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The Formula for a Healthy School Lunch

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After nine years of packing lunches for my sons, I have realized that there is a simple formula for a healthy school lunch that helps to simplify the process.

Formula for a Healthy School Lunch

The Formula for a Healthy School Lunch

I am entering my ninth year of packing school lunches (how is that even possible?!). Over the years I have had to come up with lunch ideas that have worked with nut restrictions, meat and dairy restrictions, food strikes, a lack of interest in sandwiches, and a kiddo who spent so much time talking that he ran out of time to actually eat.

What I have learned in all of those years of packing lunches is that creating a quality school lunch is like a simple arithmetic equation. Here is the formula for a healthy school lunch:

1 main dish + 1 vegetable + 1 fruit + 1 extra + 1 bottle of water = a healthy lunch

Simple enough, right? But what does that actually look like? Here are some examples.

Black Bean and Corn Salad Lunch

Main Dish

The primary goal in my mind when it comes to the main dish is for it to provide protein and carbohydrates (preferably whole grain or at least partially whole grain), although, of course, if it includes vegetables and/or fruit even better.

This is usually the heftiest part of the lunch for my kids and what they will often focus on first, so I try to make sure that it has a solid nutritional base to it.

Some of our favorite options outside of sandwiches here are:

Healthy School Lunch Ideas

Vegetable & Fruit

One of the questions I often get asked is: both a fruit AND a vegetable? And my response is, absolutely!

First of all, even if they only take a few bites, those bites help to get them closer to their recommended 7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Secondly, it helps them to learn about a balanced diet. 

If your kid prefers vegetables over fruit or vice versa, you can always do two of one kind. But having two options in the lunchbox has been very helpful with my kids.

I recommend brainstorming different vegetable options with your kids to ensure you’ll be putting something that they enjoy into the lunchbox.

Some vegetable options that have worked well for my family include:

  • carrots
  • celery
  • cucumber
  • bell peppers
  • snap peas
  • sugar peas
  • edamame
  • steamed or raw broccoli
  • leftover roasted vegetables.

Another thing that has helped a lot has been to include a dip such as hummus, ranch, or a quick yogurt dip.

Some fruit options that have worked well in our house include:

  • apples
  • clementines
  • berries
  • bananas
  • diced mango
  • cut up melon or watermelon
  • chunks of pineapple
  • kiwi slices or halves with a spoon to scoop
  • sliced peaches or nectarines
  • apple sauce
  • smoothies

A note on vegetables and fruit: sometimes the main dish options will also include vegetables or fruit. This is great and can be used to count as one of your fruits or vegetables or can just be a bonus!

Peanut Butter Surprise Cookies


This is where my kids like to get the most involved. For us, this is usually some sort of filler food, such as a small cookie or some crackers or chips. It could also be a granola bar, trail mix, or mini muffins.

reusable bottles

Water (or a drink)

Providing an easy to access to water throughout the day is essential for keeping kids well-hydrated all day long. Being properly hydrated helps with focus and energy—keys to quality learning. I like to send my kids in with refillable water bottles so that not only are we helping the earth, but they can also refill them if they end up drinking it all up!

Bento Box

A Note on Lunch Size

I often hear from parents that a lot of the food they pack in their kids’ lunches comes back uneaten. There are three potential reasons for this:

  1. The school lunch time is very short
  2. Your kid is so busy talking that they run out of time to eat (we’ve experienced this one)
  3. There was too much food to begin with (we’ve experienced this one as well)

I recommend sitting down with your child to figure out which of these possibilities might be the reason for your kid’s uneaten lunch.

For the first two reasons, I suggest two steps:

  1. talking to your kids about the importance of eating at lunch time so that the the afternoon can go well
  2. trying to pack really nutrient-dense main dishes such as chili, beans and rice, a sandwich made on whole wheat bread, or overnight oats. That way, even if they don’t eat everything, the food that they do eat will help to sustain them for longer.

I have to be honest, though, having gone on many field trips with my kids and seen the huge lunches that are often packed, I suspect that the third possibility, we are packing too much food for our kids, is often the main reason so much food comes home uneaten.

If you suspect this is the case for your kid, or they tell you as much, then I suggest decreasing how much food you send. If cutting back on the food you send sounds scary, then try decreasing slowly until you find the perfect amount.

For my elementary-aged son, for instance, we found that he did better with a hearty breakfast and a small lunch. This means that his lunches usually consist of something like  half a sandwich, half an apple, a few carrot sticks, and maybe a small extra treat. Since making the shift, not only does more food get eaten, but he also still isn’t very hungry when he gets home from school, which tells me we aren’t starving him either.

Further Inspiration

Want more ideas for feeding your kids? Check out these other resources from The Scramble:

30 Out-of-the-Box Ideas for Healthy School Lunches

How to Make Lunch Packing Easier

Navigating Treats & Snacks in School Lunches

Healthy Lunch Ideas for Teens

To help make lunches and dinners go smoother in your house, check out The Scramble’s family-friendly meal plans.

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