Children cut cucumbers for a healthy snack option. Credit: Courtesy / Urban Farm Camp

Another school year is just beginning. For many parents that presents the challenge of trying to figure out what to pack in their children’s lunch boxes. Even boxes filled with loving care can contain cookies or chips or other easy, unhealthy options. 

A fun, healthy lunch or after-school snack – including a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins – doesn’t have to be time-consuming, stressful, or costly to put together. Have your children participate when it comes to planning and packing their meals. When kids are involved, they are more likely to enjoy the foods they select. Consider these tips to packing a healthy, tasty lunch.

Switch to whole grains

While shopping, look for 100% whole-grain bread for sandwiches, 100% whole-grain tortillas for wraps, and whole-grain crackers. Other examples include quinoa and brown rice. Whole grains have more vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and they will keep kids satisfied longer. 

Pack the protein

Foods with protein may help kids stay full and focused. Make sure each lunch has a good source of protein, such as hard-boiled eggs, beans, nuts, nut butter, tuna, salmon, rotisserie chicken, edamame, or yogurt. Skip deli meats like salami and bologna, which are higher in fat, sodium, and preservatives. 

Make it colorful

Adding colorful fruits and vegetables can make a lunch look more appetizing, and these foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Spice up vegetables with a little bit of guacamole, hummus, salsa, or low-fat ranch dressing to add flavor and fun.

Keep kids hydrated

Hydration is particularly important for children, as they have higher water requirements than adults do. Besides water, more fun options include smoothies and low-fat milk. Skip the juice and soda.

Add a small, sweet treat

Kids love treats, and adding something small to their lunches gives them something to look forward to. Portion size is key. Aim for less than eight to 10 grams of sugar per serving. Examples include chocolates that are at least 70% pure cocoa chocolate and natural fruit smoothies with plain Greek yogurt and almond milk. 

Minimize junk food

Foods like chips, fruit snacks, and candy have little nutritional value. Replace these foods with items like cheese, whole-grain crackers, and plain popcorn sprinkled with parmesan cheese. 

A healthy lunch can be a great way to fuel your child’s body and mind for the remainder of the school day, but – for a busy family – preparing lunches also needs to be fast, effortless, and affordable.

One great way to save time during the week is to prep lunch and after-school snack foods over the weekend. Buy, cut, and portion out fruits and vegetables so they’re ready to go. Shred chicken, cook hard-boiled eggs, or use leftovers that don’t take much preparation. Pre-package foods like crackers, cheese cubes, or trail mix into baggies or containers that can quickly be added to a lunch bag. Get the school year started off right with a healthy, easy lunch and after-school snack routine that is both parent- and kid-approved. 

Fun and affordable grab-and-go snack ideas

  • Granola, fruit and nut bars: Read the labels for bars high in protein and fiber and low in sugar.
  • Fruit skewers and yogurt: Skewers of fruit with a dip of high-protein Greek yogurt can be a delicious snack and help meet calcium requirements. 
  • Bean dip or hummus and veggies: Kids love to dip, and what’s better than a protein-rich dip paired with grape tomatoes, jicama, baby carrots, or red pepper strips?
  • Apples or celery and nut butter: Slice up apples or celery sticks, and top them with your favorite nut butter and a sprinkle of dried fruit for a sweet and savory snack.
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Vincent Nelson

Dr. Vincent Nelson is medical director of United Healthcare South Texas.