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Brown Bag It: How to Pack a Healthy School Lunch

In 2016, the USDA unveiled healthier nutrition standards for school meals—after not making changes for more than 15 years. As a registered dietitian, I was certainly happy to see much-needed improvements made. But today I recommend you pack your child’s lunchbox instead of sending them through the lunch line.

Know that by telling you to brown bag it, I’m not bashing school system dietitians and cafeteria cooks. The fault for “bad” school food is often placed on them, but they do the best they can under the circumstances. Times are tight: On average, schools have between $2 and $3 to spend on each student’s meal, only about $1 of which is allotted for the food itself (the rest goes to labor and equipment). Learn more about the cost of school lunch here.

Therefore, even though healthier whole food options like salad and fruit wind up on your child’s cafeteria tray more now than in the past, much of what they eat is still unhealthy, cheap, commodity food—think hot dogs and chicken nuggets that contain more “fillers” than meat.

There’s no sense in working hard to eliminate processed junk food at home only to have your child eat it five days a week at school. Packing your child’s lunch is one of the simplest things you can do to keep them healthy and help them avoid becoming a childhood obesity statistic. Here are my packing tips:

  • Choose complex carbs: Complex carbohydrates fill kids up and provide the energy they need for learning and playing. You can incorporate them in a variety of ways: On sandwich days, opt for a 100% whole-grain bread or wrap (I’m a fan of Joseph’s products). When they tire of sandwiches, prepare inexpensive chilis and soups with carb-heavy beans or lentils.

  • Pump up the protein: Protein keeps developing immune systems strong, helps kids grow, and also provides the energy children need to stay focused, participate in sports, etc. The opportunities are endless for packing in the protein: Pick sandwich spreads like hummus and all-natural nut butters (go beyond PB&J with almond or cashew butter). Consider roasting or baking meats for dinner and using leftovers for sandwiches to avoid processed, high-salt deli meats. Embrace tuna (read why I recommend it as a healthy option). And top sandwiches with low-fat cheese. Beyond the main dish, pack hummus as a side for dipping veggie sticks. Include a low-fat side of string cheese. Or, go for a side of nut-heavy granola with some dried fruit and a few tasty chocolate chips.

  • Include a fruit and veggie. Like adults, most children don’t get the amount of fruits and veggies needed to boost their vitality and reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases. Incorporate veggies like cucumbers or bell peppers on sandwiches, include cooked and raw veggies as side dishes, and offer fresh fruit for dessert rather than cookies; here are suggestions for playing up fruit’s sweet side in a healthy way.

  • Don’t skip a snack: If your child has an after-school activity like theater or football, remember they’ll need an additional snack to help them power through. Yogurt or a mix of low-sodium pretzels and nuts are nutrient-dense examples.

Note: While prepared options like Lunchables may seem to meet these requirements, resist the temptation to buy pre-packaged, convenience foods. Amongst other reasons, they’re extremely high in sodium. A classic turkey and cheddar Lunchables combo, for example, contains a whopping 1,100 mg of salt—about half the recommended daily max of 2,300 mg in only one meal, additional snack and drink not included.

Image courtesy of John Kasawa /

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