Healthy School Lunches: Ideas for the Whole Week

Yes, you can find a sack lunch that your kids will like and that’s healthy, too—even if they don’t know it!

July 23, 2018

healthy school lunches

If you commonly open your child’s lunch box after school only to find half of its contents untouched, don’t despair! Sally Sampson, founder of the family cooking magazine ChopChop, has some tips to make school lunch planning and prep a little easier. We also asked Sampson to suggest kid-tested ideas for healthy school lunches, then grouped them into mix-and-match lists. See “Lunch Box Boogie”, below, for a fun way to put together some back-to-school lunch menus.

Involve your child in preparing his own healthy school lunches.

“Kids who cook have a more diverse palate,” says Sampson, who has authored 21 cookbooks. “Cooking” could be as simple as tossing a salad or stuffing almonds into dates. Whatever the dish, Sampson has found that children are more likely to eat it when they’ve helped make it.

Don’t force your child to eat a certain food.

If your child is reluctant to try something new, just keep including it in her lunch box. Eventually, she might decide on her own to give it a taste.

Combine new foods with favorite ones.

Doing this can help overcome some kids’ resistance to eating unfamiliar or just plain unliked ingredients. “If you pair the hated food with the beloved food,” Sampson says, “it creates a conflict, and they’ll want to try it.”

Shift (gradually) to healthier versions of familiar foods.

Switching from standard pasta to whole wheat, for example, or from whole milk to low-fat is a relatively simple way to boost kids’ intake of nutritious foods. To transition more easily to new flavors, start by substituting a quarter of the total amount with the healthier food. Then, slowly increase that quantity until the original food is phased out.

Apply the morning clothes principle to healthy school lunches.

The popular trick that makes it easier for some parents to get their kids dressed before school—offering shirt A or shirt B instead of the whole closet—works just as well with meals. “Do you want the apple or the banana with your lunch today?” lets children express their preferences without opening up the entire kitchen pantry for discussion.

Have a variety of food items readily available.

This is a good one for both parents and kids. And it’s useful both for healthy school lunches and healthy after-school snacks. For example, wash and cut up a batch of strawberries and leave the bowl on the counter. That way, you’ll reach for those first if your child needs a little something extra in her lunch bag or you need a quick bite before dinner.

Lunch Box Boogie

Choose one item from each column or read across a row for well-rounded and fun healthy school lunches. A frozen juice box or insulated pack is great for keeping lunch bags cold.


Chicken salad
With a twist: Season the chicken with tarragon for a new flavor
Bell peppers with cherry tomatoes
With a twist: Roast along with zucchini and squash for a dish that’s good hot or cold
Banana-cocoa bread
Tuna salad
With a twist: Try low-fat yogurt instead of mayo to moisten the tuna
Whole grain crackers
Fresh fruit kebabs
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
With a twist: Spread the peanut butter on a rice cake or corn cakes instead of bread
Lightly steamed (still crunchy) green beans or shelled edamame beans
Carrot cupcake
Vegetarian or turkey chili
Corn bread
Dates stuffed with almonds
Hummus or white bean dip
With a twist: Make a salad instead by sautéing whole chickpeas or white beans with greens like spinach or kale
Pita chips and raw veggies
1 or 2 squares of dark chocolate
Sesame noodles
Frozen grapes
Corn and black bean salad
Ranch dressing and veggie sticks
Dried cherries and golden raisins

Originally posted in 2011 and updated regularly.

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