As your child returns to school, you face the usual dilemma: Brown-bag it or rely on the cafeteria menu?

“Lunches served in school cafeterias are not always the best choice, and I recommend that sometimes lunches need to be packed,” says Mary Pat Alfaro, a registered dietitian at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

A homemade lunch puts you in control of what your child eats, as well as portion size, she notes.

Here are some of Alfaro’s tips for a healthy lunch:

  1. Use the Food Guide Pyramid for preschoolers and elementary-school children to plan lunches. Include at least two servings from the bread group and one serving from each of the other food groups for a balanced meal. Go easy on fats and sweets.
  2. Aim for variety to provide different nutrients and beat boredom. Try whole-grain bagels, English muffins, crackers, pita bread or tortillas paired with your child’s favorite spread or sandwich filling.
  3. Find healthy alternatives to snack chips: trail mix, flavored rice cakes, pita chips and baked tortilla chips.
  4. Pack fruit that’s easy to eat: grapes, strawberries, melon chunks, apple wedges, berries and orange sections. Include a dipping sauce made with yogurt or peanut butter.
  5. Make raw vegetables like baby carrots, celery and bell pepper strips more appealing. Pack them with a container of hummus, salsa or ranch dressing.
  6. Pay close attention to beverages. Remember that even 100% fruit juice is loaded with sugar. Opt for plain or sugar-free flavored water.
  7. Experiment with different sandwich fillings. Top peanut butter with fruits like raisins, apples, bananas or pineapple instead of jelly. Make a burrito with refried beans, salsa, grated cheese, and chopped lettuce and tomatoes.

Editor’s note: We encourage you to choose organic foods, whenever possible, to avoid exposure to pesticides, preservatives and other chemicals.

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