How to Pack a Healthy School Lunch

by Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist February 17, 2010

healthy school lunchPacking a healthy school lunch that my kids will actually eat and won’t get them bullied on the playground is a delicate balancing act as any Mom concerned for the health of her children well knows.

I pack school lunches for all 3 of my kids and I quickly discovered that packing the same items for all of them just didn’t work most of the time.

One of them likes all types of fruit, the second likes only fruit leathers (organic, preservative free – regular grocery store ones have really nasty ingredients), and the third will only eat bananas SOME of the time. The same goes for lunch meats; one likes turkey slices, the others prefer roast beef. The list goes on and on.

One thing is for sure. Arguing with a kid’s palate is just going to result in wasted, good quality food and much frustration on your part. How to quickly pack a healthy school lunch that appeals to all the kids and doesn’t take an hour in the kitchen the night before is a challenging task even for the most creative Moms!

Healthy School Lunch:  Build Around the Basics

Let’s start packing our hypothetical school lunch with the nonnegotiable item: a thermos of fresh from the farm whole milk. It really concerns me that most kids these days seem to have juice boxes in their lunches instead of milk. What happened to milk? When I was in grade school, all kids got a half pint of whole milk for lunch.

Perhaps the astronomical rise in milk allergies is to blame for the disappearance of milk from school lunches. Sadly, fresh from the farm milk would not cause an allergic reaction in most kids as “milk allergy” is usually “pasteurization allergy” in reality! Even if your child has a true milk allergy (most don’t), a much better choice would be some sort of fresh squeezed juice in a thermos rather than the nutritionless juice boxes from the store.

Let’s be very clear that pasteurized grocery store juice is not a much better choice than soda. Processed juice causes a quick spike in blood sugar just like soda, followed by a crash that results in “sugar coma” and a lack of concentration. Any type of processed juice is a very poor choice for a school lunch beverage if any sort of learning is to occur in the afternoon!

Once you have settled on a healthy beverage to pack in a thermos (fresh, whole milk is my first choice), the second item to decide on is some sort of healthy protein. My kids really enjoy Applegate Farms antibiotic/steroid free deli meats, so I frequently will pack a couple slices of whichever meat each child prefers. Our favorites are the smoked turkey breast and roast beef slices. One of my sons really enjoys the Applegate Farms pepperoni slices with some organic ketchup (Annie’s or Muir Glen are good quality brands) on slices of sprouted spelt bread (Berlin Bakery).

Hard boiled eggs served either alone or as egg salad are a fantastic choice for a school lunch. MSG free tuna fish mixed with homemade mayo is also a favorite. Most folks are surprised that grocery store canned tuna is loaded with MSG (disguised with one of the many MSG aliases such as “broth” or “protein isolate”)! Make sure you get your tuna from a healthfood store that offers brands that do not use these types of unhealthy additives!

Homemade pizza makes a great item for a healthy school lunch as do organic chicken nuggets cooked in expeller pressed coconut oil (packed in a thermos to make nice, warm lunch on cold days).

Choose a Complete Protein

I’m not a big fan of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In a pinch, I will send peanut butter or sunflower butter and raw honey sandwiches as the main course, but I much prefer the protein in my kids’ lunch to be a complete protein such as eggs, meat, or cheese. No plant proteins can be considered “complete” and hence, are not as nourishing a choice for a school lunch.

Once I have the thermos filled with fresh, whole milk and a complete protein of some kind packed into the lunchbox, I pick one or two final items as “filler food”. This might be fresh fruit cut up in a container, a banana, or an organic fruit leather (I like these). A cup of organic, additive free apple sauce is a good choice too. A small container of apple chips, banana chips, raisins, dates, or nuts works well if your child likes them well enough.

See the snacks section of my Shopping Guide for more ideas (find it here).

One of my children really enjoys nuggets of baby ginger as a lunchbox snack food. Homemade popcorn popped on the stove with expeller coconut oil is also a good choice (do not buy microwave popcorn!).

Have Your Child Help with the Decisions

Get creative! Take your child with you to the healthfood store and stand in front of the aisle with all the bulk foods and have them choose what they like. Involve them in the planning and decisions of what will go into their healthy school lunch, and they will be more bought in to the process.

Avoid Processed Carbs Even if Organic

The main point with the “filler food” is to avoid refined carbohydrates in school lunches if you possibly can. Processed chips, cookies, and crackers from the store are addictive foods, even if made with organic, additive free ingredients. Some studies have shown that sugar is even more addictive than cocaine!

