The best healthy school lunch foods are surprisingly easy and fun to make and can have kids of all ages excited for the lunchtime bell to ring. Are you thinking, “But, my kid won’t eat lunch if it’s healthy!” It’s worth giving these healthy school lunch ideas a try, as results from the Healthy Communities Study showed when kids recognise their lunch as healthy, they are more likely to eat it. From Registered Holistic Nutritionists and fellow parents who are nutritional experts, here are 10 tips to pack a better lunch box and some inspiring healthy school lunch ideas.
According to research, there are many reasons why a healthy school lunch, which is nutritionally dense, and high in energy is beneficial for kids. In the United States, a recent movement towards healthier school lunch programs has been propelled by evidence that the quality of what kids eat at school impacts their academic performance. Growing evidence links the consumption of fruits and vegetables with better mental health, including a 2021 study reported in the British Medical Journal. With childhood obesity on the rise, it may seem odd to suggest high-energy lunches. Scientific evidence has linked a lower rate of obesity among those who consume more energy early to midday, than later in the day. A group of researchers noted the positive effects of a high-energy school lunch among overweight and obese people. Skipping lunch was linked to greater adiposity amongst teenagers in a Polish study.
The trick to creating the best healthy school lunch is planning. When easy, healthy ingredients are on hand, packing a healthy school lunch is easier. Plus, add in a dash of inspiring ideas, and suddenly your lunch box blues are cured. Start with a grocery list!
Better yet, see if you can find these vegetables in a fun, finger-food, kid-sized versions, such as cherry tomatoes, mini bell peppers, and clementine. For foods like cauliflower, carrots, and celery, you can chop these up before the school week starts, and have them ready in the fridge to pack in their lunch boxes.
From grapes to blueberries, plums to apples, there are many fruits that can easily be tossed into a lunch box quickly, after a quick rinse and pat dry. Pineapple, cantaloupe, and watermelon can easily be chopped into bite-sized chunks before the school week starts and stored in the fridge for an easy, healthy school lunch box addition.
Think beans in soup, crispy tofu cubes with noodles, or hemp seeds on the end of a cut banana, for vegetarian options worth adding to make your school lunch healthier.
Kids can feel rushed at lunch and even more so at recess. That leaves them looking to stuff their faces quickly, seeking something with quick energy to help them keep going. From store-bought dried fruit leathers to homemade bliss balls, be sure to have some quick, nutritious snacks handy to pack in school lunches.
With your grocery list made and your kitchen stocked with quick and nutritious items, here are some tips to packing a healthier school lunch box:
A study found that school-aged kids eat more fruits and vegetables when there are at least 20 minutes of seated time to eat. Consider how long it may take your child to eat the lunch your packing. Would cutting hard to chew items into smaller pieces make it easier for them to eat? Would a spoon or fork be helpful? Could it be put in a container they can pour into their mouths instead of trying to pick up small things with their fingers, one by one?
When lunches are filled with bright colours, it’s much more appealing, so don’t shy away from including lots of different vegetables and fruit to add some vibrance. A whole head of cauliflower probably won’t make your kids excited, but if you chop up the cauliflower into small, popcorn-sized bites and include in a few cherry tomatoes, snap peas, and baby carrots that vegetable suddenly becomes a rainbow.
Sandwiches are so last year, says your kid with an eye roll. Try a whole grain wrap, sliced into pinwheels. Better yet, think outside the box and into the thermos. For those looking for a more ‘refined’ healthy lunch box, try a charcuterie board style main, featuring seedy crackers, hummus dip, and veggie sticks. The great void of a thermos can be filled with many things you can make in bulk on the weekend, such as soups, stews, pasta, and chili.
Fill that thermos with the extras you made the night before for dinner. This is a definite hit if dinner was tacos or your kids’ favourite Asian noodle bowls!
If your kid is bringing home uneaten school lunches, it’s possible that’s because they didn’t know the food was there. Little kids do better with bento-style lunch boxes that can feature little bites of lots of things, allowing them to graze to their heart’s content throughout the day. Older kids may prefer to either make their own lunches so they know what’s in there or have them go through their lunch before they pack it in their school bag.
A sweet bite is a great addition to every lunchbox. Chia pudding, energy balls, or homemade cookies can be sweet nutritional goodies. Since packaged sweets contain a lot of sugar, consider other options. In bento-style boxes, adding in a few gummy bears can be a fun way to show your child that treats can be part of regular eating. When sweets are only offered as rewards or are restricted, kids can start to create poor relationships with them, that don’t foster good food habits later in life.
Looking for more inspiration on making healthy school lunches? Check out these Canadian experts’ inspiring food ideas and great insights into how and why kids eat the way they do:
Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental well-being: a cross-sectional study. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 2021; bmjnph-2020-000205.
Student perception of healthfulness, school lunch healthfulness, and participation in school lunch: The Healthy Communities Study. J Nutr Educ Behav 2019 May; 51(5): 623-628.
Effects of longer seated lunch time on food consumption and waste in elementary and middle school-aged children. JAMA Netw Open 2021 Jun;4(6):e2114148.
Beneficial effect of high energy intake at lunch rather than dinner on weight loss in healthy obese women in a weight loss program: a randomized clinical trial. AJCN 2016 Oct;104(4):982-989.
Skipping breakfast and a meal at school: its correlation in adiposity context. Report .rom the ABC of Healthy Eating Study of Polish Teenagers. Nutrients 2019 Jul; 11(7): 1563.
Contributed by Allison Tannis
Known for her deliciously geeky words, Allison’s articles and books are read around the world by those curious about where to find the most delicious (and nutritious) places to stick their forks. More at allisontannis.com. Follow @deliciouslygeeky.