How to pack a lunch your kid will eat


As your kids head back to school, the debate about a packed lunch versus cafeteria food is likely to heat up. As a parent, you’ve probably unearthed some pretty interesting (and perhaps gross) uneaten brown bag lunches in the bottom of your child’s backpack.

While cafeteria lunches and prepackaged meals for kids are popular and convenient, they’re also expensive and often less than nutritious.

Here are some brown-bag makeovers with nutritional upgrades that are still tasty and shouldn’t elicit an “Ewww” response accompanied by an upturned nose. Ideally, these ideas will eliminate the need to use long handled tongs to retrieve leftover lunches from the backpack.

Tips for getting your child on board  

  • Review the school cafeteria menu with your children and determine together which day(s) a bag lunch might be better/preferred over the cafeteria offering.
  • Brainstorm with your child what foods and snacks he/she would like to eat and shop accordingly. Do this regularly to stay current with new likes and dislikes.
  • Invite children to help pack lunches to enhance the likelihood they’ll consume what was packed.
  • Pack the same lunch for yourself and inspire a little competition to see who ate everything at day’s end.

Make a Nutritional Difference*

Instead of:                                                                                                                                     Consider:

Higher-fat lunch meats Lower-fat deli meats, such as turkey
White bread Whole-grain breads (wheat, oat, multi-grain), Pita pockets, multi-grain tortilla, whole grain bagel.
Mayonnaise Light mayonnaise or mustard, hummus, or light salad dressing (examples: Ranch or Chipotle)
Fried chips and snacks Baked chips, air-popped popcorn, trail mix, veggies and dip
Fruit in syrup Fresh fruit or fruit in natural juices
Cookies and snack cakes Trail mix, yogurt or homemade baked goods such as oatmeal cookies or fruit muffins
Fruit drinks and soda Low-fat milk, water or 100% fruit juice
  • Cold-cut roll ups with lean meat, low-fat cheese, and low fat dressing.
  • Salad with lean meat or low-fat cheese on top with low-fat dressing.
  • Whole grain bow tie pasta with veggies mixed in.

*Go to for additional ideas.


Variety is the spice of life

  • Be creative: Use cookie cutters to make sandwich slices more interesting; put a face on the apple using raisins for eyes, a grape for the nose, and craisins for the mouth. Engage your child to help with the “presentation” of the food choices.
  • Keep it fun: Include a special message on the napkin; hint at something fun they can look forward to after school; include something they didn’t ask for, but you know they like (examples: healthy snack bar or frozen yogurt).

Packing safety

  • Use a thermos for hot foods.
  • For refrigerated foods, use cold packs or freeze some foods and drinks overnight. They’ll thaw in the lunchbox.
  • Wash out lunchboxes every day or use brown paper bags that can be discarded or recycled.
  • Toss in some moist towelettes to remind children to wash their hands before eating.

Note: Be sure to check with your child’s school to make sure there aren’t any restrictions on what can be packed in lunches. Some schools are “peanut free.”