Lunch is in the Bag! (English)

Published: August 9, 2022

When my children were in elementary school, one of their favorite parts of getting ready for the new school year was selecting a new lunch box.  Did they want a traditional metal lunch box or an insulated bag?  Did they want a character – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony were the choices back then – or maybe their name on the front?  As much fun as it was to select a lunch box, as a nutritionist and mother, I was more concerned about what they put in it and ate for lunch.

A few years back, we conducted a study called Lunch is in the Bag, in which we taught parents to pack healthy lunches for their preschool children.  Eating lunch can be a learning experience for the child as well as providing essential nutrients for child growth and development.  Children learn what components make up a healthy lunch, and since we know that health behaviors track over time, the meal patterns that are set for children when they are young can influence their mealtime behaviors later in life.

For the Lunch is in the Bag study, we set up a lunch meal pattern that provided optimal nutrition, yet was easy for parents and children to follow.  This pattern included one serving from each of the MyPlate food groups:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains, whole wheat bread, and pastas, brown rice
  • Proteins, including chicken, fish, eggs, nut butters (check for school guidelines on these because of food allergies), or beans (pinto beans, black beans)
  • Dairy foods, such as nonfat or 1% low-fat milk, nonfat yogurt, or part-skim mozzarella cheese

Following this meal pattern will ensure that children are on track to consume a healthy diet with adequate vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  In addition, this general meal pattern can be modified to accommodate different individual likes and dislikes, as well as culturally appropriate foods.  Examples of some of these “Gold Medal” lunches can be found here in English or here in Spanish.

Here are some general do’s and don’ts when packing lunches for children:

  • Do - Try to provide whole grain foods whenever possible. For example, replace white bread with 100% whole wheat bread.  In our studies, we reported that parents found it easy to make this substitution and children accepted these foods.
  • Do - A serving of baby carrots is a great choice of vegetable, but children need to be exposed to a variety of fruits and vegetables to get all of the vitamins they need. Here are some examples of vegetables that children like:
    • Sweet peppers (yellow or red) cut into strips
    • Cucumber slices
    • Jicama (with lime and chili, if desired)
    • Cherry tomatoes
    • Broccoli and cauliflower cut into small pieces with ranch dip
  • Do - Leftovers from dinner can make good choices for school meals. Just remember to keep the foods hot or cold until they are served (see below for tips on that).
  • Do - Be sure to include milk as a drink or have your children buy milk at school. In our study, children who packed milk in their lunches had better overall diets than children who had fruit-flavored drinks.
  • Do not include fruit juice or fruit drinks. It’s better to include whole fruit (strawberries, bananas, oranges, pears, plums) since fruit juice is not a significant source of fiber and can get children used to drinking sweetened drinks.  Fruit drinks or punches have very little fruit juice and often contain a lot of sugar.  Do - If your child gets thirsty, include a bottle of water or a bottle that children can fill with water at school.
  • Do not pack chips or sweets like cookies, cakes, fruit snacks, or candy. We found that children tend to eat their chips or sweets first, which leaves them less hungry for the more healthy foods.   Do - Get children used to having fruit for their dessert. 

Have your child help pack their lunches and pick out foods that they like, or make a game of selecting new foods for their lunches.  Keep in mind that children need about 8 to 15 exposures to or tastes of an individual food to make it part of their usual food choices, so don’t be discouraged if they don’t eat a food the first time you include it.  Also, keep in mind that your children might like foods that you don’t, so try to expose them to different foods than what you might usually serve or eat. 

One final note about packing school lunches:  make sure that the lunches are safe to eat.  Foods that are kept at unsafe temperatures can make children sick.  Keep foods in the refrigerator or hot until you are ready to pack them, don’t leave lunches on the counter overnight, and include a thermos for hot foods and ice packs in your child’s lunch box or bag to keep cold foods at a safe temperature.  Since lunches are often stored in hot places (and Texas can get hot!), be sure to include at least two ice packs to ensure that foods are kept cold until lunchtime.  In our Lunch is in the Bag study, we found that almost all foods (about 98%) were at unsafe temperatures before the children consumed them if parents did not include at least two ice packs. 

The beginning of the school year is a great time to put these changes into practice, as children are getting a fresh start in a new grade and your family will be establishing new routines.  Packing a lunch can be both easy and fun, and can help your child stay healthy and better able to learn in the new school year.