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April 15, 2019 • Kids Health

Tips for Packing Healthy School Lunches


Building the Best Lunch

To keep your children’s bodies and brains in peak performance mode and to safeguard against the ravages of unhealthy foods, be sure your child powers up with a nutritious lunch.

The three basic building blocks for the best lunches include:

  1. Healthy protein
  2. Fiber-rich carbs, to include at least one serving of a fruit or veggie, the more the better
  3. A calcium-rich food

Dr. Ann’s Top Picks Within These 3 Essential Categories


  • Sliced lean deli meats (turkey, chicken, roast beef), canned tuna salad, canned salmon salad, peanut butter, almond butter, packaged pre-cut roasted chicken strips, chicken you pull from a grocery store rotisserie chicken, hummus, omega 3-egg salad, and sliced 2% milk or part-skim cheeses are great


  • Any variety of 100% whole grain bread. Be sure to see “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” on the package to be sure it is! Keep things more interesting by substituting whole grain tortillas, bagels, pitas, or English muffins for standard sandwich bread.
  • Any variety of beans – hummus is fantastic for dipping veggies in. Or it can be used to replace mayo in a sandwich. Rinsed canned beans are great in wraps or salads.
  • Any form of produce
    • Remember the deeper the color, the more health-boosting power it has
    • There are loads of kid-friendly veggies that are perfect for school lunches, including baby carrots, celery sticks, sweet bell pepper strips, cherry tomatoes, and broccoli florets
    • Kids love dips – include a small container of hummus or low-fat salad dressing for their dipping pleasure!
    • Any fruit is fine, but the Superstars are ideal, including berries, cherries, plums, any whole citrus, mangoes, kiwi, apples, cantaloupes, and red grapes


  • Cheese – avoid full-fat varieties.  You can now find a wonderful array of reduced-fat cheeses on the grocery shelf, including 2% cheddar cheese in cubes, sticks, or other fun shapes, mozzarella cheese sticks, and 2% milk American cheese
  • Low-fat yogurt in spoonable, drinkable or squeezable containers. Stoneyfield Farm is always my first choice.
  • 2% or skim milk
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk
  • Calcium-fortified 100% orange juice


My top picks for “Best Lunches” include sandwiches and entrée salads because both readily accommodate all three building blocks.  Take advantage of the guidance that follows for quick and easy success.




  • Begin with the right bread—100% whole grain or whole wheat varieties. To keep things lively and safeguard against sandwich boredom, you can substitute any of the following for standard sliced bread: bagels, tortillas, English muffins, wraps, pita pockets, sandwich thins, or deli flats.  Just be sure they are 100% whole grain or whole wheat!


  • Add some healthy protein—sliced lean deli meats (turkey, chicken, roast beef), canned tuna salad, canned salmon salad (see my website for recipes), peanut butter, almond butter, packaged pre-cut roasted chicken strips, chicken you pull from a grocery store rotisserie chicken, hummus, omega 3-egg salad, and sliced 2% milk or part-skim cheeses are great options.


  • To keep things tasty and moist, use any of the following condiments or spreads that suit your child’s palate. Any variety of mustard, canola oil or olive oil-based mayonnaise, mashed avocado or guacamole, hummus, horseradish sauce or hot sauce.  To cut calories if desired, substitute Greek plain yogurt for mayonnaise.


  • Add some sandwich friendly veggies—sliced tomato, onions, cucumbers, or olives, lettuce greens, chopped artichokes, shredded carrots or cabbage, fresh or roasted bell pepper strips are prime candidates, the more you add the better!


  • For those peanut butter or almond butter lovers, sliced fresh fruit like bananas, apples, and pears pairs up nicely in a sandwich. For kids who prefer the traditional PB&J, use spreadable fruit or a berry-based jam vs. jelly for more fiber and antioxidants.


  • To take things from great to greater—slip in a sprinkle of wheat germ, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp kernels, or any dried or fresh herbs or spices. These “nutritional boosters” are highly concentrated sources of nutrients and plant-based disease-fighting phytochemicals.


Entrée salads offer an unprecedented opportunity to tap into the sensational health benefits plant-foods offer, while building an abundant, endless variety of superstar food options.  I am especially enthusiastic about entrée salads for teenagers.  Whether you or your older children are putting together the lunch salads, here are my directions for getting the most nutritional bang for the effort.


  • Begin with a base of any variety of dark leafy greens. Containers of pre-washed ready-to-eat salad greens are super convenient.  Forget the iceberg lettuce—relative to other salad greens it is a nutritional wimp.


  • Add as many brightly colored veggies and/or fruits as possible. Excellent options include red onions, broccoli florets, cherry or grape tomatoes, bell peppers, olives, carrots, avocado, berries, apples, red grapes, and cantaloupe.


  • Top with some healthy protein in any combination—diced deli-meat, hard cooked eggs, canned beans, nuts, seeds, low-fat cottage cheese, canned tuna or salmon, shredded or cubed cheese, tofu, tempeh, or hummus.


  • Dress it with an olive oil-based vinaigrette (homemade is the cheapest and healthiest—see my website for recipes) or as the next best alternative a store-bought vinaigrette or reduced fat/light creamy dressing. Avoid full-fat creamy dressings.


  • For transport to school, salads are easily stored in portable salad containers. Put a prudent portion (2 tbs. should be enough) of salad dressing in a separate small sealed container.


  • If your child prefers the best of both worlds, he or she can bring along a 100% whole wheat wrap or pita pocket and stuff it with the salad at lunchtime.

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