Tips for packing a healthy school lunch

Add some new, healthier options to packing school lunches this year. (Photo by

Early fall means school schedules are back and so is packing lunches for the days that school lunch just will not do.

The only problem: the cute little unicorn and super-hero themed lunch bags are often filled with empty calorie foods.

Individual bags of cheddar crackers, fruit snacks, snack cakes, and prepackaged trays filled with crackers and processed meats and cheeses, are just a few of the foods that fill a school cafeteria.

According to Jenna Smith, University of Illinois Extension registered dietitian and nutrition and wellness educator, “these types of packed lunches are often lower in nutritional value than a hot school lunch, and may ultimately limit academic performance.” So what is a child and parent to pack? Smith recommends the following:

  • Protein does not have to be a deli meat or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Pack a hard-boiled egg, hummus with pita bread and vegetables, cheese and crackers with a handful of nuts, or cold grilled chicken, ranch dressing and your kids’ favorite vegetables wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla.
  • Dips for dunking veggies may help avoid those veggies going in the trash. Ranch, marinara, hummus, guacamole, salsa or nut butter; whatever your child likes.
  • Toast a whole-grain waffle ahead of time and cut into two halves. Pack with a low sugar yogurt and berries. Kids will have fun making a yogurt berry sandwich.

Allow your child to be involved in the packing, but set limits where needed. “It’s okay to pack the occasional treat; it should just be surrounded by other healthy foods. When packing, ask your child what food groups are represented; aim for all five,” says Smith.

Try letting your child pack a lunch one day a week, but encourage school lunch on the other days. This can help them try new foods, especially when they see other children eating them. Lunchtime is sure to become your child’s favorite time of the school day.

Grilled Chicken Wrap

2 skinless boneless chicken breasts

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon black pepper

4 whole-wheat tortillas

½ cup ranch or Caesar dressing

2 cups chopped romaine lettuce

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

½ cup shredded parmesan cheese


Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Sprinkle garlic powder and pepper over chicken breasts and grill until internal temperature is at least 165°F. Let cool and slice into 1-inch strips or cubes. Fill each tortilla with ¼ of the dressing, lettuce, tomatoes and parmesan cheese. Roll up and secure with toothpick. Keep refrigerated or packed in an insulated cooler with ice pack.

Yield: 4 servings


Nutrition Facts (per serving): 340 calories, 13 grams fat, 880 milligrams sodium, 32 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 25 grams protein