Healthy School Lunch Options

Photo: Nourishing Traditions

It’s hard to believe that summer is winding down here in New England. Where did the time between school ending and the middle of August go? With just a few weeks left before the children head back to school, I find myself thinking about the comfort of routine provided by a more predictable schedule. I love rhythm and routine.

Though I do love the routine of the school year, one thing that I have had to learn to embrace is packing a lunch for my son. This used to be a point of stress for me. Trying to balance a meal that he would eat while keeping it “packable” (maybe not a word?) for ease of transport and convenience seemed almost impossible. I should clarify here that, while feeding my family healthy, nutritious meals is of great importance to me, standing in the kitchen making homemade jerky and granola bars is not so high on my preferred activities list.

Over the years I have deferred to the “expertise” of food bloggers and their lists of ideas for healthy lunch options. I did find those to be helpful in thinking beyond the usual suspects (yes, I’m looking at you PB & J). In the past, I’ve had this excellent chart from the Nourishing Meals website posted on the refrigerator. It was a great visual for my son, too. He would check the chart and ask me to get/make certain things so that he could have them available for his lunch.

Another idea is to have your child list out things that they like to eat, as detailed in this post from the Paleo Mom. The child has some involvement in the lunch options, which can help when tensions run high around food choices. I find it interesting to see the items listed, and there are some additional good points in there too

This last year I had to ramp it up a notch as my son took on the responsibility of packing his own lunch. He enjoyed choosing from the options and learning how to balance his lunch; I enjoyed not facing the empty lunch bag each morning. Win-win. The trick was to always have healthy options from which he could choose. I never worried about a lunch full of cookies and chips because I simply don’t keep those things in the house (or, I keep them hidden out of reach). The general guidelines in our household are similar to those listed in the chart above, and are as follows:

  • 1 protein source
  • 1 fruit and/or veggie
  • 1 snack item
  • Additional filler from the the above categories to provide enough food for the day–usually there is an obligatory container of almonds and raisins, just in case.

When he first began packing his own lunch, I’d ask him each morning, “What did you pack for protein/veggies?”  This way, I was able to review and help shape his choices, if needed — though he mostly made great choices.

As research for this post, I asked my son about his favorite school lunch items. Here are his top choices, without coaching:

  • Black beans and rice (seasoned with garlic, cumin, and salt)
  • Leftover sausage (especially Bacon Sausage from the Monadnock Food Co-op)
  • Applesauce
  • Granola
  • Yogurt (though this one is less common now that he can’t have dairy)
  • Muffins (this is our favorite school lunch muffin recipe – I make the recipe into muffins, then freeze them to keep longer!)
  • Pluots
  • Larabar
  • Nut mix with dried fruit
  • Tuna salad with tortilla chips
  • Baby dill pickles
  • Bubbie’s Sauerkraut (I swear!)

At the completion of this list, I was told, “That’s good. My lunch is packed.” So it is.


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