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Healthy Lunch Box Lunches


By Dinah Torres Castro

At the start of the school year, most parents have great ideas for their child’s lunch box, thinking that this will be the year they will finally get it right! They have a mental list of everyday favorites (bagels and cream cheese), ones that are good old standbys (PB & J), and those for special occasions (leftover fried chicken and potato salad). Every year starts off well, and as the kids get older they contribute to the planning and help with the packing. However, there comes a point in time when parents run out of ideas or find that their well planned and executed lunches come home untouched. The truth is that in most homes planning and packing school lunches can be a great source of frustration, especially if a child is a picky eater who won’t eat the school lunch because “It smells funny!” or “It looks yucky!” Here are some ideas to help ease the stress of packing a healthy lunch for your children.

  1. Start with the lunch box – kids have so much fun picking out lunch boxes with lots of colorful characters on them, but think about what really matters. Is it sturdy? Is it leak-proof? Can it be easily cleaned? Is it easy to open to access items inside? Is it age appropriate for your child? Is it affordable? You decide if you can buy an inexpensive one with a character on it that your child (now a kindergartener) will not want to use the following year, or if you want to make more of an investment and buy one that will last (with a warranty) 3 to 5 years. For the past few years the Bento Box™ lunch boxes have become popular. They are made in colorful, sturdy plastic that is dishwasher safe. These compartmentalized lunch boxes can be a real help for little ones who fuss about their food touching.
  2. Once you have chosen a lunch box, choose food containers that are leak proof, easy to open, and age appropriate for your child. Make sure you demonstrate how to open and close the containers, and have your child show you how they will open and close the containers in school. If your child cannot open the container of sliced grapes, strawberries or carrots, they will not be able to eat these important foods.
  3. Focus on food choices. Every parent is the expert on what their child likes to eat. Together with your children, come up with a list of foods, including snacks, which they can have for lunches. This list should be updated periodically, especially if you have younger kids, as they tend to change their minds frequently. In my house we had a routine for packing lunches. Most lunches included a piece of fruit, a drink (water was the drink of choice), a granola bar or trail mix or nuts to snack on, yogurt or a cheese stick or cut up cubes of cheese, and a sandwich or salad.
  4. Finally, make sure you include an ice pack to keep the food from spoiling. Ice or gel packs come in all kinds of shapes and colors that brighten up lunches, keep cold items cold, and foods safe. If you don’t have an ice pack, you can substitute a frozen juice box or water bottle to keep the food cool and safe until lunchtime.

Getting kids involved in packing their own lunches is a great way to start the conversation about good nutrition and eating healthfully. By including a variety of items from different food groups in their lunch box, you are reinforcing the importance of eating a variety of foods every day.

For more information on healthy lunches, click on the links below:

Healthy Packed Lunches for Back to School:

MyPlate Lunch Bag Ideas:

Packing Lunches for School-aged Kids:

Dinah Castro is a Bilingual Family Well-Being Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program. She can be reached at 631-727-7850 ext. 351 or at


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