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Back to School, Back to Healthy Sack Lunches

The new school year is fast approaching. And with the new classes comes a whole new season of packing lunches and making sure kids are fueled for success. You may find yourself facing the same challenges year after year: How can you avoid packing the same items every day, while giving kids good nutritious choices. These tips can help.

Think in Categories of Needed Nutrients

It’s common to get stuck on the go-to tradition of sandwiches. Instead, think “outside the loaf” and focus on packing one item from each of the four nutrient categories – Protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. (Note, fruits and vegetables are each their own category.)

These are examples: 


  • Eggs (hard boiled or scrambled to be put into a burrito)
  • Nuts (almonds or cashews)
  • Seeds (sunflower or chia)
  • Nut butters (such as no sugar-added peanut butter or almond butter)
  • Beans
  • Dairy (cheese sticks, cream cheese or shredded cheese)
  • Hummus
  • Edamame
  • Low-sugar Greek yogurt
  • Rotisserie chicken meat
  • Left-over ground turkey or lean beef

Whole Grains

  • Whole wheat bread or small bagel
  • Whole wheat crackers
  • Whole wheat pretzels
  • Popcorn
  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Rice cakes
  • Corn or whole wheat tortillas
  • Low-sugar whole grain cereal or granola


  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Clementine oranges
  • Grapes
  • Pineapple
  • Frozen mango chunks


  • Cucumber slices (try different seasonings on top)
  • Carrot sticks
  • Red pepper sticks
  • Mini peppers
  • Salsa
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Radishes

For all items, include anything your kids like, but don’t be afraid to introduce new ones. Another hint: Instead of bags, consider using fun containers that have dividers. These make packing lunches easier and provide a visual reminder to include a group from each category. 

Tie it All Together

Next, what does it look like when these four nutrient groups come together? Here are some lunch ideas that go beyond bread and sandwich meat:

  • Whole wheat bagel with cream cheese and cucumber slices, and a handful of strawberries and cashews
  • Celery with no sugar-added peanut butter with raisins on top (also known as “ants on a log”), apple slices, pretzels, and a cheese stick
  • Low-sugar Greek yogurt, plain cheerios, banana, and a few mini peppers
  • Hard-boiled eggs, rice cakes, cheese sticks, blueberries, and sugar snap peas
  • Asian lettuce wraps (large lettuce leaves and leftover ground turkey with Asian seasonings), red pepper slices, and grapes
  • Hummus with carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes, whole wheat crackers, and cheese stick
  • Cold quesadilla  with salsa and a small scoop of guacamole, cucumbers and frozen mango chunks 
  • Chicken noodle soup in a thermos, radishes, and a pear with a slice of cheese
  • Leftover rice and beans or lentils in a thermos, celery, and a Clementine orange
  • Whole wheat pasta, edamame, carrots and an apple

Remember the Drink

Another area that can be tempting for kids is unhealthy drinks.Remember that juice boxes can have tons of added sugars. Water, seltzer or plain milk (or alternative dairy drink) are better options.

Get the Kids Involved

Research shows that when children help and are invested in their food choices, whether it is through shopping, gardening, prepping or cooking, they are more likely to eat healthy foods. Based on this, ask for help! When shopping, let them pick out a new and interesting fruit or vegetable to try in their lunch. (Star fruit or purple cauliflower anyone?) Or, find a new cookbook at the library or recipes online. Make something new and healthy together and put the leftovers in their lunch. Or start a garden at home, even if it’s just a container garden or window sill herb garden. You may be shocked at what your children will start loving.

Prepare for New Choices

Finally, know that packing a nutritious meal every day can be a lot of work, but it can be just as challenging once your child outgrows sack lunches and has the ability to eat at school restaurants or go off-campus with friends. If this is common in your family, you can still help your child make good choices.

Empower your teen to look at online menus. Show them how many calories and fat grams certain items have. Explain what grams of sugar look like in real life -- every 4 grams equal 1 teaspoon of sugar. A large fountain Coke has 80 grams of sugar, which equals 12 teaspoons of sugar. Let them know that the recommended quantity for kids under 18 is 6 teaspoons daily. This means that this one drink is double what their sugar intake should be for the entire day!

Information is power for this age group. Sit down with your teen and look at healthier options on the menu.  If they can't find any, encourage them to find some new places to visit!

Another year is another opportunity to make the next grade in nutrition and optimum health, starting with each lunch you pack. For more tips on eating right and feeling your best, contact the fitness professionals at the YMCA.


About Liz Bravman, RN

A former pediatric nurse, Liz Bravman, RN, is a cycling instructor, nutrition educator and personal trainer at the Susan M. Duncan Family YMCA in Arvada. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing and a Master’s degree in nutrition education.