Packing Lunches for School-Age Kids

Janis Hunter,
Home & Garden Information Center

When school starts back in the fall, parents face the dilemma of what to pack in their child’s lunch box. A child’s lunch should be a well-balanced selection of healthy foods and beverages that won’t spoil by lunchtime. It also should be fun, easy to prepare and easy to eat within their lunch break, which is usually 20 minutes or less.

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a nutritious lunch, but kids get tired of eating it everyday. When a child helps decide what to pack and assists in the preparation of their meal, they are more willing to try new foods that are nutritious and healthy.

A sandwich is a popular lunch box item, but a young child can eat only half a sandwich. In general, a whole sandwich is usually too much food for most boys under eight years old and girls under 11 years old. Other good lunch choices include: raw vegetable pieces (e.g. baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, slices cucumbers, celery, red or green bell peppers); crackers; low-fat cheese slices or cubes; string cheese; whole fruit; individual containers of low-fat pudding, and oatmeal-raisin cookies.

Use USDA’s MyPlate as your guide for building a healthy lunch. MyPlate calls for filling half a plate with vegetables and fruits and dividing the other half of the plate between grains and lean protein foods. Complete the meal with a serving of dairy, such as a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk. If your child’s lunch beverage is100% fruit juice or plain water occasionally, then pack some cheese or yogurt as a source of calcium. A soft drink is not a good beverage choice, because it contains a lot of calories but no nutrients.

Prepackaged lunches are convenient, but they are more expensive and often higher in fat, sugar and calories than meals prepared at home. Pack your own portion-controlled meals that are healthier, tastier, fresher and cheaper.

To reduce morning stress, decide on lunch menus for an entire week. Stock your kitchen with all the necessary ingredients, reusable containers, zip lock bags, plastic spoons and forks, and freezer packs to keep foods and beverages cold and safe.

Refer to HGIC 4114, Packing Lunches for School-Age Kids for kid-friendly lunch ideas and recipes that liven up brown bag lunches for the entire family so that food doesn’t end up in the trash can. HGIC 4246, Packing Lunches for Work or School contains more time-saving tips for packing appetizing, low-cost lunches.

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