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Making Healthy School Lunches

Lunchtime is a favorite part of the school day for most kids. As a parent, it’s your job to make sure your child’s lunch is not only tasty, but also nourishing enough to carry him through the afternoon. We asked local dietitian and nutritionist Maria-Paula Carrillo of Lemond Nutrition for the best advice to follow when making lunch in the morning. No matter the situation, Carrillo’s got the shortcuts to take your child’s lunch from a failing grade to an A+. 

Common mistakes to avoid
Not offering choices: If you want to avoid the typical lunch trade-off (“Who wants my carrots?”), make sure you include your child in his food selection. Ask him if he prefers orange or apple slices, give him the choice of crust or no crust on his sandwich, or let him pick between strawberry or blueberry yogurt. It is also wise to ask what his friends are eating; this can get the conversation going about foods he may like added to his lunch box.  
Including foods that are difficult to open: We all know lunchtime is limited at most schools. In addition, kids want to be independent. Make sure that your child can open the containers in which you have packed his food. Practice at home by pulling the lids off the yogurt, opening the bag of crackers or peeling the string cheese. If you are sending fruit that needs to be peeled, do so in advance.
Including foods that are not allowed: I know it can be frustrating to avoid all peanuts (or even tree-nuts) from your choices. Do not be that parent that “sneaks” in the peanut butter or other forbidden food. When these items are not permitted, there is usually a reason and a very good one. Your child will be the one having to deal with your decision. Get creative and look for alternatives.
Packing too much or too little: You should know the amount of food your child can consume at mealtime. Ensure that his lunch box has the right portion sizes so he will not get overly full or feel like he did not get enough. Visit myplate.gov for age-appropriate portion sizes.
Tips to make it tasty, healthy and fun
Variety is key: Make sure you include items from different food groups. Each meal should include at least three of the food groups (fruits, vegetables, dairy, grain and protein). Think whole grain crackers, ham and fresh strawberries or low-fat Greek yogurt, pretzel sticks and carrots with hummus.

Pick beverages wisely: Avoid sugar-packed beverages. Choose water and low-fat milk instead. If you are including juice, make sure it is 100-percent juice and do not make it a daily choice. Juice can be counted as a serving of fruit but only one time per day. The serving size of juice for a child is 4–6 ounces depending on age.
Get creative: Pull your cookie cutter out and let your inner Picasso do his job. Shaped sandwiches, fun containers, colorful fruits and vegetables can make a big difference. Presentation is super important. It may take extra effort, but it will be worth it.
Healthy desserts you can pack in your child’s lunch
Fruit kabobs: Small pieces of fruit in a skewer (you can use pretzel sticks and make mini ones too). Serve with a side of yogurt for dipping.
S'mores (well, kind of): Cream cheese (chocolate hazelnut spread if allowed at the school can be used on occasion) and fruits “sandwiched” between graham crackers or thin-sliced apples 
Banana pops: Frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and rolled over toasted oats or coconut
Parfaits: Layers of yogurt, fruits and granola or crunchy cereal
Encouraging your child to make good choices in the lunch line
Be an example: Do not expect your child to go to school and choose fruits and vegetables from the menu if you do not offer them at home. Make sure your meals as a family are balanced and that your child is not the only one who has to eat the broccoli. This applies for proper portion sizes as well. Your child learns by watching you. Having a good base on proper nutrition will allow him to make better choices when away from home.
Use your resources: Most schools have their breakfast and lunch menus available online. Once a week visit the website, print the menu and review it with your child. Help him tell you which foods he would like to eat and direct him towards grilled or baked choices instead of fried or high-fat ones.
Maria-Paula is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with Lemond Nutrition in Plano, specializing in pediatric and family nutrition. As a mother of two, she enjoys helping families work together to achieve their nutritional goals.