Advise Me

Create School Lunches Your Kids Will Actually Eat

It’s 6 a.m. on the first day of school and you stare into the empty lunch boxes before you. Cute, “pinnable” lunch plans turn to healthy lunch plans turn to cash for a hot lunch plan. You’re not alone. Lots of parents struggle with packing a lunch every day.

Don’t let packing back-to-school lunches stress you out. With the help of Julie Simpson, MS, RD, CDE, a Banner Health registered dietician, you can easily create safe, healthy and fun lunches that your kids will gobble up.

Safety First 

According to a study by the University of Texas at Austin, researchers tested the temperatures of 235 preschool lunches at various schools. What they found was that nearly 90 percent of the lunches, even those with multiple ice packs in them, were at hazardous temperatures. Yikes! So, what can you do to keep your kids’ food safe, particularly with triple digit temps?

First, make sure you use a well-insulated bag with an ice pack. Second, Simpson recommends you freeze certain items, like bottled waters or tubes of yogurt, that can double as ice packs too. “This way you can keep perishable foods out of the temperature danger zone,” Simpson says.

Keep It Simple, Silly

Select nutrient-rich foods from each of the five food groups: fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy. Remember: kids don’t have much time to eat lunch (typically 20 minutes or so), so just keep it simple. Every lunch doesn’t have to be memorable. Plus, your kids are really not likely to remember them, so save the creative inspiration for another time.

“It doesn’t have to be a culinary creation,” Simpson says. “It could be as simple as an apple, carrots, low-fat yogurt, hardboiled eggs and a couple whole grain crackers.” 

Involve Little Helpers

Engage your children in the lunch-making process by giving them options. This can ensure lunch items aren’t tossed or traded — which many schools’ frown upon because of the risk of food allergies. Simpson warns not to give them all the choices in the world either and instead offer them two options. “For example, you can ask them, ‘Do you want carrots or cherry tomatoes in your lunch today?’” Simpson says.

Make It Colorful

Without breaking the bank, or your sanity, you can make lunches fun by using colorful fruits and veggies and healthy dippers, like low-fat yogurt and hummus. Pre-cut veggies and fruits a few days before, so you can quickly grab and put in the bag. Simpson adds that if you are feeling creative, you can even “cut sandwiches with cookie cutters into fun shapes.”

How About Dessert?

Although your kids may want sweets, Simpson says you don’t need to include in every lunch. Sweet fruits and crackers can sub in for desserts and can even improve behavior in the classroom with lower sugar levels.

You can keep lunch simple AND delicious at the same time. Don’t let stress get in the way. In fact, if you have questions about preparing a healthy lunch, Banner has pediatricians and dieticians that you can meet with to meal plan efficiently and effectively. Find an expert near you at   

Nutrition Parenting Children's Health