Courtesy of Independent Health’s Health Promotion and Wellness Department

At the beginning of each school year many parents struggle with deciding whether to have their child bring a bagged lunch from home or buy lunch from the school cafeteria. Whenever possible, we encourage parents to pack their kids’ lunches so they know what their children are eating.

The most nutritious lunches include foods from at least three food groups — protein, fruit, and dairy. Here are some ideas to keep your child happy and healthy at lunchtime:

Get your child involved

Allowing children to choose and prepare their own lunch piques their interest in the meal, and makes it more likely they’ll eat their own creations. Let your children help make lunch the night before school so that you can guide them on proper portions and healthy choices. Choosing their own lunch box is also a great way to include your children. Look for insulated bags with room for a small freezer pack to keep items cold.

Make a smarter sandwich

  • Use lean meats, grilled chicken, light tuna, peanut butter and jelly.
  • Use different breads, like 100% whole-wheat tortilla wraps. Choose wraps low in saturated fat and made with no hydrogenated oils, or 100% whole-wheat pita pockets.
  • Try nutritious toppings, such as shredded carrot or zucchini, and sliced apple or pear with a turkey sandwich, or banana on a peanut butter sandwich.
  • Try avocado or hummus as a replacement for cheese or mayo.

Love those leftovers

Think about using leftovers from a family-favorite dinner for a next-day lunch. Making homemade meals can be made healthier by cooking with lighter oils, using less salt, etc. Use a thermos to keep foods hot or cold until the lunch bell rings. Some ideas include soup (tomato, vegetable, or bean), chili (vegetarian, or made with lean or extra-lean ground chicken), or spaghetti (whole wheat with tomato, pesto, or marinara sauce).

Healthy snack options

  • Baked potato chips
  • Graham crackers
  • Homemade toasted pita bread chips
  • Pretzels
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Trail mix or raisins
  • Wheat or whole grain crackers

What to drink

Water is the perfect drink to replenish fluid loss from sweat and kids’ everyday activities. A bottle of plain old water may not be glamorous, but it’s a much better choice than a sports drink. In addition, milk (either low-fat white or chocolate) is one of the easiest ways for kids to meet their need for dairy. Another smart option is 100% fruit juice, fortified with calcium and vitamin D.