Beating Lunchbox Boredom the Healthy Way

By Colleen Doyle, MS, RD

I read a recent study from a group of Harvard researchers who wanted to determine what foods and/or beverages are most likely to cause that slow and steady weight gain that many of us see over time as we get older – those things we eat or drink that may contribute to the number on our scale inching up ever so slightly year after year.

Interestingly enough, what topped the list were potato chips, potatoes (especially french fries), sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meats (think hot dogs).  And that got me thinking about my kids and what they eat at school. [more]

A Front in the War on Childhood Obesity

The nutritional quality of foods and beverages in schools has been a hot debate for quite some time, largely driven by trends in childhood obesity in this country. About 17% of US kids today are obese.

While kids eat plenty of foods outside of school, the foods and beverages available at schools are an important consideration because of the time our kids spend in school.  It’s been estimated that for some children, 50% of the calories they eat in a day are from school meals.

It’s been exciting to see innovative, kid-approved initiatives that are helping to reduce the calories, sugar, sodium, and fat in school meals – initiatives that are bringing salad bars to schools and getting local chefs to work with students to create new and healthier menu options that taste great, for example. Also exciting is recent legislation that is strengthening nutrition standards for all foods and beverages sold in schools.

But let’s face it – there are still a lot of chips, french fries, sodas, and hot dogs to be found.  I’m fine with my kids having those things occasionally, but I for sure don’t want them having them every day.

Easy Ideas Kids Will Actually Eat

So I pack a lot of school lunches and snacks. And like many people, I’m regularly trying to come up with a variety of healthy options – things that my kids will actually eat, that they won’t get bored with, and that can survive (from a food safety perspective) with insulated lunch bags, freezer packs, and/or a thermos. My kids think I’m a nerd, but I have some ‘guiding principles’ I go by:

  • There will always be at least one fruit and one vegetable
  • The grains are mostly whole grains
  • Proteins tend to be lean and/or sources of healthy fats
  • Dairy products (and peanut butter, for that matter) are low in added sugar.

Here are some of my standbys that I mix and match:

Easy ‘entrées’

  • String cheese or cheese cubes and whole grain crackers
  • Hummus and whole wheat pita bread
  • Leftover grilled or baked chicken strips with honey mustard for dipping
  • Any kind of leftovers, heated and put in a thermos (chili, spaghetti, stir-fry, soup, etc)
  • High-fiber, low-sugar cereal, eaten with milk from school. (Look for cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving).

Sandwiches and wraps

  • Whole wheat tortillas smeared with low-fat refried beans (or filled with black beans and/or leftover rice, if I have some), with salsa for dipping
  • Whole wheat tortilla with turkey, cheese, and apple or avocado slices
  • Peanut or almond butter sandwich on whole grain bread with banana slices or raisins


Fruits, vegetables and salads

  • Whole fruit or fruit slices (dipped in lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown)
  • Single portion-sized cups of unsweetened apple sauce or fruit packed in its own juice, without added sugar
  • Carrots, pepper strips and celery sticks (sometimes with ranch dressing to dip)
  • Edamame (soy beans) and sweet cherry tomatoes
  • Celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter and sprinkled with raisins or other dried fruit (cranberries, blueberries)
  • Colorful salad greens topped with a variety of cut up vegetables and sometimes dried fruit. Depending on what else I pack, I may also add a protein source, like hard-boiled egg slices, leftover rotisserie chicken, chickpeas or nuts. (I either pack dressing in a container on the side, or put it in the bottom of the salad container and have them shake it to spread the dressing around).

Other “sides” and snacks

  • Individual serving-sized packages of low-fat, low-sugar yogurt (look for no more than 20 grams of sugar per 6 ounces; about 12 grams of that is naturally-occurring sugar found in dairy products)
  • Baked tortilla chips and salsa
  • Trail mix made with cereals, nuts, pretzels, dried fruit, or raisins

Healthy drinks

  • Freeze small bottles of water to help keep your child well hydrated and his/her lunch cool.
  • If you pack juice, make sure it’s 100% juice (freeze these also to help keep the lunch cool).

