How to make a healthy school lunch, plus 16 ideas to pack

July 26, 2019
How to make a healthy school lunch, plus 16 ideas to pack

If you’re like most parents, you start off the school year strong when it comes to packing healthy school lunches. Cut-up veggies at the ready in the fridge, whole grains always within reach, colorful fruit chunks shaped like hearts and stars — you’re killing it in the beginning! But as the school year progresses, life gets busier, your kids suddenly develop an aversion to the things they’ve eaten for three months and you hit a stand-still on creative lunches and healthy snacks for school.  

“Every year, it’s the same,” says mom of two Maile Jensen, of Newburgh, New York. “I have all these school lunch ideas saved to Pinterest, and then a few months in, we fall into the same boring pattern of turkey sandwiches and pretzels every day.” 

Want to avoid going full-on Groundhog Day with your kid’s lunches this year? Consider these impossible-to-resist healthy school lunch ideas, along with expert meal-making tips. The proof will be in your child’s empty lunchbox.  

What makes a healthy lunch?

“Protein foods are a must for a lunch meal,” says Jennifer Thompson, an advanced practice dietician with expertise in pediatric nutrition therapy at Johns Hopkins. “Lunch should also include a grain, ideally one fruit and one vegetable, and a calcium-rich food, such as milk, yogurt or cheese, which can also count as the protein source.” (This breakdown is also what MyPlate, the nutritional guidelines of the USDA, recommends.) 

And if you want to toss in a piece of dark chocolate or a cookie once in a while for cool parent points, feel free. But make sure it’s of the edible — not drinkable — variety.

“It’s perfectly fine to include a small sweet snack item on occasion,” says Thompson. “But when it comes to beverages, stick with water, low-calorie fruit juice or low-fat milk. Sodas and regular juices contain excessive amounts of sugar.” 

Healthy school lunch ideas

While you should always aim to get as many food groups as possible into each lunch, here are a few ideas to get you started. Feel free to put your own twist on them — as well as your own sweet love note.  

1. Cracker sandwiches

“Cracker sandwiches with cheese and deli meat or nut butters are a good option for a main,” says Thompson. 

Serve with a side of watermelon slices and carrots.  

2. Fruit kabobs

“Various in-season fruits, including pineapple or kiwi chunks, strawberries, watermelon or cantaloupe chunks and orange segments make great kabobs,” says Thompson. “And you can add a small container of plain yogurt with a little cinnamon to dip.”

3. Veggie kabobs

The fruit kabob’s less-sweet sister? Vegetable kabobs, of course. 

“Cucumbers, zucchini and cherry tomatoes are good together, and also are delicious to dip in a small container of hummus,” says Thompson. 

4. Turkey wraps

“A turkey wrap with shredded lettuce and/or sliced peppers is a great way to sneak veggies into lunch — and it adds a variety of colors, which kids love,” says pediatric and family nutritionist Andrea Berez

Pair with a side of grapes and a cheese stick to hit all five food groups.  

5. Pasta salad 

Pasta salad with veggies checks off both the grain and vegetable boxes. But add white beans and/or low-fat mozzarella cheese and you’re killing numerous birds with one stone. Serve with sliced strawberries on the side.  

6. The a la carte 

For kids who like to keep their food separate, this lunch of turkey slices, crackers, fruit and veggies (and a chocolate egg!) is perfect. 

“My kids go through phases when they don’t like sandwiches. Go figure!” Jensen says. “When one of them is going through an anti-bread spell, I just give them some lunch meat with crackers on the side. It’s deconstructed — and easier to make!” 

7. Hard-boiled eggs, chicken, cheese and tomatoes 

For a seriously protein-packed lunch, include chicken breast slices, a hard-boiled egg, cheese cubes and tomatoes. You can also sub out the cheese for a fruit, such as blueberries or raspberries. 

8. Ham wraps 

To get out of the traditional bread and deli meat rut, Thompson suggests using a tortilla, pita or even an English muffin. These yummy ham wraps come with a side of pretzels, peaches, strawberries, pistachios and mini rice cakes.  

9. Peanut butter and jelly 

According to Berez, mixing up textures is important. 

“Plan for both crunchy and smooth textures for contrast, such as a natural crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a sliced apple,” she says.

10. Guacamole and veggies

“Guacamole makes for a good dip for sliced veggies,” says Berez. 

Toss in a side of cut-up cantaloupe and light popcorn.  

11. Tuna sandwich 

Whether you’re making a traditional sandwich on bread or you’re using crackers, tuna makes for a great source of protein. Pair with jicama slices, kiwi and low-fat cheese cubes.  

12. Hummus and cucumber sandwiches 

For a veggie-protein main, make these mini hummus and cucumber sandwiches. Carrot sticks, a nectarine and nuts and dates go great on the side.  

13. Pasta with lentils  

Tiny pasta with lentils isn’t just yummy, it’s full of protein. Pair with snow peas and orange slices.  

14. Whole grain waffles 

Waffles for lunch? Why not?! You can put frozen waffles into your kiddo’s lunchbox and by lunch time, they’ll be thawed. Add a side of cheese or a hard-boiled egg for protein, along with strawberries and celery. Or, per Berez’s suggestion, make a “sandwich” with nut butter and sliced bananas.  

15. Turkey and cheese kabobs 

Sneak a little protein into your kid’s beloved kabobs by skewering deli meat with tomatoes and cheese. Carrots and raspberries would go great on the side.  

16. Quinoa salad

Quinoa salad with tomatoes and cucumbers and a side of blueberries and trail mix? Yum! 

Pro tip: Make extra, so you can steal some for yourself. Kids shouldn’t have all the fun. 

Read next: Try these 19 best kids lunchboxes

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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