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Nutritious School Lunches

Start the School Year Right with Power-Packed Lunches

It’s time for school again! That means it’s also time for the daily challenge of determining what your kids will eat for lunch.

Many families choose sack lunches because they are often more affordable than cafeteria meals. They are also a great way to know what your kids are eating and to help them make good decisions. If you’re struggling with what to pack, the YMCA has these tips for delicious, nutritious, and easy lunches for students of every age.

Elementary school

Young kids can be picky eaters, and they often only want all the processed, artificially flavored, and sugary foods they see on TV. At school, they typically get a short window for lunch, so having a quick meal that’s packed with nutrition and that they’ll eat is extra important.

Think outside the sandwich. Peanut butter and jelly is not a bad option, but it can get tiresome. Consider other sources of protein such as hard-boiled eggs, nuts, or crackers with hummus. Or try a sandwich without the bread. Pack a pita, or create a wrap of veggies inside deli ham or turkey.

Try bento boxes. Common in Japanese cuisine, these handy containers make food fun. And, they give you room to pack veggies, fruits, and protein, keeping items separated and appealing. Several bento box lunch ideas are featured here.

Remember the water. Starting when kids are young, create the habit of staying hydrated. Send them to school with a reusable water bottle, preferably stainless steel or non-BPA plastic. Encourage kids to refill it throughout the day, and remember to wash the bottle thoroughly every evening.

Middle school

As kids grow, the demand for good nutrition for optimal learning only increases. Middle schoolers may need more fuel to sustain them throughout the day. And, as they get more freedom, students may want to supplement their sack lunches with the cookies, candy bars, and high-calorie smoothies available through the cafeteria.

Pack more. Keep in mind that the meals you packed in elementary school may no longer fill your child up. It may be tempting to want to throw in bags of chips and other packaged snacks. Instead, add extra protein and fiber options like celery and peanut butter or whole wheat crackers with bean dip.

Experiment. Use the sack lunch as an opportunity to introduce your child to a range of nutritious foods. Cut up kiwi or star fruit. Pack a different kind of apple each day. Make salads of kale, spinach, iceberg, and romaine, and see which one they like the best.

Include a healthy treat. Minimize the temptation of the vending machine by including something sweet, but still relatively nutritious – chocolate-covered strawberries, a yogurt parfait, or low-fat granola bar. 

High school

As kids gain independence, it can get more difficult to ensure they’re eating right. They have more options when it comes to eating out or purchasing food at school. They also often have busy schedules, with after-school sports, activities, and jobs that keep them going full speed into the evening.

Pack snacks. Separate what you pack so there’s a meal for lunch and for refueling mid-day. Add a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread or an extra piece of fruit they can eat on the go.

Get creative. Now that kids are older, their tastes may be more sophisticated. Pack a hearty veggie stew in a thermos, sushi, or a bag of homemade chopped salad.

Respect their opinions. Finally, know that high schoolers are learning more about who they are and what they like. If they decide they no longer like a food group, work with them to make sure they’re still getting essential nutrients and calories.

Lunch is an essential meal for students of all ages, and sack lunches are a great way to make sure your kids are getting the nutrition and the energy they need to make it through the day. For more information on healthy eating at lunchtime and throughout the day, talk to a YMCA nutritionist.


Nutrition expertise at the YMCA

Pamela Cook, RDN, helps members at the Littleton Family YMCA live healthy. Pamela is here to provide nutrition counseling, lead classes in healthy cooking and meal planning, and share helpful nutrition tips that can improve your overall health. If you’re struggling to meet your fitness goals, or you just want to start eating better, learn more about the Y’s nutrition programs, and look for regular YMCA emails on Healthy Eating at the Y.