Simple tips for packing your child a brain-boosting school lunch


September 2019

By: Katy Ellefson, RD, LD, CD
Community Health Specialist & Outpatient Dietitian
Amery Hospital & Clinic

As a dietitian, I’ve learned the theories behind childhood feeding practices. And as the mom of a toddler, I’ve seen them in action firsthand. Nutritious food provides energy for your child’s brain and body – but there’s no doubt that even when you know what’s “best,” putting those practices into action can be tough.

I love giving parents (and anyone else who feeds children) a simple and effective framework for raising lifelong good eaters. A big part of that includes tips for packing delicious yet healthy lunches. Lunch is the meal that gives your child the energy they need to learn and thrive during the second half of the school day until it’s time for their afternoon snack. And when you pack healthy options for your child, it helps build a foundation of lifetime good eating habits and preferences that will reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases.

Here’s what to include in your child’s lunchbox, and why:

1. Fruits, veggies and whole grains, like whole-grain bread, whole-wheat or corn tortillas or brown rice. These will power up your child with an immediate energy source.

2. Beans, nuts and seeds, nut and seed butters, eggs, lean meats and cheese. The protein in these foods helps build muscle and other tissues in your child’s body, making it stronger.

3. Seeds or nuts, avocado and olive or canola oils. The healthy fats in these foods will keep your child satisfied longer. And omega-3 fats are actually a building block of the brain that are necessary for memory.

4. Water or milk. Water is the best way to stay hydrated – being even a little dehydrated can make your child feel sluggish. Milk has nutrients that help your child grow strong.

On the flip side, make sure to limit high-sugar foods and sugary drinks when you’re packing your child’s lunch. Kids don’t need the extra sugar. Beverages like soda, sports or juice drinks have a lot of it without much of anything else. They’re full of empty calories with no nutrients, and can actually impair brain function.

Won’t my child just throw out the “healthy” stuff when they get to school?

Kids have the power to decide what they eat and what they don’t. But it is our job as parents to provide a variety of good foods for them to choose from. Kids may not accept a new food the first time you offer it – and it’s normal for them to be unsure about taking a bite of something they’ve never tried before. Be patient and keep offering. Sometimes you have to present a food 10 to 30 times before a child will eat it.

Being creative with how you present food to your child tends to help a lot. Offering a meal that includes foods of many different colors can make it more appealing. You might also discover that even if your child doesn’t like veggies steamed, they may love them raw, roasted or dipped in a sauce. Other tricks that have worked for me and other parents include:
  • Giving food a silly name - like “wacky watermelon!”
  • Serving food “on-a-stick” or skewer
  • Arranging food to look like faces or characters, or using cookie cutters to form it into fun shapes
  • Getting kids involved in the shopping, planning and preparing of meals and snacks
Involving your kids in food prep not only helps them learn independence, it also helps get them excited and interested in trying new foods. Here's a recipe that my 3-year-old loves to both eat and help make: (Try for 5 Guacamole:

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