Tips for packing healthy school lunches

Posted on 8/9/2016

As children get caught up in the anticipation of a new school year, Palmetto Health pediatric dietitian nutritionist Megan Puryear shares tips for filling those lunch boxes with healthy snacks and meals.

“Whether you purchase a cool new lunch bag or just plan to use last year’s lunchbox or bag, having fun gear can get your child interested in what goes inside,” said Puryear. “Color and variety are the keys to making meals look appetizing. A balanced meal should include a serving of whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables and dairy.

“Sit down with your child and make a plan for lunch-packing,” said Puryear. “This will give you insight into what foods your child likes and will involve your child in planning the week’s lunch menu. By shopping ahead for nutritious foods, you can pack a healthy lunch in minutes.”

Puryear suggests stocking up on lean deli meats, whole grain breads and tortillas, leafy greens and reduced-fat cheeses for sandwiches and wraps. “Keep food safety in mind and include an ice pack when packing items that should be kept cold, such as yogurt, meat, cheese, pudding and hummus. Peanut butter does not require refrigeration, so it can be a good choice if allergies are not an issue.”

Puryear said parents don’t need to buy convenience items like prepackaged deli lunch kits that contain high-fat processed meats, processed cheese and refined crackers. “Create your own spin by filling small containers with healthier foods like lean ham or turkey, low-fat cheese and whole grain crackers. Remember to include fruits and vegetables for a balanced meal.”

“Consider packing a few extra servings of healthy favorites that your child can share with friends,” said Puryear. “Cut vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, celery and zucchini into sticks that can be dipped in peanut butter, low-fat dressing or hummus. This is a good strategy if your child is a picky eater. When they see their friends enjoying something, they are more likely to try it.”

If your child loves crunchy snacks, Puryear suggests whole grain crackers, popcorn, granola or goldfish crackers. “Chips can be a treat once in a while, but they shouldn’t be a daily food. Chips that are marketed as healthier can be tricky, so read the label and check the serving size.”

Puryear said that a satisfying snack should include a carbohydrate and a protein. “A snack is something to hold you over until your next meal. It isn’t intended to fill you up like a meal might,” she said.

Good snack choices are:

  • Fruit with cheese or peanut butter
  • Granola and yogurt
  • Vegetables and hummus
  • Crackers and hummus or peanut butter

Beverages are another area where healthy choices can make a significant difference in nutrition and weight control. “Avoid packing sweetened beverages like sodas or fruit drinks. Flavored waters and low-fat milk are good choices. Fruit juice should be used in moderation – no more than 4 ounces per day. It is better to have an apple than to have apple juice,” said Puryear. “Most sports drinks contain sugar. A sports drink bottle may contain two or more servings, so read the label to avoid empty calories.”

If your child enjoys salads, Puryear recommends leafy greens, such as romaine and spinach, rather than iceberg lettuce. Top the salad with a lean protein, such as beans, hard-boiled eggs or grilled meats. “Pay attention to the amounts of cheese and dressing you add because that can add more calories than most people realize,” said Puryear.

Puryear encourages parents to make sure their children have a healthy breakfast each day. “There are things you can do the night before, like setting the table or preparing oatmeal or boiling some eggs to make breakfast easier. Breakfast should include a carbohydrate and a protein.”

Good choices to have on hand are:

  • Whole grain cereals
  • Skim milk
  • Fresh fruit
  • Whole wheat bagels
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit
  • Whole grain toast with peanut butter
  • Lean ham

For extra busy mornings, Puryear recommends that parents keep a box of granola bars or protein bars in the car.

“By planning ahead, you can teach your child to associate meals and snacks with healthy choices,” said Puryear. One of her favorite resources is “You will find all kinds of nutritional tips there and they have great information about portion sizes appropriate for children.”

About Megan Puryear
Puryear is a registered and licensed dietitian who received her bachelor's and master's degrees in Nutrition from Winthrop University. Megan has combined her passion for nutrition and working with individuals one-on-one to help them achieve and maintain their health related goals. She is an active member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the South Carolina Dietetic Association, and the Columbia-Midlands Dietetic Association. Megan enjoys cooking, gardening, spending time with her family and traveling.

About Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital
Palmetto Health Children's Hospital is South Carolina’s first children's hospital and has more than 150,000 children’s visits each year. It offers more than 30 subspecialties to meet the unique health care needs of children and has central South Carolina's only Children’s Emergency Center. With more than 350 professionals who work exclusively with children, Palmetto Health Children's Hospital has a team of highly skilled and trained experts unmatched by any hospital in the Midlands. Palmetto Health Children's Hospital is the place to go for children's medical care, because the best care matters.


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