Pack a Healthy Lunch for Your Child

Tips from local experts for packing healthy school lunches.
A healthy lunch should be balanced with a little bit of everything.

Every day, Kelly Abernathy sends her third-grade son to Groveland Elementary with a healthy lunch that would make any mom proud and any kid eager for the lunch bell to ring. While Abernathy laughs that her son “probably wouldn’t hesitate” to choose a lunch of chips and cookies if he had the choice, he also loves the lunches he finds waiting for him.

“I always send a protein and some healthy fat like avocado,” says Abernathy, who lives in Minnetonka. “My son really likes tuna pasta salad, made with snap peas, red pepper and an olive oil vinaigrette, not mayonnaise. In the winter, I’ll send chili, soup or even spaghetti and meatballs in a thermos.”

Other additions to Abernathy’s lunches include fruits (a favorite is sliced apples with almond butter dip), vegetables and even a smoothie made with yogurt, frozen berries, ground flaxseed and whey protein, all packed in a 9 oz. glass bottle.

Abernathy definitely has the right idea. Your child’s lunch should be balanced and offer him a little bit of everything he needs to keep them focused and energized for the rest of the school day. Abernathy, who stays away from processed food options, says she doesn’t want her kids “to crash after lunch from too much sugar.”

Jane Bender, nutrition services supervisor for the Minnetonka School District, says a combination of protein (peanut butter, turkey or some other protein source, such as eggs or yogurt), along with fruits and vegetables, will keep them interested and satisfied. The key? Make their lunch look appealing.

“We’ve learned that kids eat with their eyes first,” says Bender, who has been in charge of the district lunch system for the past five years. “Choose colors that are eye-popping, like bright strawberries, carrots or grapes.”

Pat Berg, former food and nutrition coordinator for Westonka Public Schools, agrees. 

“There has been a huge improvement in the number of kids who are taking fruit at lunchtime,” says Berg, who retired in June after 40 years working in the school cafeteria. “They like items that are fresh and colorful. They are also much more likely to choose fruit that has been cut up for them—it’s easier and quicker to eat.”

Another key to lunchtime success for the brown-baggers is to consider how long the lunch will be sitting before the child hits the cafeteria. Keeping everything as cool as possible, whether in an insulated lunch bag or lunch box with an ice pack, can help. According to Bender, any food that won’t be eaten within four hours should be stored this way to preserve its safety. “The rule is to keep food at 40 degrees or cooler for as long as you can,” she says.

Salads are another great lunch option; Berg says varieties like chef and pasta salads have become popular in the Westonka district since being reintroduced at the middle school and high school a few years ago. “Kids love the grab-and-go option,” she adds.

If you’re packing a salad in a lunch box, store the dressing in a separate container and make sure the salad is in a container large enough for your child to mix the dressing with the salad, says Bender.

Bender says the amount of food packed in a school lunch should be reasonable because the bottom line is that kids don’t require large lunches, from home or from school. “The basic calorie amount for a cafeteria school lunch should be about one third of daily caloric intake (which varies by age and activity level); it’s all about portion control and teaching kids how to make healthy choices,” she says.