Reversing a Troubling Trend

Now the reality is, some days and nights are crazier than others and I may not have – or take! – the time to pack lunches. If there are days when my kids do end up eating hot dogs, pizza, or the like at school, I pay extra attention to be sure their breakfast, dinner, and after-school snacks on those days focus on healthy choices.

Back to that study about foods and beverages that may be contributing to weight gain among adults. Chips, french fries, sodas, hot dogs, bologna and other processed meats are foods that a lot of kids eat on a regular basis.

we eat isn’t the only factor involved in weight control — how much we eat and how active we are critical. Research suggests that obese kids are likely to become obese adults, putting them at risk of developing cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Indeed, it’s been suggested that this generation of youth will live shorter and less healthy lifespans than their parents. But that doesn’t have to be. We can turn this childhood obesity epidemic around.

And this time of year – the back-to-school time of year – is a great time to be thinking about that. Starting with our kids’ lunchboxes.

What about you? What healthy choices do you put in your kids’ lunchboxes that they love to eat?

And for more information about school health, including how to implement a wellness policy, click here.

Doyle is director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.

7 thoughts on “Beating Lunchbox Boredom the Healthy Way

  1. Very helpful! The problem I’m currently dealing with is the lunches at my son’s school are terrible in terms of being processed, high in fat, and only one fruit or vegetable (not one of each). Examples include hot dogs, pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, tator tots, etc. Worst of all, they do not let the preschoolers (my son’s age) bring their own lunch. So frustrating because my family is big on eating healthy, unprocessed foods. Any advice on what I can do to get the school to change their lunch menu or to get them to change their policy on bringing a lunch?

  2. My daughter is in 8th grade and I have packed her lunch throughout her school years. I always incorporate fruits and veggies in her lunches and will add one small item of sweetness for her. I do tend to bake desserts such as cookies, breads, granola bars etc… I substitute ingredients for healthier options and never have preservatives in them. It keeps her happy to have something sweet and me happy because I know that is healthy or healthier than the store bought. Her lunch today included: A turkey bacon wrap with spinach, mixed greens, and provolone cheese, sliced apple and plout, chocolate milk, pretzels and a small brownie.

    We have to take control of our children’s eating habits, what they learn now will be what they will continue to do as adults. :o)

  3. I am a cafeteria manager at a junior high school in NY. This is my 22nd yr. there. In our cafeteria, we have 2 kinds of can fruit in natural juice, 2 kinds of fresh fruit and at 2 vegetable choices in each of the 4 serving lines. We have hot dogs once every 2 weeks, pizza on wheat crust with part skim mozzarella cheese daily, deli sandwiches made with turkey ham, turkey bologna daily and french fries once a week (ala-carte-not part of a reimbursable lunch). The chips we offer (also ala-carte) are baked and the other snacks are all healthy choice snacks. We sell bottle water (ala-carte), not soda. Our milk is skim and 1% white and 1/2% chocolate. I hope you get the point by now or I can keep going. One meal a day is not making our children fat-it’s the computers and video games that they play all night when they get home. As you can see, we offer plenty of good choices but the government says we can’t force the children to take them. Out of 400 lunches served per day, we serve about 140 fruit servings and 40 vegetable servings. Therefore, the children need to be taught to eat better-we only serve them, we can’t make them eat it!

  4. That is great information in the school health section. I have joined the PTO and will see what kind of headway I can make. It would be great if we could just have the option to pack our kids a lunch!

  5. I am very disappointed in the negative comments about school lunch. I am a school foodservice nutritionist in Braintree,I am very proud of the lunches that our Foodservice Director offers our students. I can honestly say that she is all about the students getting good nutrition. We serve our students many choices of fresh fruits and vegetables. We offer healthy snacks to the students as a la cart items. I go to the school nutrition association meetings and the interest in school lunch nutrition is amazing. School lunch professionals coming together to find new and exciting recipes that are both healthy and appealing to the child ren.

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