School has started and for many families – this means packing school lunches. It can be challenging to assemble a nutritious lunch day after day. Here are some nutrition guidelines and food ideas to help make sure your child has an interesting and nutritious lunch.

The USDA developed MyPlate to help identify and make healthy food choices. MyPlate divides food into five groups – Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Dairy, and Protein. The right mix and amounts of these food groups can create a healthier eating style that can last a lifetime.

What Types of Foods Are Needed?

So, what is the right amount of food for children? It depends on the child, their lifestyle, and their caloric requirements. On average, a 4 to 8 year-old girl requires 1200 to 1800 calories per day and the range depends on whether she has a sedentary, moderately active, or active lifestyle. A boy the same age would require (on average) requires 1400 to 2000 calories per day.

food diagram

MyPlate recommends food and beverage selections from all five food groups. The following are average daily intakes for children ages 4 to 18 by food group:

  • Fruits: 1 – 1 ½ cups
  • Vegetables: 1 ½ – 3 cups
  • Grains: 2 ½ – 4 ounces
  • Dairy: 2 ½ – 3 cups
  • Protein: 4 – 6 ½ ounces

How Much Food is Needed?

How much of their daily intake should be at lunch? Some families have a large breakfast and smaller noon and evening meals. Other families have a small breakfast, large midday meal, and a smaller evening meal. While three meals are commons, some families plan on eating small servings every few hours as snacks or small plates, rather than 3 meals a day. It doesn’t really matter when these calories are consumed during the day, it’s the total calorie count and overall nutrient intake that is important.

Let’s assume approximately 40% of the daily intake requirement for an elementary school child is consumed at lunch (480 to 800 calories). This means a healthy lunchbox should contain ¼ to ½ cups of fruit, ½ to 1 ¼ cups of vegetables, 1 – 1 ½ ounces of grains, 1 – 1 ¼ cups of dairy, and 1 ¼ – 2 ½ ounces of protein.

What Should Be Included?

Now that we know what we need, how can we assemble lunches that are appetizing and meet these requirements? A single serving of fruit is easy to include in a lunch box. Fresh fruits provide the most nutrition and can include grapes, berries, oranges, and apples. Dried fruits are easy to pack but be aware of the sugar content. Frozen fruits will generally thaw by lunchtime and are a great way to include out of season fruits. There are a lot of individual serving fruit cups on the market today – just be sure to read the ingredients and be aware of any added sugar.

vegetables

Vegetables may be challenging since many children are picky about which vegetables they will eat. A single serving of vegetables is generally about a ½ cup, so there should be 2 to 3 servings in each lunch box. Ideas for veggies include sweet bell pepper strips, cherry tomatoes, pickles, carrots, snap peas, cucumbers, and celery. Some children may want to dip the veggies. Healthier dips include hummus, peanut butter, and some salad dressing.

A serving of grain is 1 ounce so include 1 to 1 ½ servings in each lunch. The majority of grains consumed in a day should be whole grains including whole grain breads, crackers, bagels, tortillas, and pitas.

The dairy food group is not limited to milk. Dairy includes cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Serving sizes are 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1 ½ ounces of cheese, or 1 tablespoon of butter. A single serving of dairy should be included in each lunch and most school cafeterias will let the child buy milk. Yogurt tubes and cheese cubes are easy to pack.

cashews

Protein is sometimes a challenging food group since a lot of these foods require refrigeration, but freezer packs keep these items at acceptable temperatures until lunch time. The serving size for protein is ¼ cup or about 2-3 ounces. Generally, you will need 2 servings in each lunch. Peanut butter is a traditional source of lunchtime protein, but other protein options include meats, eggs, beans, and nuts. There are many single serving packages of various nuts available, just read the label for salts (sodium) and sugar. Check the school rules as some schools have nut restrictions due to child allergies.

Just because the USDA divides food into 5 groups, doesn’t mean you have to eat them individually. Whole wheat crackers can be combined with nitrite free ham slices and cheese. A cold wheat pasta salad can incorporate whole grains with vegetables. A kabob can contain meat, cheese, and vegetables. Also, tortillas can be used to create a variety of roll ups and can be eaten like a burrito or cut into spirals.

How Can I Get My Child to Eat It?

Just because you packed a nutritious lunch doesn’t mean the child will eat it. In order to encourage healthy eating, let the child have a say in the items they see when they open their lunchbox. Children as young as six can review a list of approved items and select what they want in their lunch each week. If it’s easier, have the children choose their fruits and vegetables at the grocery or farmer’s market.

Happy girl sitting in cart with parents at supermarket

Children who select their foods have a greater commitment to the meal. For younger children, make the food fun by cutting breads or fruits into interesting shapes or mix different colors of vegetables so they appeal to the young eye. For older children, have them prepare the foods and pack their own lunch boxes, filling it with healthy options from a preselected menu that limits processed foods such as potato chips and candy.

One last note – ensure you read the labels on any processed foods you want to include in the lunch box. You don’t want to have a nutritious meal plan and negate the benefits by including overly processed, high sugar, high salt, high fat, or high calorie foods. An occasional treat is great, but dessert and pleasure foods should not be consumed regularly.

To learn more, a Nutrition Basics course is available with enrollment in the Advanced Childcare program.

About the Author: Lynn Zepp earned her Master of Science in Food and Nutrition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences from Pennsylvania State University. Lynn is a Registered Dietitian and Licensed Dietitian-Nutritionist in Maryland. Lynn is also an adjunct faculty member of Amslee Institute, an organization dedicated to professional training and certification of elite Nannies, Au Pairs, Babysitters, and other childcare providers.