How a Dietitian Got a Passing Grade in Packing Healthy School Lunches
By Kary Woodruff
Sep 12, 2017
Updated Jul 13, 2023
5 min read
When my daughter first got to the age that she needed a school lunch packed each day, I became inordinately excited. Perhaps my tendency to geek out over these things stems from my job as a dietitian, but I was sure this was going to be a fun adventure.
That first school morning I had packed her the quintessential peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some strawberries, some baby carrots, and milk. I thought: “Wow — this school lunch thing is easy!”
That feeling lasted until that night when I opened her lunchbox. The sandwich hadn’t been touched, there was one bite taken out of the carrots, a few strawberries had been eaten, and I had a cranky 5-year-old because she hadn’t eaten all day. I had to go back to the drawing board.
So, I put my dietitian hat on and thought: What really needs to be in there and what does my daughter actually like?
I thought about the meal planning tool I use with literally all of my patients – the My Plate tools from the United States Department of Agriculture, otherwise known as the dietary guidelines. My Plate says at each meal we should have a complex carbohydrate, a lean protein, and fruits and vegetables.
I know there’s nothing magical about traditional lunch foods – AKA PB&J – and really I just needed to pack my daughter one of each of the groups.
So, I got creative. I made a list of proteins, a list of complex carbohydrates, and a list of fruits and vegetables. Each morning now when I pack my daughters’ school lunches, they get to pick what they want from each group.
Sometimes the combination can seem quite random – they’ll have a plain Greek yogurt with berries, veggies and hummus, and some whole-grain pretzels – but their meals are always balanced. Best yet, my daughters almost always come home with at least half eaten lunches, and usually mostly eaten lunches. I take that as a win!
Here are some friendly reminders about each of the food groups: When I refer to complex carbohydrates I’m referring to longer-lasting sources of energy (carbohydrates = energy). Examples include whole-grain breads/crackers/pasta/tortillas, brown rice, quinoa, and starchy veggies like potatoes/sweet potatoes, peas, corn, winter squashes (acorn squash, butternut squash, etc.).
By choosing whole grains over white grains, your kids will be fuller longer, will be getting more fiber, and won’t have the spike and then the rapid crash in energy they’d get from, say, Frosted Flakes cereal.
Lean proteins include lean meats (deli turkey/chicken), nuts/seeds, soy (tofu, edamame), eggs, dairy, and beans. Fruits and veggies are usually more straightforward; I just recommend fruits with no added sugar (fresh fruit instead of fruit cups, for example) and not using juices as a serving of fruit (they’re more like a sugar-sweetened drink).
Here are some examples I use for packing my daughters’ school lunches, but you can create your own list according to your child’s preferences!
Fruits & Vegetables
Sweet potato fries
Corn (my daughters love it plain!)
Whole-wheat bagels & English muffins
Whole-wheat pasta salad
Whole-wheat mac n’cheese
Flatbread with hummus
Tostada with refried beans & cheese
Nuts – just plain, lightly salted
Nut butters – peanut butter, almond butter, etc.
Plain/lightly sweetened Greek yogurt
Low-fat cottage cheese
Fresh fruit – bananas, berries, apple slices, grapes, melon, oranges/mandarin oranges, etc.
Unsweetened dried fruit – raisins, mangos, bananas, etc.
No-sugar-added fruit leather
Fresh veggies – baby carrots, sugar snap peas, celery, jicama
Freeze-dried veggies – Trader Joes makes great dried beets!
Packets – applesauce and other creative fruit/veggie combos are available
Here’s hoping you get a passing grade in packing healthy school lunches!