Back to school season is right around the corner—please, contain your excitement! But after you go shopping for clothes, gear and everything else, chances are you’ll be thinking about packing a healthy school lunch every day especially if you (like me) think school lunches served in the cafeteria are some of the worst.
When you pack lunch with the right balance of nutrition, your kids will have the energy and focus they need to make it through the day.
Packing a healthy school lunch everyday is also an opportunity to switch things up and introduce a variety of foods that your kids can grow to love—even if they come home with it untouched at first.
From what foods to include, and which ones to leave out, of your kid’s lunch box, here are my best tips.
1. Start with fruit and vegetables
You might think that the foods you pack are healthy, but there’s some research that shows many parents actually miss the mark.
According to a July 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, only 27 percent of the lunches from more than 600 kids surveyed met at least three of the five National School Lunch Program standards, which include things like including whole grains and cutting sodium.
One of the best tips for packing a healthy school lunch is to start by including a fruit and a vegetable—which should make up 50 percent of your kid’s lunch box.
Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, which will help to satisfy your kid’s hunger and help him feel fuller longer.
2. Always include protein
Protein is important for your kid’s growth and development and meals with protein keep hunger at bay, balance your child’s blood sugar and give her enough energy to keep up at school.
Protein should make up 1/4 of a healthy school lunch but you’ll want to focus on lean, quality protein sources instead of processed foods like deli meats and cheeses or hot dogs.
Instead, stick with chicken, beef, turkey, beans, edamame, tempeh, eggs, fish and seafood.
3. Choose whole grains
Grains should make up about 1/4 of your kid’s lunch box but do your best to focus on whole grains like whole grain bread, pasta, brown rice, quinoa or another type of gluten-free grain.
Whole grains have vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and filling fiber, which are stripped from refined grains.
4. Add a source of calcium
The USDA MyPlate recommends milk or sources of dairy with meals because of the calcium kids need for strong teeth and bones.
If your kids are dairy-free, or you’re trying to avoid dairy, they can still get plenty of calcium from green leafy vegetables, chia seeds and other calcium-rich foods that aren’t dairy.
5. Upgrade your PB&J
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is an easy, affordable and a sure-fire way to get your picky eater to eat lunch.
Look at most brands of peanut butter however, and you’ll discover they’re filled with oils, sugar and salt. Most types of jelly and fruit preserves are high in sugar too.
Read labels and look for peanut butter or another type of nut butter with minimal ingredients. I like Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter or Justin’s. Instead of jelly, mash up fresh raspberries for a delicious, fiber-rich option.
6. Switch it up with seasonal eats
Do your best to help your kid “eat the rainbow” and offer a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Also, consider including in-season fruits and vegetables which are fresher and can be more affordable.
Cauliflower, cabbage, pumpkin and figs are great choices for the back to school season.
If your kid is a picky eater however, pack fruits and vegetables you know he’ll eat. After a few weeks, start to add in small amounts (a teaspoon will do) of new fruits and vegetables you’d like him to try.
If you’re consistent, he may eventually come around and they may even become his new favorite foods.
7. Get a cool lunch box
A bento box is a great way to pack a variety of foods and plenty of nutrition into a school lunch that your kid will love.
8. Stick to real food
Most processed, packaged foods are loaded with sodium, sugar, saturated fat, and artificial ingredients you can’t identify or pronounce. They also lack fiber and the vitamins and minerals kids need in their diets.
What’s more, experts say the more processed foods you eat and the longer you eat them, the higher your risk for inflammation, leaky gut syndrome, and a host of health conditions in the future.
Although you may not be able to completely eliminate processed foods in one fell swoop, try to replace fruit gummy snacks with fresh fruit or a bag of pretzels with seeds, for example.
9. Offer water instead of sugary drinks and juice
Juice boxes and pouches are convenient especially for school lunch but juice—yes, even the organic kind—doesn’t have a place in a child’s diet unless you don’t have access to fresh fruit or your kid won’t eat any fruit.
Drinking water is always a better alternative and a good habit to get your kids into. Yet if they snub plain water, add slices of cucumber, strawberries, or lemon into their water bottles for a little sweetness and hint of flavor.
10. Stick with it
There’s no doubt your kids will be envious of what other kids are eating for lunch, complain that they don’t like what you’re packing, or refuse to eat altogether.
It’s really frustrating and you’ll probably worry that your kid isn’t eating enough but stay consistent. Remember that your goal is to raise healthy kids who are willing to try—and eventually accept—a variety of healthy foods.
Studies show proper nutrition can prevent chronic health conditions, is linked to increase in cognitive function, attention and memory, higher achievement on standardized tests, athletic performance and improved sleep.
That’s not to say you can’t add in a cookie or a dessert, because part of learning how to eat healthy includes balance, but make it a special, occasional treat instead of an everyday thing.