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A Dietitian Mom’s Top 5 Tips To Simplify School Lunches (+ Lots of Ideas!)

Apr 3, 2018

We’re nearing the end-of-school homestretch, and I know one thing is for sure: school lunch packing is getting old — in fact, I’m over it. Let’s be honest, even at the start of the school year, packing daily school lunches can seem like a daunting task for many parents (even me — the pediatric dietitian!). But it doesn’t have to be, if you keep things simple.

The key is to have a bit of a plan and not overthink it (forget overcomplicated Pinterest-like lunches!). But, it’s important to have a solid lunch-packing strategy with a list of go-to options to choose from.


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Here are my top five tips for simplifying school lunches (and keeping them nutritious and appealing too!), along with lots of ideas:

1. Use the “Rule of Five”

Focus on real, whole foods first, and always include at least five items in my kids’ lunches, for balance and variety — kids tend to eat more when there’s more to choose from and it means that there’s a nice balance of nutrients too. If you get your kids involved in making lunch box choices or even let them help build their lunch, it will increase the chances of them eating it too! Here are some nutritious options in the five food groups:

a. Fruit (pack at least one)

Examples:

  • piece of fresh fruit
  • fresh, frozen or unsweetened canned fruit
  • unsweetened fruit and veggie purées
  • unsweetened dried fruit

b. Vegetable (pack at least one)

Examples:

  • leafy greens (ie. leftover salad)
  • raw veggies cut up
  • cooked vegetables
  • homemade salsa or bruschetta
  • vegetable soup

c. Protein-rich foods (pack two)

Examples:

  • leftover meat, poultry, fish
  • eggs
  • milk
  • yogurt or Greek yogurt
  • cottage cheese
  • cheese
  • beans/lentils
  • seeds or seed butter

d. Whole grain or starchy vegetable (include at least one)

Examples:

  • whole grain bread, tortilla or pita
  • homemade muffin or loaf made with whole grain flour or oats
  • oatmeal
  • whole grain pancake, waffle or French toast
  • leftover brown rice, quinoa, barley
  • corn
  • potatoes/sweet potatoes/yams

2. Repurpose Dinner Leftovers!

Why not maximize your efforts when preparing a dinner meal, and make extra so that you can send it as leftovers or repurpose part of it for school lunches the next day? I’m all about efficiency when it comes to food prep — it makes life so much easier! Here are some great ways to use leftovers for school lunches.

Try these:

  • leftover spaghetti and meat sauce + raw snap peas + organic fruit and veggie pouch + whole grain granola bar
  • leftover taco meat + fixings (cheese, salsa, lettuce, crushed taco shell) + an apple + homemade wholegrain muffin + milk
  • leftover lentil soup + whole grain crackers + fresh blueberries + carrot sticks + hummus + Greek yogurt
  • leftover homemade Hawaiian pizza + sliced pear + veggie soup + homemade protein balls
  • leftover pulled chicken or pork + whole grain bun + organic fruit and veggie pouch + school-safe kiddie trail mix (seeds, unsweetened dried fruit, whole grain cereal) + bell pepper strips

3. Serve Breakfast for Lunch:

Breakfast-for-dinner is a thing, so why can’t breakfast-for-lunch be a thing too? I don’t know about your kids, but my kids love breakfast foods and they make for easy and nutritious lunch box options!

Try these:

  • leftover French toast + Greek yogurt for dip (Greek yogurt + seed butter + chia seeds or hemp hearts + cinnamon) + sliced peach + cucumber strips + dip
  • leftover muffin-tin veggie omelet + fruit salad + cottage cheese + homemade granola bar + cucumber strips + milk
  • whole grain pancakes + Greek yogurt + berries + little bit of maple syrup + carrot sticks + hummus
  • homemade flourless zucchini blender muffin + leftover breakfast sausage + banana + yogurt or cottage cheese + assorted raw veggies
  • build-your-own Greek yogurt parfait (Greek yogurt + whole grain granola + sunflower or pumpkin seeds + berries) + unsweetened fruit and veggie pouch + homemade granola bar

And don't forget to check out: 5 Ways To Get Your Kids To Eat New Foods


4. Serve a Finger Food Lunch:

The easiest and most fun-to-eat lunches are the ones that you can eat with your fingers — no utensils required!

Try these:

  • whole grain crackers + cheddar cheese cubes + length-wise sliced grapes, raspberries + snap peas + dip + roasted chickpeas + protein/energy ball
  • leftover hamburger/turkey burger cut into bite-sized pieces + ketchup to dip + homemade yam fries + apple slices with cinnamon sprinkled on top + baby tomatoes + homemade or whole grain granola bar
  • sliced hardboiled egg + whole grain waffle strips + yogurt to dip + watermelon sticks + carrots + cucumber + dip
  • homemade whole grain mini muffins + nectarine slices + turkey pepperoni sticks + kiddie trail mix (seeds, unsweetened dried fruit, whole grain cereal) + milk
  • tortilla “sushi” (whole grain tortilla with either seed butter or cream cheese + fruit, wrapped up and sliced into bite-sized pieces) + raw veggie strips + hummus + apple slices + Greek yogurt to dip

5. Re-think Sandwiches:

I know, I know… sandwiches can be boring. But, with a little creativity, they can become fun again (and really easy too!)

Try these:

  • whole grain tortilla wrap with leftover meat, cheese, spinach + unsweetened fruit sauce + leftover broccoli salad + homemade whole grain banana loaf
  • mini whole grain pitas + cheese and leftover meat or chicken + bell pepper strips + hummus + pear slices + whole grain granola bar
  • tuna salad or egg salad sandwich on whole grain bread + fruit salad + snap peas + homemade protein/energy ball
  • wafflewich (whole grain waffles + seed butter + banana slices) + homemade veggie soup + melon cubes + cottage cheese or yogurt
  • crackerwiches (whole grain crackers + deli meat + cheese) + leftover roasted veggies + roasted chickpeas + homemade whole grain muffin + milk

Hopefully these ideas help to re-motivate you to pack better school lunches (that your kids will be excited about) get you through to the end of the year (and the start of next year!).

Article Author Sarah Remmer
Sarah Remmer

Read and watch more from Sarah here.

Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Remmer Nutrition Consulting, a nutrition consulting and communications company based in Calgary, Alberta. Her website and blog contain practical tips and advice for parents and families on feeding and nutrition (everything from pre-natal nutrition to teens), as well as nutritious and easy recipes and videos. Follow Sarah on Facebook for free advice, tips and family-friendly recipes!

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