nutrition for kids

Healthy Lunchbox Hacks & Snacks

Why Healthy Lunchbox?

School has been in session now for several weeks.  My picky 5th grader likes to take a lunchbox to school and I started to notice many food items coming back mostly untouched.  When questioned, I expected the same usual response about not having time to eat between chatting with his pals, but I was surprised when my tween looked up at me and said, “Mom, can we please not do carrots anymore?”

Baffled, and feeling inadequate as a mother and nutritionist, I immediately jumped on Pinterest for ideas. I was amazed by the creatively designed bento box lunches for kids.  The moms who do that are superhumans!  I am many things, but I am not that mom.

I took a different approach that got our family back on track.  It also helped me to get the kids better involved in planning and packing their own lunches while helping them learn and understand how healthy food choices support their bodies. Below, I share with you my family’s new approach, as well as some healthy ideas for lunches and snacks.

3 Basic Principles:

Feel free to get as fancy as you’d like, but be sure to follow these 3 basic principles:

  • Balance the meal with protein, fat and carbohydrate foods. Carbohydrates provide energy for the body and protein and fat help slow down how the body receives and uses that energy.  Proteins and fats also keep us full longer and provide more sustained energy.
  • Eat from the rainbow. Try to get 3 different colors into the lunchbox. Think mixes of fruits and vegetables.  This helps ensure a diverse set of vitamins and minerals.
  • Avoid unnecessary simple sugars. Candy, fruit snacks/fruit leather, juice, and chocolate milk all provide a short-term burst of energy followed by an energy crash.

Packing a Lunchbox

Laying the groundwork of packing a lunchbox is an opportunity to get the kid(s) involved in the process.  Similar to tying a toddler’s shoes, I realize that this is one of those tasks that are faster to do yourself, however, it’s also one of those learning opportunities that come back with dividends.  I encourage every parent to get their kid(s) involved in at least part of the process.  Then, feel free to cater or branch out based on your own family’s needs and lifestyle.  Doing so gives the child the power to make their own positive and conscious choices about food.

Step 1: Plan Together

  • Talk about the lunchbox guidelines.
  • Have the child pick 2-3 foods that meet each of the 3 Basic Principles and write them down. More is great, but start slowly and build up to a bigger list.  It’s also best to keep a couple of “oldie but goodies” for comfort and familiarity.

Step 2: Shop Together

  • For younger kids, point out the produce. Touch and smell it. For older kids, challenge them to find obscure vegetables, like okra.
  • Pick something new to try. Always plan to have a backup item on these days just in case it isn’t a winner on the first attempt.

Step 3: Pack Together

  • As you pack, lead discussions about food, such as
    • “What protein should we add? Do you remember why your body needs protein?”
    • “What can we find that is yellow? Yellow foods have vitamin C that help keep us from getting sick.”
    • “You had carrots yesterday. What if we put some peas in with our carrots today?”

Eventually, kids will be telling you what they want and packing their OWN lunches!  Or, maybe just complaining a little less, and you can still mark a “win” for having started them on one of the most important skills of life – learning to nourish their body well.

Happy and healthy lunchbox planning!


Below are some lists of common and seasonal foods and how to use them in new ways for lunchboxes:

Cold Lunchboxes

Any of these can easily be modified to suit your child’s tastes.  Don’t be afraid to try something new in a lunchbox.  You may be surprised what they’ll try when you’re not around!

  • Food on Sticks: diced chicken, salami or turkey + cheddar, jack or mozzarella + cherry tomatoes, zucchini, yellow sweet pepper, olives
  • Wraps: grain-free tortillas, nori or zucchini sliced thinly lengthwise + hummus, deli meat, or shredded chicken + shredded carrot, thinly sliced cucumber, roasted red pepper
  • Dips: hummus, guacamole, homemade “ranch” with plain yogurt, dill, salt & pepper, yogurt topped with granola and apple or pear slices
  • Boats: celery or endive filled with sunbutter (or a nut butter if OK), chicken, tuna or salmon salad, deviled eggs with black olive slices
  • Kids Like Salad: mixed greens with any of the “Beyond Baby Carrots” (see below) veggies and favorite natural or homemade dressing on the side
  • A New Sandwich: cut fruits or vegetables into ½” slices lengthwise to form the bread replacement and fill. Examples are:
    • Apples or pears with sun or nut butter
    • Cucumber with cream cheese, cheese slice and ham or turkey
    • Zucchini with mozzarella slices and pepperoni
  • Self-Assembled: These are easily assembled at the table and keep ingredients from getting soggy:
    • Mediterranean Pizza: round crackers (like Blue Diamond Nut Thins) with hummus spread + cucumber slices and shredded carrots
    • Mexican Nachos: corn chips with guacamole + black beans & corn salsa, black olives
  • Beyond Baby Carrots: cherry tomatoes (red and yellow), sliced radishes (watermelon, black, daikon), turnips, jicama, kohlrabi, sweet peppers, peas, edamame
  • Not Grapes: melon, blueberries, apricots, kiwi fruit, pomegranate seeds, plums
  • Freeze Dried: if strawberries, raspberries and bananas get mushy, try freeze-dried versions found in the pantry
  • When Nuts are OK: use the bulk section of the grocery store to make a trail mix that includes macadamia, brazil nuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cacao nibs, goldenberries, goji berries, dried blueberries or mulberries
  • Others: boiled eggs with salt, olives (black or green), popcorn (look for brands not cooked in canola oil, such as Lesser Evil),

Hot Lunchboxes – Thermos Food

Heating up food at school requires the use of a microwave and plastics (see Lunchbox Toxins, below). Most importantly, it takes valuable eating time.  Getting a good wide-mouthed thermos and pre-heating foods at home can open doors to new lunchbox ideas.

  • Soups & Stews: Chicken soup, beef stew – the possibilities are endless
  • Bowls: rice or quinoa with beans topped with steamed carrots or corn and fresh tomato
  • Breakfast for lunch: oatmeal, mini egg quiches, breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs
  • Meats: meatballs with sauce, shredded chicken, pork or beef for soft tacos, mini sausages
  • Drumsticks & Wings: (good cold or hot) roasted chicken drumsticks or wings with a fresh salad
  • Vegetarian: spiced lentils or black beans and quinoa
  • Sides: roasted potatoes or squash, steamed carrots, cauliflower or broccoli, pasta or rice

Lunchbox Toxins

  • BPA from plastics can leech into food and water. Look for BPA-free products, or metal containers.
    • Heat food at home and use metal thermos containers rather than having kids heat food in plastics in the microwave at school.
  • Most lunch boxes should be washed in soapy water in the sink and let dry overnight. For nightly spot cleanings to disinfect and deodorize, here are spray and wipe cleaning options:
    • Homemade: mix equal parts water and vinegar in a spray bottle
    • Store-bought: Disinfecting sprays and wipes by Seventh Generation


Disclaimer: Nutrition therapy is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, prescription, or cure for any disease, or as a substitute for medical care. Jen Marshall and Stacy St Germain are not licensed medical providers. Nutrition plans are not intended as a substitution for traditional medical care, nor should be interpreted as medical advice, but instead is an adjunctive and supportive therapy.