The most daunting aspect of packing healthier school lunches is the investment of time.  Time spent both preparing lunches and coming up with new ideas for what to put in them.  That frustration is compounded if your child returns with a nearly full lunchbox at the end of the day.   

Getting your children involved, within the boundaries you establish, makes them more invested in their lunch box choices.   Here are 5 tips to help you operationalize a better school lunch routine this fall.

The Time Factor:  Many schools give students very little time to eat.   Cutting foods into easy to grab,  “bite size” pieces helps.  Slices of oranges or apples are better than the whole fruit, which is too big a portion for younger children and can take too much time to peel and eat for older kids.  Squeeze fresh lemon juice on fruits like apples and pears to prevent them from turning brown when cut.

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The Magic of Three: Many parents put a lot of food into their child’s lunch in the hopes that they will find something they like.  This is a mistake.   Children are much more likely to eat the “good stuff” if that’s all they have.   A balanced lunch need only include three things -   A “Fuel Up” food, a vegetable and a fruit.  Examples of “Fuel Up” foods are sandwiches, wraps, hearty soups or stews, pasta dishes or yogurt.  Try adding dark or semi sweet chocolate chips to fresh blueberries or sliced strawberries.  Combining fruit with a treat food provides dessert within the context of a healthy meal.

The Personal Salad Bar: Prepping raw vegetables on Sunday streamlines the Monday through Friday routine.    Wash and dry raw vegetables and cut them into bite sized slices or sticks.  Store them in small containers (I prefer glass) which can be grouped together in a larger container to create a personal salad bar that is easy to take in and out of the fridge (see photo). 

Accompany veggies with healthy dips like hummus (made with chickpeas and sesame paste) or try stuffing celery sticks with nut butter (Sun Butter is a delicious nut free alternative).  

Pack Lunches the Night Before: Try packing school lunches during dinner cleanup.   This gives you an opportunity to involve your children in the process and remake your leftovers into healthy lunch fare while they’re still on the table!   Try combining leftover chicken with lettuce, cucumber, green onions (scallions) and salsa for a simple, tasty wrap or pita pocket.    Mash up ½ cup of pinto beans and combine with leftover rice, raw veggies, grated cheese and salsa in a pita or wrap or add a scoop of brown rice to lentil, minestrone or other soup.  If you use plastic bags, wrap sandwiches in wax paper first – this keeps bread fresher in the fridge overnight and keeps your plastic bags clean and easy to reuse.  Portioning food into school containers in the evening saves you time even if you will need to heat it up in the morning.

Fight Boredom…Think Outside the Bread: Kids get bored eating the same lunch foods everyday…For a change of pace, try these tasty sandwich alternatives.   Use the large outer leaves of iceberg lettuce to make lettuce roll ups.  Putting fruit in your lettuce roll ups adds flavor and texture and may coax your kids to eat their protein.  Try fresh mango slices with leftover chicken strips or thin slices of apple with pork tenderloin.  Whole grain flatbreads or crackers can be spread with nut butter and sliced banana and stacked, sandwich style, delivering a nutritional punch with a pleasing crunch!     

Julie Cohen is a Holistic Health Counselor and founder of Mad Nutrition LLC.  Julie provides food and lifestyle coaching, helping families create healthier eating habits.  For more information, check out or email Julie at