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Tips for Healthy School Lunches

When planning out healthy school lunches for your kids, no doubt you consider balancing all of the food groups.  You aim to include the yummy stuff you know they’ll eat – and maybe a sneaky veggie, you hope they’ll try.

Without fail, we use Bentgo boxes to pack our healthy school lunches, because they force us to include a variety of foods. Simply in the way they are built, we have to pack a few different options. It’s a great reminder to offer a bunch of yummy choices to provide a great and balanced meal.

Bentgo box for healthy school lunches
How to Help Balance Your Childs Plate with Healthy School Lunches

Building Healthy School Lunches

You know your child better than anyone else, so when it comes down to it, the meals you pack for school should line up with the needs of your child.

  • What are their favorite foods?
  • Which fruits and veggies are their go-to choices?
  • Could there be a fun surprise this week?

Think about what they’ll eat – and include a great variety! 

I think the worst trap for parents is when they overthink it by trying to switch up the “normal routine”.  If your kids eat certain foods at home, they’ll likely eat them at school.  Pack those for healthy school lunches!

Hopefully, your school also sends home the leftover food from lunchtime, as this gives parents a chance to see what was or wasn’t enjoyed!  Then, you can easily shift your plan from there.

Right now, we have two notecards inside a kitchen cupboard.  One includes a list of easy entrée options (think: grilled cheese, pizza, turkey and cheese roll-ups, etc.) and then the other has a child-specific list for what grow foods each prefers.  If you’re up for the challenge, try out our list of 25 non-sandwich lunch ideas for back-to-school.

My daughter, for example, is all about vegetables right now.  So, she wants her grow foods to be a selection of tomato slices, carrots, or sautéed mushrooms (I know…what!?).  My 3-year-old son, however, prefers fruit – so his grow foods are usually berries, grapes, or orange slices.

We just pack what we know they like.  Truly, that makes all the difference.

Grow Foods and Sweet Treats

Grow Foods

So, what are those grow foods I keep mentioning?  Just good and healthy options! 

Again, this will vary from family-to-family.  Our definition will depend on the types of food we serve in our homes.  But, for the most part, we believe grow foods are those foods that bring something beneficial to the table.

A protein?  Awesome!  A fruit or veggie that is full of great nutrients and vitamins?  Definitely!  A complex carb?  Okay! 

You wouldn’t take a bag of chips and call it a grow food.  (But, side note, you could most certainly have a bag of chips as a fun snack or as a side choice with any meal.)

So – for us, it is all about that balance.

Sweet Treats

…and that’s the truth for sweet treats, too!

This one really doesn’t need to be defined, now does it?   But a sweet treat is just a yummy option that would typically qualify as dessert.

Cakes, cookies, brownies, pies, candy, ice cream, ice pops, cake pops, etc. etc. etc. – those beauties are all sweet treats.  And they are ALL ALLOWED.   

We encourage our children to eat a balance of delicious food, but that is ultimately up to them.

(Don’t freak out on me here.  We absolutely provide the full gamut of grow foods, fun snacks, sweet treats, and everything in between.  If it seems the kids are sticking to one category, we might encourage them to pick something else.  But, we have never had an issue with the kids only eating sweet treats all day.  It seems when it’s not restricted, it just doesn’t seem as enticing.)

Food Rules – or the Lack Thereof

In our house, we like to give our kids the reins with their nutrition.  We present them with lots of great choices, but what they eat is definitely in their control.

Kids have the ability to listen to their bodies and to know when they’re done eating.  They can listen for satiety.  And they are very aware of what they’re craving.  Deep down, they know what their bodies need.

Do we have afternoons where the kids only want snacks?  Of.  Course. 

But, believe it or not, this happens way less often than you would think.

With practice, they know what makes them feel good.  They’ve learned that eating a good balance of foods helps them to have the energy to run and play and feel satisfied.  They also know that eating just a bunch of snacks and sweet treats hurts their bellies.

We think it’s important that the kids learn these lessons (with a little guidance) on their own. 

With that, we are adamantly against the clean your plate club.  We do not think kids should be forced to eat everything on their plate before having dessert.  In fact, we go so far as to serve the sweet treat with the meal more often than not.

So, as far as healthy school lunches go, this means our children might eat “out of order”.  They might grab a gummy worm before they tackle their cheese quesadilla and side of baby carrots.    There might even be a day when my little ones decide to skip a grow food altogether – and that is 100% okay with us.

Communicating with Your Kids’ School

Listen, we LOVE my kids’ school.  It is the best place for our children, and we are so happy that we have a spot there.  But, no matter how much the teachers and staff want what is best for my little ones, they don’t know everything that goes on in our home.  How could they!?

So, you have to open up those lines of communication early on!  Be willing to talk to your child’s teacher or whichever adult is present with your children during lunchtime.

As a note:  we don’t believe in overstepping into a teacher’s territory unless absolutely necessary.  As a former teacher myself, our family has full respect for the rules of the classroom.

That being said, nutrition guidelines and “food rules” are a major talking point for our household.  So, it is very important to us that the school knows exactly where our expectations lie in terms of the nutritional framework of our kids!

All we ask is that the staff not worry about what our children choose to eat from their lunchbox.  Rather than encouraging them to eat certain foods first or only going for the sweet treat after everything else is finished, we just want the school staff members to understand that our kids are in control of that part of their day.  We send in healthy school lunches, so the kids can handle it after that.

Again, this all goes back to us wanting the kids to learn how to adequately listen to their own bodies.  We want them to respect their satiety cues and to eat in a way that feels right to them without responding to external food rules.

Fortunately for us, our school has been very willing to work with our family’s needs.  They understand that we have our own little system in place, so the kids are good to go during lunchtime.

If you are not in the same position, however, you might find this lunchbox printable by The Feeding Doctor particularly helpful.  It simply asks that the staff member assisting your child respect your little one’s ability to eat whatever they desire in a way they desire.

Once you have a rhythm and routine in place with your child and their school, we have tons of other fun lunchbox printables available! Make that lunch extra awesome, mama!


Healthy School Lunches:  All In

Your healthy school lunches can vary every single day!  They can include all kinds of great and delicious choices and they can be completely different than whatever all the other moms packed this week.

That’s all more than okay.

Do what feels right for your family.  Get your kids fed.  Try to give them a yummy balance of the good stuff.

You’re doing great.

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Join us on Pinterest for more thoughts and ideas about Raising Littles and School Days!

Tips for making healthy school lunches

About the Author

The Merry Kate

Katie Johansen is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University with her M.A.Ed in Children’s Literature.  She spent 6 years as an elementary school teacher in South Florida before transitioning to stay-at-home #momlife.  Now, it’s all things PB&J – with an extra large cup of coffee on the side.

Healthy School Lunches: Tips and Tricks

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