange segments

  • Grapes

  • Blueberries 

  • Kiwi 

  • Cantaloupe 

  • Strawberries

  • Pineapple

  • Watermelon

  • Honeydew 

Grains:

  • Cooked pasta

  • Quinoa

  • Pita bread

  • English muffins

  • Crackers

  • Tortillas

  • Pretzels

  • Light popcorn

  • Whole grain chips

  • Rice cakes

  • Whole grain waffles and pancakes

Dairy:

  • Low-fat cheese slices or cheese sticks

  • Greek yogurt

  • Low-fat veggie dips

  • Milk

 

Tips for making lunch prep even easier

In addition to always having an arsenal of go-to foods on hand, here’s some expert advice for making school lunch prep even easier:

  • Don’t wait until the last minute. “Prepare foods on the weekend to save time during the week, and pre-package some items in bags or BPA-free plastic containers for easy packing,” says Berez. “You can also use your freezer to pre-package single servings, which become handy when you run out of something or can’t make it to the grocery store. Also, always pack lunches the night before! It will make a big difference in your stress level, and you’ll probably end up packing healthier lunches, too.” 

  • Have a running shopping list. Berez suggests having a running shopping list in your phone at all times to avoid having to carve out a chunk of time each week to make a long list. And if your kids are older, consider using a shared shopping app, so everyone can add to it.  

  • Use a bento box. Both Thompson and Berez agree: Bento boxes do it better. You only have one container to work with (and wash!). Plus, “Using bento-style containers allow kids to see their food options all at once,” Thompson says. “Also, they make for less damage during transportation!”

Ideas for getting kids to eat a healthier lunch 

What’s worse than your child bringing home a completely full lunchbox? Your child bringing home a completely full lunchbox after you took the time to prepare a vibrant, healthy lunch. If your school lunches are often met with an eye roll (and food that goes into the garbage), these tips may get your child to eat what you pack each day:

  • Try different flavors of the same food. If your child doesn’t like plain turkey or hummus, maybe they’ll like mesquite wood smoked turkey or roasted pepper hummus. Don’t rule a food out if your child doesn’t warm to it the first time. “Sometimes it takes more than 10 times of trying a food to appreciate it,” says Thompson. 

  • Sneak in veggies. If your kiddo isn’t one for cut-up carrots and snow peas, Berez says, “Try putting shredded lettuce or sliced peppers into a turkey wrap.”

  • Make food visually appealing. “Bright colors and different shapes can help get kids to eat,” says Thompson. “To ensure food all stays separate, use a bento box.”

  • Surprise them. Berez recommends flipping the script on classic lunches. “Add a twist to an old sandwich favorite, such as substituting honey for jelly or using whole grain breakfast alternatives, like pancakes or waffles, as the ‘bread.’” 

  • Have your child help prepare. “Getting kids involved in all aspects of the meals and food items is key!” Thompson says. “Having them be involved in the meal prep and shopping can help provide ownership, as well as gardening fresh fruits and vegetables, if that is an option.”    

  • Give kids some lunch authority. Kids are more likely to eat their lunch if they had a say in it, so Berez recommends giving two options for lunch daily. Also, check in at the end of the day to see what they liked and didn’t like. 

  • Add a personal touch. Need we even say it? Cute notes make everything better. “Include a special note, sticker or joke to bring a smile at lunchtime,” says Berez. “Pack a character napkin to add pizzazz, use decorative plastic bags or containers, or decorate your child’s lunch bag with stickers. Lunch always tastes better when it’s in a fun package!”

If your child gives some pushback in the beginning, don’t worry. It may take multiple times of trying a new food before your child comes around. And in the meantime, you can enjoy easier, less stressful lunch prep. Win-win. 

Read next: Easy lunchbox recipe ideas

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