What to Pack for Lunch

Making school lunch healthy.

The kids are back in school! For us moms, this means lots and lots of time spent packing lunches.

While it is easier to order a hot lunch or give the kids money for cafeteria food, lunch will end up being less healthy.

The only way to ensure that you and your kids are eating a nutritionally balanced, health-promoting lunch is to pack it yourself.

According to Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes in their book, Lunch Lessons, “When it comes to nutrition, children are not just miniature adults. Because they’re growing, they have different dietary needs.” I put their daily serving recommendations in bullet points below.

Use the following 7 steps as your guide for packing healthy lunches that cover the spectrum of nutrients that your growing kids needs.

Don’t have kids? Keep reading. You’ll need these steps when packing your own nutrient-dense, fitness lunches.

Step 1: Hydration

Water is the perfect beverage to pack with lunch.

Every function of the human body requires water, so it’s a no-brainer that water should be included in your packed lunch. Eight glasses a day is a minimum.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of giving kids juice or soda pop, and once your kids are accustomed to drinking these sugary treats expect a battle when you switch to water. This is one fight that is worth winning.

Remind yourself that the sugary drinks are filled with empty calories, which quickly lead to weight gain.  Sugar also robs the body of vital nutrients and minerals.

 Step 2: Protein

  • 2-3 servings daily
  • 1 serving equals 2-3 oz of meat, 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1/3 cup nuts or one egg

Protein is an essential part of lunch, both for you and your kids. Kids need protein to support their growing body, and you need plenty of protein in order to grow and maintain lean muscle tissue.

Here’s a list of healthy protein sources: fish, beans, tofu, nuts, eggs, chicken, turkey, lean pork and lamb.

Limit the amount of high-saturated-fat protein that your kids eat to no more than 3 servings per week. These include cheese, hot dogs, salami, bacon and sausage.

Step 3: Whole Grains

Sprouted grain bread is best.

  • Kids 6-9 yrs: 4 – 7 servings daily
  • Kids 10-14 yrs: 5 – 8 servings daily
  • Teens: 6 – 9 servings daily
  • 1 serving equals: 1 slice of bread, ½ bagel, ½ cup cooked rice, ½ cup pasta, 1 cup of whole grains

Whole grains are one of the major building blocks of a healthy meal. The key word here is “whole” meaning not refined, and sprouted grains are even better.

White bread, bagels, pasta and rice have been stripped of the nutrients and minerals. As a result these items convert quickly into sugar, leaving your child drained after an initial quick burst of energy. Always avoid refined white grain products.

Here’s a list of healthy whole grains: oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, millet, bulgur, whole-wheat or sprouted grain bread, barley, whole grain cereal and whole wheat pasta.

Step 4: Veggies

  • 4-9 servings daily
  • 1 serving equals 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked veggies

When it comes to veggies, variety is key. Choose a array of colors like orange, red, purple, green, blue, white and yellow to make sure that your kids are getting all of the necessary vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.

Don’t save vegetables for dinnertime. Pack each lunch with lots of colorful vegetables.

Try these veggie-packing ideas: Put a small container of hummus with cut veggies for dipping. Fill your sandwiches with baby arugula, roasted peppers and slices of tomato. Pack a container of veggie and whole wheat pasta instead of a sandwich. Invest in a small thermos and fill it with vegetable soup.

Step 5: Fruit

Colorful berries make a sweet dessert.

  • 3-5 servings daily
  • 1 serving equals 1/2 cup cut fruit, whole fruit the size of tennis ball, half a banana

Fresh fruit is filled with vitamins, nutrients and minerals. As with your veggies, choose a variety of colors to ensure that your kids are getting a range of nutrients.

Stay away from fruits that are canned and coated in syrup, and also from fruit snacks and chews that contain added sugars. If fresh fruit is not readily available then go for plain dried fruit, with no added sugar.

Unlike veggies, it is possible to eat too much fruit. Though the natural sugars within fruit are much healthier than refined sugar, too much of it will have a negative impact on your blood sugar levels and the extra calories will be stored as fat. Stick with 3 – 5 servings per day.

Step 6: Calcium

  • 2-6 servings daily
  • Serving size based on the amount of calcium in the food. Examples of 1 serving: 1 cup cooked beans, ½ cup almonds, ½ cup dried figs, ½ cup dark leafy green vegetables, ½ cup tofu, 1 cup low-fat milk, 1 cup low-fat yogurt

Your kids need calcium in order to build strong, healthy bones. It is important to incorporate calcium into each meal.

Calcium isn’t just found in dairy products. There are many plant sources that contain calcium that is more readily absorbed by the body than the calcium found in dairy.

Try these sources of calcium: nuts, dark leafy greens, salmon, broccoli, tofu, soy milk, sardines, beans, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt.

Step 7: Healthy Fat

Almonds are filled with healthy fat.

  • 3 – 4 servings daily
  • Serving size based on the amount of healthy fat in the food. Examples of 1 serving: 1 teaspoon of olive, safflower, sesame, flax or canola oil, ½ cup nuts, 1 tablespoon peanut, almond or cashew butter, 1 cup cooked beans, peas or lentils.

You may think of all dietary fat as being bad, but fat from plant sources are very important to the growth and development of a child’s body.

Limit animal fats, which are filled with saturated fat and cholesterol, and eliminate trans-fatty acids contained in foods that are labeled as hydrogenated.

Perfect Packed Lunch

Here’s an example of a healthy and balanced packed lunch. Try this one out, and then use it as a springboard for your own creative lunch ideas. Don’t fall into the trap of eating the same thing day after day. Remember to use the 7 steps above to create your perfect packed lunch.

Here’s what you need…

For the wrap:

  • 1 green tortilla
  • 1 chicken breast (or your choice of protein: veggie patty, lean turkey, hardboiled egg, smoked salmon, grilled white fish, or baked tofu)
  • Sliced tomato
  • Romaine lettuce
  • 1 Tablespoon hummus

For the veggies:

Making school lunch healthy.

  • ½ cup cut veggies (try broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and bell peppers)
  • ¼ cup hummus

For the yogurt:

  • ½ cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt
  • Handful of berries (strawberries and blueberries)

For the trail mix:

  • 1oz  raw mixed nuts
  • 5 golden raisins


1.     Spread the tortilla with hummus, line with lettuce, tomato slices and chicken breast. Wrap and slice in half.

2.     Wash and pack the cut veggies in plastic container. Pack the hummus in a small container.

3.     Pack the yogurt in a small container and top with the berries.

4.     Mix the raw nuts with the raisins and pack in a small container or bag.

5.     Don’t forget to pack a container of water and a napkin!



  • Fauzia September 11, 2012 at 1:45 am

    Hi Diana, thanks so much for the valuable information. It was much needed. By the way, is the pipeline ave address your office? I live in that area and would love to stop by if the office is related to the blog that is:)
    Take Care,

    • Diana September 13, 2012 at 6:33 am

      Hi Fauzia,
      I am usually working out of my home office and in the test kitchen — lol
      Thanks for the feedback!

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