In addition, children with the most intense sweet tooths have been found to be more likely candidates for alcoholism and depression!

Refined carbs are nutritionless and will only foster sugar and carb addiction which will haunt the child for the rest of her life. Putting these types of foods in your child’s lunch gives them your blessing. You are indirectly telling your child that processed carbs have your seal of approval and are a good food to eat. This is, of course, not the message you are trying to send. Try your very best to pack unprocessed, whole foods for your child to foster good eating habits.

I hope these ideas help you with the conundrum of how to pack a healthy school lunch for your child. An indirect benefit of packing whole foods is that there is little to no garbage that your child will throw away. An empty thermos and a couple of empty containers will come home to you to wash and reuse the next day!

Packing a healthy school lunch with whole foods is not only nutritious, it is very green too!

Please comment with your own ideas for healthy school lunch items. I can always use new ideas too!

More Information

Lunchables Creator Won’t Feed Them to His Own Kids

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

 

Comments (37)

  1. Jill Spiro via Facebook August 4, 2014 at 7:06 am

    Raw veggies like yellow pepper slices, carrots, cherry tomatoes (I know these are a fruit), even radishes are a good filler.

    Reply
  2. When using a thermos to pack my sons lunch there are two things I always do. #1 – if the food I am packing is to be kept hot I boil water place the boiling water ( I use a tea pot to boil my water ) in the thermos for at least 5 minutes. Then I over heat the food I am placing in the thermos. Then I dump out the water and place the hot food in the thermos. # 2 – I do the same only with ice water for cold items.

    Always hand wash as soon as they get home with hot soapy water and let air dry over night

    Reply
  3. When serving cold foods like milk I place the milk in the freezer for an hour or so before placing in the thermos. I also place ice water in the thermos prior to filling. This process pre-chills the thermos. The same works with preheating the thermos with hot water.
    I like to do a test run at home before sending this to school. When sending hot soup it was to hot to eat at lunch time. Also so sometimes the lid would suction on with hot soups or pasta sauces making it very difficult for my son to open.

    Reply
  4. When using a thermos to pack my sons lunch there are two things I always do. #1 – if the food I am packing is to be kept hot I boil water place the boiling water ( I use a tea pot to boil my water ) in the thermos for at least 5 minutes. Then I over heat the food I am placing in the thermos.

    Reply
  5. I am wondering more of WHAT your child takes his lunch in. My K daughter needs to be able to open her lunch without help. I was drawn to the bento styles but most are not leak proof nor do they seem practical for sending both warm and cold items. Any suggestions? What do you use?

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Top 20 Nutrient Rich Healthy Foods for Kids « Nutrition 4 Children

  7. Hi Sarah,

    I’m wondering what brand of thermos you use for fresh milk in your kid’s lunches. I want to send my kids with farm fresh milk, but I’m not sure what kind to get. It needs to be easy for them to use (from JK to grade 3), not spill and keep everything cold. What’s the best one, do you think?

    Thanks so much!!
    Rachel

    Reply
  8. FlyBaby Michelle April 15, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    Our son eats leftovers as we are sensitive to many foods right now and are GF, soon to be GAPS. I solve the heating food problem by bringing our son his hot lunch right before lunchtime. I sometimes see him as I drop it off at the front office, so that’s nice ;-)
    People always say “wow!” when I tell them I bring him his lunch everyday. Some folks think I am weird to be so devoted to our son, but that’s ok. I just rearrange my schedule so I can.

    Reply
    • To FlyBaby Michelle: I realize this is an old post/thread, but I just want to add my two cents. I ‘d venture to say that bringing a hot lunch to their child(ren) every day is not a practical or economical option for the majority of families with school-aged kids. For one thing, many people live too far from school for this to make sense in terms of both the time involved and the gas money spent. We only live 10 minutes from school, yet I still spend $5-6 each time I drive there and back. Even if I lived across the street from the school, I know our school’s office staff and teachers would be highly irrirated to have to call/send a student to the office each day to come get their lunch. I doubt they’d even allow it. It sounds like you are very dedicated and loving to your child, but I wonder if you’re really doing him a favor. In my ridiculous opinion, it’s best to not single out your child from his/her classmates unless it’s really necessary of beneficial for their health. There are plenty of ways to send healthy lunches to school, and they can be warm too, by using a Thermos. Again, just my ridiculous opinion…. ☺

      Reply
  9. I just came across your blog looking for lunch box ideas for my daughter who has just started school and is sick of frittata! Thank you for all of the great ideas.

