5 Balanced Back-To-School Lunch Ideas
It's getting time to pack away the beach balls, flip flops, and sunscreen and break out the back packs, notebooks, and lunch boxes. This summer flew by (as per usual) and I can't believe it's already almost September. With the start of the new school year approaching, nutrition is more important than ever to consider with the rise in pediatric cases. If you haven't already, definitely check out our blog post on Family Immune Support 101 for Back to School that we wrote for the school year last year. It has everything you'll need to know on key vitamins/minerals needed for appropriate immune support.
Meal times are something we as dietitians find parents are constantly stressing and battling with their children. Picky eating in general could be a series of blog posts (let us know if that is something you all would be interested in in the comments below), but today we'll be focusing on why an overall healthful nutrition status is important for your child (other than immune support) and some creative (and easy!) lunch ideas listed below to try out. A multitude of studies have shown that there is a strong connection with adequate nutrition and academic achievement. Here are just a few we can compiled from the CDC website. If you'd like to see the full handout click here.
"Student participation in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) School Breakfast Program (SBP) is associated with increased academic grades and standardized test scores, reduced absenteeism, and improved cognitive performance (e.g., memory).3, 5–1"
"Skipping breakfast is associated with decreased cognitive performance (e.g., alertness, attention, memory, processing of complex visual display, problem solving) among students."8, 9, 11–17
"Lack of adequate consumption of specific foods, such as fruits, vegetables, or dairy products, is associated with lower grades among students."18–20 HEALTH AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT
"Deficits of specific nutrients (i.e., vitamins A, B6, B12, C, folate, iron, zinc, and calcium) are associated with lower grades and higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness among students."4, 5, 10
"Hunger due to insufficient food intake is associated with lower grades, higher rates of absenteeism, repeating a grade, and an inability to focus among students."5, 10, 19–23
That is some pretty convincing research if I do say so myself! So as a parent, how do you find time to provide healthful lunches without slaving over the kitchen every night like these TikTok mom's are doing? (hello unrealistic! But serious props to them... seriously.)
When preparing meals for your child a great saying us RD's like to use is to focus on your ABC's: APPEALING, BALANCED, and CONVENIENT. If you focus on these three words it can help target lunch preparation a little better.
APPEALING - In general, kid's tend to be more in tune to eat a balanced meal if you make it colorful and aesthetically appealing. In fact, adults tend to be this way too! Fruits and vegetables are a great way to add in some color to a meal. Also things like cutting sandwiches into funky shapes is another idea as well or color theming lunches (i.e. green grapes and celery OR red apples and tomatoes).
BALANCED - As dietitians, we throw around the word balanced a whole ton. So what exactly does this mean? In general, your children's meals should have a mix of about 3 food groups when setting up a meal. Furthermore, you want a source (or two) of fiber along with a protein and a fat. Fiber is a plant compound that helps with adequate digestion and wards off any chronic diseases in the future. Examples would be any variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (i.e. whole wheat crackers, popcorn, etc.). Protein has staying power that helps us feel full for a longer period of time, so if your child is eating lunch earlier in the school day then protein is essential to keeping them feeling full and satisfied, so that they can concentrate on their school work. Examples of protein foods would be poultry, soy, pork, beef, shellfish, nuts, seeds, beans, etc. You'll notice that some of the foods in these lists will overlap like beans because they offer both protein and fiber. Lastly, fat is another essential component to your child's lunch for a very similar role as protein. Fat takes longer to digest and thus, keeps us feeling full, longer. Another helpful component of fat is that it can help to absorb any fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) in your child's fruits/veggies. Examples of foods that provide fat would be nuts, seeds, nut-butters, dressings, fluid oils, avocados, olives, cheese, etc.
CONVENIENT - Convenience is something to also consider because as much as we'd all like to be the rockstar mom or influencer from TikTok, making gourmet, taxing lunches is not always realistic. Items that I always recommend to parents are what I call "finger fruits and vegetables." These are fruits and vegetables that don't require any prep work besides washing. Examples would be grape tomatoes, baby carrots, sugar snap peas, snow peas, pickles, mini peppers, grapes, berries, bananas, apples, tangerines, etc. Sometimes keeping the rule KISS is the best. Keep. It. Stupid. Simple. Other convenient items are pre-seasoned tuna or chicken packets, whole grain crackers, low-sugar granola bars, yogurts, etc.
With all of the above in consideration, we have compiled a few of our favorite lunch ideas applying all the concepts above for children that take no time below!
Lunch #1 (note serving sizes have not been included as this will vary depending on the age, height, weight, and activity level of your child)
Main: Natural peanut butter *(or sunflower butter if there is a concern of nut allergies in the school) and banana sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread, cut into fours
Sides/Snacks: Baby carrots with 1 individual hummus pack & grapes
Note: When choosing peanut butter make sure you are reading the ingredients label! You only want to see 1-2 ingredients. Peanuts or peanuts and salt. If your PB has hydrogenated oil (trans fat) or palm oils (saturated fat) try finding one with lesser ingredients.
* We have provided links to some of our favorite products.
Main: Chicken salad with diced celery and low fat mayo with whole grain crackers (such as Triscuits, Wasa, etc.)
Sides/Snacks: Mini peppers with 1 individual guacamole pack & 1 small apple
Main: Low sodium chicken/turkey cold cuts, low fat cheese, and shredded lettuce on a whole wheat wrap with mustard
Sides/Snacks: Individual portion of trail mix with dried fruit & Grape tomatoes
Main: Flavored low fat Greek yogurt (i.e. Siggis, Chobani lower sugar, etc.) with 1/4 cup of granola that includes nuts/seeds (i.e. Kind, Bear Naked, Purely Elizabeth)
Sides/Snacks: Assorted berries & Individual bag of popcorn
Sides/Snacks: low fat cheese stick & tangerines
And there you have it! I hope these ideas help to spark some creativity in making your child's lunches this year both nutritious and delicious! If you feel you need some further assistance with nutritionally balanced meals, picky eating, or sports nutrition, The Rite Bite dietitian's are always here to help. We are still offering both in-person and telehealth appointments at this time.
Until Next Time,
Jackie Iannone, MS, RDN, CDN
Owner & Founder
The Rite Bite Nutrition Counseling, PLLC is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for our practice to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.