How to Pack a Healthy School Lunch| Updated: May 15, 2019
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.
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!
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!
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Since 2002, Sarah has been a Health and Nutrition Educator dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household.
Sarah was awarded Activist of the Year at the International Wise Traditions Conference in 2010.
Sarah received a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in Economics from Furman University and a Master’s degree in Government (Financial Management) from the University of Pennsylvania.
Mother to three healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, her work has been covered by USA Today, The New York Times, National Review, ABC, NBC, and many others.