    I would however say that I disagree with milk being the first choice for a drink at school. Water should always be the first choice of drink. I will occaisionally send a small bottle of raw milk or water kefir with my daughter but she always has water. Water should be the first drink of choice for all non-infants including us adults. Other wonderful and healthy drinks like kefir, kombucha, milk, smoothies etc should be the supplement.

    Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
      Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist February 9, 2011 at 9:18 am

      Kids should also have a bottle of filtered water as well. My kids all take a reusable stainless steel water bottle to school everyday. But for lunch, a thermos of raw milk is key for maintaining blood sugar stability and concentration through the day so that they can optimally learn.

      Reply
  10. Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

    Hi Sofia, I send a thermos of raw milk almost every day to school .. I put an ice cube in there just before I close the lid. It stays nice and cold until lunch!

    On cold days, I’ll make hot chocolate (with raw milk, carob, and chocolate exract .. see my video on this) and put that in the thermos instead. Then, they look “cool” for having chocolate milk from time to time! :)

    Your son is fortunate to have a Mom like you who is so thoughtful about packing his lunch!

    Reply
  11. Hi Sarah,
    The lunchbox is always a struggle for me. As you mentioned, it is a delicate balance. My concern is that some of what my son loves, will be “YUCKED” by his classmates. I don’t want him to feel that what he loves is actually bad. So I tend to avoid sending him to school with one his favorites – sardine & avocado sandwich. Also, since we cook at home a lot and he does enjoy the dinners most nights, I feel guilty sending the cold leftovers (chili, homemade pizza, shrimp creole, etc). Even though he does claim he doesn’t mind them cold. You see, we don’t use a microwave in our home and I don’t know how else to either warm or keep these items warm. Also, some items could be delicate temperature wise. How do you judge that? Are you comfortable sending the raw milk that may sit in a warm place until noonish? I usually don’t mind but sometimes if its not cold he wont drink it.
    Our lunch box usually includes carrots & olives, a sandwich (egg salad, tuna salad, meatloaf, turkey or chicken – made at home, and a sliced apple or some raisins & other dried fruit. It’s so sad that we can’t pack nuts these days with all of these nut allergies running around!
    So our categories are generally a sandwich/protein source, a vegetable and a fruit. It seems I run out of options. I need more ideas for sure.
    He also eats for breakfast every other morning, 2 eggs, 2 pork sausages and 1 mug of raw yogurt. The other mornings its oatmeal & the yogurt. This is why I don’t hit to hard on the dairy for lunch. He sure eats a lot for a 5 year old! :-)

    Reply
    • Sophia,
      I know your comment is a couple years old, but for those reading it, I would think that, in the absence of a microvave, you could use a toaster oven for reheating leftovers, then pop that into a Thermos. For chili, you can just heat on the stove, then pour straight into the Thermos. Pizza might be harder to stuff into a Thermos, but a lot of kids like it cold. It sounds to me like you have a lot of variety in the lunches you pack, so you son should be grateful for that. ☺

      Reply
  12. my 7yo actually enjoys…wait…are you ready for it???? LEFTOVERS! She loves to have a lunchtime repeat of dinner…fish and rice, quiche, risotto…and her FAVORITE…pasta. But I do have trouble with the protein. She is not much of a meat eater and I an not a very good egg boiler, lol! Maybe I could sneak more cheese in?
    We also send water. My daughter loves milk and would drink it at lunch, but I am concerned about the safety of food not in the fridge, especially with milk…

    Reply
  13. Your lunches sound very similar to ours :) I always send water though, it's hard to get them to drink enough of it. One of my boys likes lacto-fermented pickles so he gets one of those with his slice or two of lunch meat. The other one likes hummus so if I've made that I'll send some with carrot sticks. The main course is usually yogurt, almost always homemade from the farm, sweetened with either some homemade jam or honey and frozen fruit or cocoa powder. My older son loves homemade salmon patties so I often make a large batch with canned salmon and pull some out of the freezer to heat up and then pop in his thermos. Or soups. And occasionally I make special mac' n cheese with a cauliflower cheese sauce, spaghetti/pizza sauce, Applegate Farms pepperonis and call it pizza mac and cheese.

