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Published on September 08, 2020

smiling girl eating lunch at school

Back to the Basics for the Perfect School Lunch

I had dreams of sending my children off to school with Instagram-worthy lunches this fall, with plenty of heart-shaped sandwiches and homemade dips for their fresh fruits and vegetables. As a dietitian that should be easy, right?

Well, a few days into the school year my daughter has declared a love of rectangular school pizza, and she’s resorted to using her fingers as a spoon for her pudding pack. Not exactly what I had pictured!

In the first five years of her life, I had never really stopped to think about what my picky daughter eats that’s healthy when eaten cold other than peanut butter. The answer? Not much.

In my opinion, school lunch is about getting your child the best nutrition possible based on their preferences, even if that isn’t picture perfect. They need the fuel for learning, playing and growing, so stick to the things they will actually eat. Which means no more scrolling through Pinterest for this mom; I am going back to the basics.

I took a little time to make a list of all the foods my daughter will eat that meet the requirements. They include:

  • Protein (4–6 ½ ounces per day): Rotisserie chicken with barbecue sauce, deli turkey, ham cubes, mozzarella cheese and pepperoni.
  • Vegetables (1½ –3 cups per day): Cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, sugar snap peas (all with ranch of course) and fruit/vegetable pouches.
  • Fruit (1–2 cups per day): Grapes, apple slices, pineapple, melon, berries, orange, banana, peach, pear, applesauce and raisins.
  • Dairy (2½–3 cups per day): Milk and yogurt.
  • Grains (2½–4 ounces per day): Whole-wheat crackers, breads or buns (but without lunch meat on it, of course) tortillas, tortilla chips, popcorn and granola bars.

Considering Other Choices For Kids’ Lunches

These other lunch ideas are ones my kid won’t eat, but might be good choices for your children:

  • Protein: Hard-boiled eggs, tuna, hummus or other spread, or pulled pork with barbecue sauce.
  • Vegetables: Corn, peas, green beans, tomatoes, celery, peppers, cucumbers, pickled beets, lettuce or spinach.
  • Fruit: Dried varieties, juices that are 100% fruit, gummies made with 100% fruit juice, too.
  • Dairy: Soy products are alternatives to dairy products that are the most similar in terms of nutrition.
  • Grains: Whole wheat pasta or brown rice (if they are willing to eat it cold), quinoa and pretzels.

I hope you’re able to find one item from each group that your child is willing to eat. But remember that it’s not the end of the world if you can’t find one. If you strike out, just include as much variety as possible. Having a list ready can make grocery shopping and packing so much easier I might even have time to pull out my cookie cutters before the school year is over!

If you want specific quantity recommendations for lunches, I recommend Choosemyplate.gov. You can enter your child’s age, gender and activity level and personalized plans for any child.

Lauren Cornay is a registered dietitian at Avera Heart Hospital.

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