Chow Line: Healthy, Stress-free Packed Lunches for School Start With Planning and Preparation

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My kids go back to school next week and I’m already stressing about what to pack for their daily lunches. Do you have any suggestions about how to make the process easier and the lunches more healthy?

Planning ahead is one way to take the stress out of packing healthy, nutritious lunches that your kids will enjoy. Before heading to the grocery store, plan a menu of what you want to pack in your kids’ lunches that week. Then, make a shopping list to ensure that you have what you need.

When packing your kids’ lunches, try to include a whole grain (e.g., whole-grain bread, pita, tortilla or crackers), a protein (e.g., lean lunch meat, tuna, peanut butter or beans), some form of calcium (e.g., milk, cheese or yogurt), and fruits and vegetables (canned, fresh or frozen), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for school lunches.

The guidelines recommend that kids in kindergarten through fifth grade consume no more than 550–650 calories during lunch; students in sixth through eighth grades consume no more than 600–700 calories; and students in ninth through twelfth grades consume no more than 750–850 calories.

Here are some tips to packing those healthy lunches from the USDA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

  • Prep some foods for lunch a day or two in advance. For example, pre-portion fruits and vegetables in sandwich bags or plastic containers. Then, store them in the refrigerator so your kids can choose easily in the morning what they want to pack in their lunch. You can also pre-portion in sandwich bags healthy snacks like granola, light popcorn, crackers, raisins or pretzels.
  • Try to add variety to your kids’ lunches. Some suggestions include wraps, cracker sandwiches, little salads or bread-free sandwiches consisting of slices of lunch meat wrapped around cheese sticks.
  • Repurpose meals by packing leftovers in plastic containers to send in your children’s lunches. You can also lightly steam vegetables or send other cooked foods, as long as they are kept hot.
  • To ensure that hot foods stay hot and cold foods stay cold, use an insulated thermos. Soups, chili, and macaroni and cheese will stay hot in a thermos. Freezing milk, juice boxes and water bottles keeps cold foods cold. The frozen drinks will melt during morning classes and be ready for drinking at lunch.
  • Freeze lunchbox-sized water bottles and yogurt tubes for your kids’ lunches. They will defrost, keeping the lunches cool for lunchtime.
  • Insulated, soft-sided lunchboxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but pack at least two ice sources with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box that you use. Doing so can help keep perishable foods out of the bacterial danger zone — temperatures between 40 F and 140 F, at which bacteria grow most rapidly — until lunchtime.

Remember to tell your kids to discard the perishable foods they don’t eat during lunch. The USDA advises that these foods should not be eaten later in the day. You should also clean your kids’ lunchboxes each night, either by wiping them down with a disinfectant wipe or by throwing the lunchboxes (depending on the types) into the dishwasher or washing machine at least once a week.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was edited by Jenny Lobb, Family and Consumer Sciences educator for Ohio State University Extension

Tracy Turner
For more information, contact: 

Jenny Lobb
OSU Extension, Family and Consumer Sciences