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Easy Back to School Lunches: Helping Kids Avoid the Cafeteria

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  • Easy Homemade Makes the Grade

    Easy Homemade Makes the Grade

    You want your kids to eat healthy, and at home you work hard to feed them right. But back-to-school time often means back to the school cafeteria, where selections may contain too much fat, sugar, and preservatives. 

    A simple way to avoid the cafeteria is to provide a packed lunch instead. While you may worry that brown-bagging lunch for school adds another item to your to-do list, there are many healthy and delicious lunches that you can make in a snap. 

  • Sandwiches


    What could be easier than making a sandwich? Kids love many kinds of sandwiches, and there are a wide range of healthy options. Try alternating a different type of sandwich each day of the week for variety. For example:

    • Monday: turkey and cheese
    • Tuesday: tuna
    • Wednesday: peanut butter (or almond butter) and jam
    • Thursday: chicken salad or egg salad
    • Friday: cheese and tomato

    Recruit the kids to help prepping the ingredients. Getting them involved will help them enjoy the fruits (or sandwiches) of their labor!

  • Sandwiches with Style

    Sandwiches with Style

    There are many ways to make boring sandwiches both healthier and more fun. Use these top five tips:

    • Use whole wheat or whole grain bread rather than white bread.
    • Go easy on the mayo, or use light mayonnaise.
    • For young kids, use cookie cutters to make sandwiches in the shape of stars, hearts, or holiday themes (such as a pumpkin or Christmas tree).
    • Make a kid-friendly tea sandwich by cutting any type of sandwich into bite-sized pieces.
    • Add a piece of fruit, carrot sticks, and an oatmeal cookie for a well-rounded lunch.
  • In Love with Leftovers

    In Love with Leftovers

    Though leftovers sometimes get a bad rap, kids love them, and they give dinner more mileage. Pack a lunch-sized portion in a Tupperware container right after your evening meal. Then it will be ready to go for the morning. Adding low-fat yogurt, cucumber slices, or cheese and crackers provides variety.

    Cool tip: Be sure to include an ice pack in your child’s lunch box to prevent food-borne illnesses.

    Hot tip: If your child prefers to eat the food hot, reheat it and place it in a thermos right before they leave the house. It should stay warm for lunchtime.

  • Premade Foods

    Premade Foods

    Grocery stores have made lunch preparation easier with healthy premade options. If your kids have a favorite, consider surprising them sporadically with one of these lunch treats:

    • California rolls (sushi roll with avocado and crab)
    • pizza slice with veggies
    • whole wheat bagel with peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese
    • pasta salad
    • chicken salad and coleslaw
  • The Secret Is the System

    The Secret Is the System

    There are lots of possibilities that balance what your kids like to eat with what is wholesome and simple to make. Set up a system of rules of what goes into each lunch to avoid conflict. Here’s a basic example that you can modify based on special diet needs:

    • one protein (ex. chicken, tuna, cheese, nuts, or beans)
    • one whole grain (ex. whole wheat, cornbread, brown rice, or starch like sweet potatoes)
    • one fruit (ex. apple, grapes, blueberries, or clementines)
    • one veggie (ex. carrot sticks, celery, pepper strips, or snow peas)
    • one “goodie” (ex. low-fat pudding cup, fruit leather, or low-fat yogurt)
    • one drink: water is always best, but non-fat or low-fat milk or soymilk is another good option
  • Safety Is Simple

    Safety Is Simple

    Packed lunches are a healthy and fun way to ensure that your kids are getting good quality food to fuel their learning. It’s also important the food stays safe to eat and bacteria-free.

    Take these precautions to keep your kids safe:

    • Wash hands before preparing food with soap and warm water.
    • Wash prep surfaces and containers thoroughly.
    • Keep cold foods cool with ice packs, and hot foods hot with insulated items like a thermos.
    • Prep food the night before, but keep it in the fridge. Pack the lunch bag right before you leave.
  • Hint: Healthier Lunches, Healthier Kids

    Hint: Healthier Lunches, Healthier Kids

    Making healthy lunches for your kids need not be a hassle. With a little advance planning, you can prepare most foods the night before. If you keep it quick and simple, you can stick to your morning schedule while ensuring that your kids stick to a healthy diet at school. Once you’ve made the commitment to packing healthy food, you’ll see how simple it can be to provide a tasty brown bag lunch every day.



  • Keeping “Bag” Lunches Safe. (August 2012) USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service. Retrieved June 12, 2013 from
  • Making the Grade at Lunchtime (December 2012) Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Retrieved June 12, 2013 from
  • 7 Day Healthy Lunch Plan – Mix and Match School Lunches for Your Kids. (2011) Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland. Retrieved June 13, 2013 from