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Healthy Snacks & Lunch For Kids at School or On-the-Go

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Middle school students in the lunch line; developing healthy lunches for kids

Ice cream bars and french fries are hard for anyone to turn down. If they are available at your child’s school, it’s easy to see why it might be their go-to option when their stomachs start to rumble. It might seem like healthy lunches for kids and teens are difficult, but they don’t have to be. UnityPoint Health Dietitian, Emma Rueth, shares a few tips to help you make it a healthier school year. 

Is Teaching Nutrition to Kids Hard?

The process of teaching your children how to choose healthy foods at meals and snacks starts with other family members modeling good behaviors. Try talking about better eating while enjoying food with your child. Start with “I” statements as opposed to “you” statements. 

“I would like you to stay healthy and feel good, which happens when you choose healthy foods.” 


“You never choose the healthy foods, so please start picking more fruits and vegetable.” 

Commenting on your child’s eating habits does not help them understand better choices and may do more harm than good.

What Does a Balanced Kid-Friendly Lunch Entail?

A balanced, healthy lunch for kids includes proper portion sizes of each food group, including protein to help students feel full, carbohydrates like grains and starches for energy, vegetables and fruits for fiber to help with digestion and dairy for strong bones. Use the MyPlate guide as a starting point. Often, schools have posters of MyPlate in their cafeterias. 

Using the MyPlate guide, a balanced snack is a combination of protein and dairy plus any other food group, like (grains/starches, vegetables or fruits). For example, a small apple with two tablespoons of nut or seed butter. The nut butter contains protein and healthy fats, while the apple provides fiber, vitamins and minerals and healthy carbohydrates for energy.

What are Healthy Snacks for Kids I Can Buy at the Grocery Store?

It’s important to keep your pantry stocked with healthy snacks for kids on the go. Add these items to your list the next time you go shopping:
  • Easy-to-pack fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Lower sodium lunch meat and cheese
  • Natural nut/seed butters

Snacks like Veggie Straws, fruit snacks made with 100 percent juice or multi-colored pasta “made with” vegetables are go-to options you can go without.

Your Kids Say They are Still Hungry After Lunch, Now What?

It is important to teach kids to listen to their hunger cues. They should grab a snack if they feel truly hungry. Encourage them to choose something that provides protein and carbohydrates with fiber. Whole grain bread, crackers, cereal, pasta and (not fried) potatoes all provide lasting energy. Combine one of these energy-rich foods with a protein to help young athletes repair muscle. Remember, eating a well-balanced meal for lunch around the same time each day will help kids stay full longer, avoiding the need for snack time.

Is it Important for Kids to Understand Nutrition Labels?

While Rueth believes the Nutrition Facts label is important for everyone to understand, it is more important that kids and teens pay attention to the overall quality of their diet and learn how to use moderation with certain foods. Overall quality of the diet can be evaluated using the MyPlate as a guide, rather than counting grams of fat or carbohydrates. Kids also shouldn’t be concerned about calories, but portion sizing is something children should take into consideration.

You can help teach your child to not overeat by waiting, as a family, 20 minutes after the first serving of meals before choosing things like dessert or serving number two. You can also try keeping serving dishes in the kitchen, while you sit down in the dining room. That way the food is not right in front of you to easily grab. Instead, you must make a conscious decision to get more.

What Should I Do if My Child Doesn’t Eat the Healthy Items Served with Lunch?

If your child often tosses the whole apple served with lunch, it may be because he/she doesn’t want to eat it or simply doesn’t have time. Instead, ask your child to bring it home. Or, you could put a school-approved travel-size nut butter in their lunch box to entice them to eat it. If they toss (possibly over-cooked) green beans or broccoli, discuss why they aren’t eating it. Is it the texture? The taste? Then figure out what you could send along to replace the item, like snack packs of carrots.

How do I Encourage My Student to Pack His/Her Own Healthy School Lunches?

Sit down to plan lunches together once a week and create a guide or list for your child on what to pack. If your child isn’t old enough to pack a lunch alone, you could designate time each evening to pack lunches together. Another idea could be investing in fun lunch containers to increase your child’s interest.

A few additional suggestions for cold lunches include fun dips like hummus, yogurt-based ranch dressing or vinegar-based dressing. Dips can help entice kids to increase their vegetable intake.