5 Tips for Parents on Packing Nutritious Lunches Your Kids Will Eat

With the school year upon us it’s time for something many parents face on a daily basis: the dreaded challenge of getting your kids to eat healthy if they take a lunch to school.

“It’s a common dilemma for many parents,” said Dean Sidelinger, M.D., M.S.Ed., San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) child health medical officer. “You want to make sure your child is eating healthy but you also want to make sure they are actually eating the food you’re packing and preparing for them.”

A good base to start from is trying to include something from all five of the food groups, according to Naomi Billups, HHSA Public Health Services nutrition manager. “Balance is the key to providing a nutritious lunch that’s both healthy and interesting to your child.”

Here are five tips to help you pack a healthy lunch for your child.

1. Let your children help

It’s important to empower your kids in helping select what they eat according to Sidelinger. “Letting them choose what ultimately goes in their lunch lets them be a part of the decision,” he said. “You can take them grocery shopping with you and use that as an educational experience teaching about healthy choices and nutrition.”

Letting kids help you pack their lunch might mean a little extra time or mess, but they are more likely to eat it if they helped pack it and it’s another great way to spend some more one-on-one time with your child.

Packing a lunch for yourself identical to your child’s is a great way to model good nutrition habits and have a conversation about likes and dislikes when exploring new foods.

2. Make subtle switches

Sometimes small changes can be a big deal when it comes to eating more nutritious food. Billups suggests trying whole wheat bread instead of white bread. If your child doesn’t like wheat bread, maybe try ditching bread all together and try a whole wheat tortilla wrap.

“There are several healthy changes you can make that your child might be willing to try and they can add up to big differences over time,” said Billups. “Try using yogurt or low fat sour cream as a dip instead of ranch or instead of sending fruit juice or a sugar-laden drink, try packing water with a splash of fruit juice in it or cut-up fresh fruit to infuse flavor.”

3. Make your own versions of processed snacks or create your own

Just about any processed food can be made into a healthier version at home. You can make your own salsa and homemade baked tortilla chips, create homemade peanut butter without all the hydrogenated oils and sugar (but be aware if your school has nut allergy rules) or even pop tarts and homemade variations of Girl Scout cookies.

“You can find endless recipes online to make healthier versions of the processed snacks and treats your kids like in their lunches,” said Sidelinger. “And by making them yourself you have more control over the amount of fat, sugar, sodium and other additives that often make the processed versions less healthy.”

Creating homemade versions of Lunchables is easy using things like whole-grain crackers or pitas with lean meat and low-fat cheese with fresh fruit substituting for the candy found in store-bought versions.

RELATED: 5 Things You Should Eat Every Day

4. Make healthy foods fun to eat

If your children are young enough, getting creative with how you prepare their food might go a long way to getting them to eat healthier. Cookie cutters make easy work out of making things like lean lunch meat or cheese into fun shapes and the kids can help cut them out.

“Another way to make lunch fun is to have your child pick out a theme for the day and pick foods that fit into that theme,” said Billups. “It can be a color theme where all the foods are the same color or it could be a sports team theme or something like pirate day.”

5. Variety is the spice of life

Changing things up keeps lunch fun for kids. It can be easy to get in the routine of putting only their favorite foods in their lunch box, but trying new things can reveal new favorites and different options for lunch.

“Parents should strive to get a balanced diet with something from all five food groups represented,” said Sidelinger. “There are many ways to experiment with variety within the different food groups.”

Fruit – Fresh is always great, but if your child isn’t a fan, try dried fruit or fruit leathers with no additional sugar added

Dairy – String cheese is always great but a low sugar variety of single-serve yogurt is a great option if you can keep it chilled

Protein – Besides lean meats, hard boiled eggs and beans are great sources of protein or nuts (if your child’s school allows them)

Vegetables – Cut up fresh vegetables with low-fat dips are great. Baked veggie chips may make them feel like they’re eating chips, but a healthier version

Whole-grains – There are many ways to get a whole grain serving in a lunch from tortillas or wraps to pitas and crackers

Tom Christensen is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact