The Anatomy of A Healthy School Lunch

kids eating school lunch

Nutrition guidance always is changing, and it can be hard to keep up—especially if you’re a parent chasing after young ones! So here’s a quick rundown of the latest national nutrition standards that you can apply (and exceed!) when packing kids’ lunches and preparing other meals.

The National School Lunch Program is federally assisted, operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritious, low-cost or free lunches to children every school day. This year, the program was updated to meet the dietary guidelines laid out for all Americans. That means increased amounts of whole grains and fruit and vegetables, and less unhealthy fats and sodium, plus smaller caloric servings. Surprised? Probably not. But packing an interesting, well-rounded lunch that your kids will actually consume and meets these guidelines can still be challenging. Here’s some assistance!

Where to Start

Consult Choose My Plate when embarking on your construction of healthy school lunches. This is an excellent resource for practical and applicable nutrition information and guidance. Choose My Plate recommendations encourage you to consider the five foods groups when preparing a meal. Think of these as the “building blocks” of a healthy diet—foods that should be present in some capacity at every meal.

The Five Essential Food Groups:

  • Fruits/Vegetables: Aim for more veggies, rather than exclusively fruit.
  • Grains: Choose whole grains whenever possible.
  • Protein: Lean sources, please!
  • Fats/Oils: Healthy sources of fat will not make you fat.
  • Dairy: Low-fat or fat-free varieties are encouraged.

Your young one expends a lot of energy daily just by being a kid. Providing them with foods that are nutrient dense (many vital vitamins and minerals for fewer calories) is the way to go. Select foods that will not only nourish their growing bodies, but give them long-lasting energy.

Nutrient-Dense Food:

  • Healthy sources of fat like nuts, avocados, and olive oil are satiating.
  • Lean sources of protein like eggs, beans, poultry ,and fish are also filling.
  • Fruits, veggies, and whole grains contain fiber that provide the feeling of fullness for longer periods.

The Plate Make-Up

Here’s the anatomy of a healthy school lunch, according to ChooseMyPlate: Half of lunch or the plate should consist of fruits and vegetables, then one quarter should be grains (preferably whole), and the second quarter protein.

My Plate

For more information and ideas on how to make healthy food choices, refer to ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Tips for Lunchtime Success

  1. Get your child involved in preparing their lunch for school. They may be more excited to eat items they prepared themselves and less likely to trade healthy foods for unhealthy ones at the lunch table.
  2. When at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. It’s very unlikely that your child will beg for Brussel sprouts. Know that it takes 8-10 exposures to change taste preferences. If your child isn’t going for it even after multiple exposures, move on and revisit again later.
  3. Change it up to keep them interested. There’s nothing more mundane than eating the same thing every day. As much as children thrive on having a routine, their lunch doesn’t have to follow suit. In order to get them all the nutrients they need to grow, add some variety to their diet by mixing up their lunchtime meals as much as possible. This is likely to keep them excited in healthy food choices.

Additional Resources:

  • Breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas for kids – eatright.org
  • Improving school lunches – Whole Kids Foundation
  • Healthy school lunches and snacks – Parents Magazine
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Carly Sippel is a registered yoga teacher, certified life coach, and nutrition nut. She has a Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Dietetics from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She turns her passion into practice, promoting healthy bodies in both her personal and professional life.