Building a better brown-bag lunch

How to pack a lunch that's fast, healthy, and appealing to kids

Healthy lunch

With a new school year around the corner, we asked two of our resident experts for their advice on how to pack a lunch that’s fast and easy, but still healthy and appealing to kids. Here is what two of our pediatricians, Mary Ellen Ulmer, MD, and Kathleen Palm, MD, have to say.

Try for five

Try to include these five kids of foods in your child’s lunch: protein, vegetables, fruit, grains and dairy. A well-balanced lunch (and breakfast!) helps kids do their best in school.

Pack real food

Steer clear of processed foods like Lunchables, chips, cookies, candies and crackers with no fiber in them. Encourage your kids to eat real food.

Think outside the sandwich

Sick of sandwiches? Here are some ideas to keep lunchtime interesting:

  • Proteins: meat slices or rolls; string cheese; edamame; tuna; smoked salmon or trout; hummus or black bean dip; peanut or other nut butters
  • Grains: whole-grain crackers or bagels; low-sugar cereals (Cheerios, Life, Shredded Wheat); leftover rice, noodles or whole-grain waffles
  • Vegetables: cherry tomatoes; pea pods; carrots; celery; broccoli or cauliflower trees; jicama; roasted seaweed
  • Fruits: Anything fresh and in season is best, but applesauce, dried fruit and fruit leathers are OK as long as they don’t have added sugar.
Leverage your leftovers

Make extra dinner to pack for lunch. If chicken, meat or tofu is on the dinner menu, make enough to use in sandwiches.

Got milk?

Don’t pack sugary drinks and juices. Water and low-fat milk are the best drinks for kids. Chocolate milk should be limited to a once-a-week treat. If you do pack fruit juice, make sure it has no added sugar, and keep in mind that the Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 4-6 ounces a day for 4-6 year olds and 8 ounces max for kids 7 and older.

Rethink your bag

Insulated lunch boxes and bags help keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Consider a Thermos for soup or spaghetti, or slip in an ice pack to keep meats and mayo cold.

Keep it fun

Get the kids involved. Give them choices between healthy options. Pack dips for the veggies. Cut sandwiches in funny shapes. Slip a joke or an encouraging note into their bag. Don’t forget the love.