Tips for packing healthy school lunches

Kindergarten children eating lunch

It’s that time of year again; getting the kids out of bed early, packing school lunches and rushing off to school.

The thought of packing a school lunch for your child day after day can be daunting – especially since so many schools already offer lunch. Choosing the right food and ingredients can help boost health, immunity, concentration, and even calm back to school jitters by boosting mood. 

Packing a healthy school lunch doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive or time consuming. 

Here are some ways to make it easy.

Even with the addition of salad bars and healthy initiatives for school foods, many of the foods served in schools are highly processed and lacking in vital nutrition. Something as simple as choosing organic over conventional produce can make a difference when it comes to health. Children are especially sensitive to pesticides since their organs are still growing and developing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that even allowable amounts of a common pesticide could affect brain chemistry, and children with above-average pesticide exposure were two times more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The simplest way to cut down on pesticides while not breaking your budget is to focus on buying certain foods organic. The “dirty dozen” is a list of fruits and vegetables which contain the highest amount of pesticides -- so even if these are the only ones you buy organic, you can drastically reduce exposure. The 2014 dirty dozen includes: apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes .

Getting your child involved in the process of lunch making is key to helping get him or her onboard. Discussing the health benefits, and how a homemade lunch is fresher and tastes better can convince children that a packed lunch is a great idea. Set the food groups -- healthy carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fruit -- and let them choose what they would like from each group.

Packing sandwiches is easy enough, but a home-cooked meal can provide more nutrition and may actually be a less time-consuming option. A great way to cut down on extra cooking and prepping is to cook enough at dinner to have plenty of leftovers for lunch. You can even go a step further and use a school menu to help you plan your meals. Create your own family meal plan around what is being served at school and make it for dinner the night before or brainstorm with your children to find something they would prefer. This can help children feel good about having something similar to the school lunch that tastes even better.

Having some easy-to-put-together lunches comes in handy for the days you don’t have any leftovers. Homemade chicken nuggets are easy to make in bulk, and keep in the freezer in case you need them. Putting together a lunch of ‘snacks’ is also an easy option for busy days. Try including kid-favorites like carrots, celery, hard boiled eggs, trail mix, apple sauce, cheese cubes and frozen veggies to toss into a quick pasta salad.

Food plays an important role in balancing mood and concentration. So including specific foods can help give your child a boost may lead to improved learning. Plenty of healthy fats and protein will prevent a blood sugar spike, which will stabilize moods and help avoid energy crashes. Great fats to include are eggs, coconut oil, avocado and nuts as well as animal protein.

Avoid packing processed snacks such as chips, cookies or even store-bought granola bars. A study in the Lancet Journal showed that eliminating processed foods can help reduce some symptoms of ADHD. Build lunches around whole foods instead, and if you want to pack a snack, try a homemade version. Trail mix with a few chocolate chips thrown in or even a mini-muffin are easy to make ahead in large batches, so you always have them on hand.

With a little bit of practice, you’ll become an expert at packing a nutritious lunch in no time.

Jacqueline Banks is a certified holistic health counselor and busy mother.  Her focus is on helping other busy moms in all stages of motherhood keep themselves and their little ones healthy and happy.  She uses natural and organic solutions to solve individual health problems and promote clean living. Check out her website at