Children spend a large part of their day at school. School lunches and snacks are a major source of the energy and nutrients they need to grow, develop, learn and play.
Helping kids eat healthy at school is easier than you think. Try to pack one food from each of the three food categories in a school lunch. Include:
- Colourful vegetables and fruit
- Whole grains
- Protein foods: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu and dairy products
Try to avoid packing processed and pre-packaged foods like dry noddle or soup mixes, bologna, pepperoni, fatty luncheon meats and pre-packaged sandwiches. The foods are often high in fat and salt, and have few nutrients.
Children do not need juice. Milk and water are more nutritious beverage choices for school and home. If you do pack juice in your child’s lunch, make sure it’s 100% fruit juice. Avoid fruit ‘punches’, ‘drinks’, ‘beverages’, pops, and sports and energy drinks.
Here are some tips on what you can pack in a kid’s school lunch:
- Make-your-own sandwich. Use a container with compartments and pack it with vegetables, meat (e.g., sliced turkey, roast beef or ham), cheese, and whole grain bread.
- Switch up the grain product to keep it interesting. Whole grain bagels, English muffins and bread are great choices for sandwiches.
- Think outside the sandwich. Try a soft tortilla shell to make a “wrap” sandwich, cooked oatmeal and berries in a thermos with a side of raw vegetables and hummus, or a homemade pizza using a mini whole grain pita, pasta sauce, cooked peppers and cheese.
- Favourite leftovers. A favourite meal from the night before is a great meal for school too.
- Fill a thermos with casseroles, soups, pasta, or other hot dishes.
- Raw vegetables with salad dressing or fruit pieces with a yogurt dip.
- Pretzels, dry whole grain cereal or breadsticks instead of chips.
Children only have a short time to eat, which can be hard with many distractions around. The following tips will help your child make the most of meal and snack time:
- Use containers that kids can open themselves, with easy to lift tabs so they don’t spend too much time trying to get into the container or waiting for help.
- Pack items that don’t need to be opened to be eaten. Single-serving items like a bag of crackers or sealed cheese portions can be tricky to open.
- Pack containers that are easy to drink from. Avoid juice boxes if they can’t get the straw in themselves, and use easy to open re-useable bottles instead.
- Pack small sized and finger foods like pre-cut vegetables and fruit, cheese cubes, mini stuffed pitas and sandwiches cut into strips that are easier for little fingers to handle.
- Pack foods that don’t need peeling, unless the peel is already taken off.
- Pack foods that look like foods. Foods that look like toys might be played with instead of eaten.
Short on Time?
Packing lunches in a hurry is often a challenge. Try creating a weekly lunch menu. Planning and packing lunches on the weekend or at night will help save time in the morning. Wash and cut vegetables and fruit and put in school containers on the weekend. Pack up dinner leftovers and make sandwiches in the evening. Keep your pantry and fridge stocked with nutritious, kid-friendly lunch and snack supplies that are quick to grab like yogurt, cheese, whole grain crackers, apples, bananas, cherry tomatoes and canned fish.
What if they don’t eat all their lunch?
Children may not eat their entire school lunch. For younger children, small portions of food will be more appealing as large amounts may seem overwhelming. Try foods that are smaller in size and quantity.
For all children, let their appetite guide how much they eat. Some days they will eat more than other days. Trust that they know how much food they need. Pack new foods regularly and pack them with healthy foods your child likes.
Let children help prepare and pack their lunch; children are more likely to eat a lunch they helped make. Give them healthy choices to pick from. Younger children can put snacks in containers, while older children can help make sandwiches or stuff pitas.
Keep hot things hot and cold things cold. Use an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack for foods that need to stay cool. Freeze a bottle of water or juice box to help keep food cold. Keep lunches in the fridge until your child is leaving for school. Use a thermos for foods that need to stay warm. Heat the thermos before filling it with hot water. Leave it for 3–5 minutes, and then empty it before adding steaming hot food.
Wash all fruit and vegetables thoroughly, and do not reuse perishable foods, like meat, fish, poultry or milk products that come home from school uneaten.
Schools have different allergy policies, which may apply to the whole school or only certain classrooms. Find out what your child’s school/classroom allergy policy is, and keep this in mind when packing lunches. Check the ingredient list on food labels to make sure the foods you’re sending to school are allergen free.