    Reply
  14. My daughter takes an Applegate Farms organic chicken hot dog(no bun) with organic ketchup, black beans cooked in the crockpot and either organic grapes(dark and green) or organic apricot/applesauce. Sometimes I put raw organic carrots or cucumber instead of the black beans.She drinks water. She drinks oatmilk at home. I don't send it for lunch because milk tends to make you feel thirsty and they don't get much opportunity to drink anything at school.

    My son takes the same kind of hot dog and raw carrots and/or cucumbers and the same type of fruit to 3 day/wk preschool.

    Linda

    Reply
  15. Sarah, the Healthy Home Economist February 21, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Oh, and yes you must always read the label. Just because one bread from particular company is good doesn't mean they all are! Berlin Bakery has a sourdough spelt made with canola oil, so that one is definitely a no no.

    Reply
  16. Sarah, the Healthy Home Economist February 21, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I've seen Berlin Bakery breads at a number of healthfood stores up and down the East Coast (not just in FL) and also at a Publix once. If the one closest to you doesn't carry it, just ask and they will order it for you.

    Reply
  17. sarah,

    do you order the berlin bread directly from them? do you recommend any other products from them? i saw that some of their other products made from sprouted grain had soybeans in them.

    karen

    Reply
  18. Great info Sarah :) Rita, I saw the zip code search on the website, but there isn't anything close to me here in Brandon, which is why I was wondering where you buy it from Sarah. Have you found it at Nutrition S'mart and Chuck's?

    Reply
  19. I see that "Margaret" commented about where to purchase Berlin Bakery bread. I was able to locate a local source after going to the Berlin Bakery website and doing a zip code search. Rita

    Reply
  20. Sarah, the Healthy Home Economist February 20, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    The Berlin Bakery sprouted spelt is a nice bread. It contains yeast, but that is fine for a sprouted bread. You don't want yeast in a non-sprouted bread as this indicates that it was quick baked and the dough was not fermented first to break down the gluten, anti-nutrients. It is ok to use yeast for sprouted flour as the sprouting already breaks down the gluten, anti-nutrients before baking, so quick baking with yeast is ok with sprouted flour.

    Reply
  21. Sarah,
    There has been much discussion in the past on the WAP board about purchased bread not being satisfactory. We went through a multitude of brands and, while some were sprouted, they also contained yeast. What is it about Berlin Bakery bread you like, or is it an acceptable compromise for school lunches?

    Reply
  22. Sarah, the Healthy Home Economist February 19, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Hi Katie, I buy NOW brand of liquid stevia at the local healthfood store. I've recently learned that using whole stevia powder is a better choice than liquid stevia which is much more highly processed, so I will be experimenting with the powder in the coming weeks and comparing the two and then blogging about it. Stay tuned.

    Reply
  23. Hi Sarah:
    I'd like to know what brand/form of stevia you buy and where you buy it. Thanks so much for all the great info. My sister in Atlanta enjoys reading your blog also.
    Catherine in St. Pete

    Reply
  24. Sarah, the Healthy Home Economist February 18, 2010 at 2:46 am

    The soy industry tries to market that soy is a complete protein, but the truth is that soy is deficient in the 2 amino acids methionine and cystine, like all legumes. Quinoa is likely the same .. it may have all the amino acids present, but one or more in deficient quantities to support human health.

    Reply
  25. Hi – this is a really interesting post. I struggle with packing my son's lunch, too.

    Question – is it a myth that quinoa is a complete protein (in reference to your statement that there are no plant-based complete proteins)?

    Reply
  26. Sarah, the Healthy Home Economist February 17, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Forgot to mention grassfed beef and buffalo jerkey with no nitrites, preservatives, or msg. This makes a GREAT lunchbox snack.

    Reply
  27. Sarah, the Healthy Home Economist February 17, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Hi Lou, so excited to have you as a reader from AZ! That was one of the main reasons I started my own blog .. to reach out beyond my own WAPF Chapter and network with (ideally) the whole international community about humanity's imperative return to whole foods. We Moms who "get it" are few and far between, but growing quickly in number! Congratulations on your blog; will check it out asap.

    Reply
  28. hello sarah, i am a weston price follower as well in az. my mom is a chapter leader and got me starrted and i have never felt better in my life. we are raising three kids as healthfully as possible. i can't definitely relate to your "what to pack in my kids lunch?" and valentines posts!!! my kids get so much candy at school… drives me nuts! i frequently post weston price related articles, thoughts and advice on my blog. feel free to check us out at themadskaggs.blogspot.com
    nice to see other mamas out there who get it :)

    Reply

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