How to Pack a Healthy School Lunch Your Kid Will Actually Eat

How to Pack a Healthy School Lunch Your Kid Will Actually Eat
Photo: Tim Masters, Shutterstock

The pandemic not only altered the way our kids learn, it also changed how they ate. Gone were the days of prepping lunches the night before or morning of school — now we were making upwards of three meals a day on the fly, even as we balanced virtual learning and working from home. But now that some districts are returning to in-person learning, kids are once again brown-bagging it to school, leaving parents wondering: Do we even remember how to pack a school lunch anymore?

“I fell into this pattern where we would do a brunch or lunch as we would do on the weekend, plus a regular dinner,” says Stephanie Conner, host of the award-winning podcast Kiddos in the Kitchen. “If anyone was hungry before those times, everyone knows where the snacks are. I couldn’t handle three meals a day.”

But now we have to change our mindset once again, thinking ahead not only about what our kids will actually eat at any given moment, but what will give them the energy they need to make it through the school day, will stay fresh, and will be sufficiently healthy.

Conner, who also writes about how she helps her son — who has food allergies, including dairy, peanuts, and soy — build a healthy relationship with food on her Kiddos Cook blog, shares some tips on packing a healthy lunch so it doesn’t have to be a chore.

Keep school lunches simple (and include a note)

When in-person learning resumed for her son, it was another big shift for Conner’s family. They had to restructure their eating habits once again. Typically at the beginning of the school year, Conner would spend the weekend putting together lunch like chicken and rice or spaghetti in a thermos.

But when her son came home from school, she noticed he had barely eaten it. It wasn’t that he didn’t like what she prepared; with pandemic precautions in place, her son’s school reduced his mealtime significantly.

“He really wasn’t that hungry at lunch, and he only has 15 minutes to eat,” she says. “It was more than he could eat in the given time frame.”

She searched for ways to make meals that would not only be easy to make each morning but would be something her son could eat in the short time he had. She adds that your child likely won’t remember how much time you spent making their lunch — it’s the little things you do that make it special.

“If you’re going to spend extra time on lunch, write your kid a note,” she says. “My kid loves to get notes for his lunch. I had fallen out of that habit, and now he asks me why I don’t do it anymore.”

Snacky foods and leftovers are your friend

It’s easy for parents to think about lunch like dinner and put a protein in the middle of the plate. But Conner says one thing that’s worked for her when preparing her son’s lunch in the morning is arranging his food like an Oscar Mayer Lunchables, only healthier. She reserves one segment for protein, such as pepperoni or ham. She fills another with fresh fruit and another with a snack like crackers or pretzels.

“It’s just a simple combination of something he can actually finish, and I can always mix it up to be something different every day,” she says.

And with Conner shifting her focus from lunch back toward breakfast and dinner, there are usually leftovers that make for a great midday meal the next day.

“Things like cold chicken or pizza are perfect for lunch,” she says.

Let kids help choose and prepare their lunch

There are certain days when Conner will put a juice or a prepackaged snack into her son’s lunch, which makes him just as excited as when he finds a note from her.

She also recommends that parents ask their kids to help them prepare their lunches the night before or accompany them on a trip to the grocery store to help pick out what they would like to eat for lunch or other meals for the week.

“He might pick out something I wouldn’t think to get him,” she says. “Whether it’s helping to pick out stuff for their lunches or any meal, giving them that agency is so simple and powerful. They get to see where their food comes from and have some control over what they’re going to eat that week. The control is what they want.”

Of course, if you’d rather avoid the chore entirely, it’s worth noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has extended free meal programs for all children until June 2022.

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