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Back-to-School Series: Healthy School Lunches

Back-to-School Series: Healthy School Lunches

Most of us know eating well is vital to our health, and it is also important to teach children about good nutrition beginning when they are young. A healthy school lunch provides sound nutrition to establish a lifetime of smart eating habits and the energy children need to learn and play throughout the rest of their day.

Recent studies have shown that nutrition affects students’ thinking ability, behavior and overall health, which are key factors that impact their academic performance,” said Washington Hospital’s Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Matthew Sciamanna, R.D. “Children with properly fueled brains concentrate and perform better than those who skip meals or do not eat the right foods.”

So how do you know what to pack in a lunch and how much is appropriate for your child? Sciamanna recommends as an excellent online resource for how to pack a nutritious lunch. It also provides suggested portion sizes based on a child’s age.

A good approach to building a healthy lunch is to provide items that fall into at least three of the major food groups, which include fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy or milk alternatives, and meat or protein alternatives. Sometimes parents include numerous items in the lunchbox so the child can pick and choose what they want to eat, which is not advised. “Last month, a study in the International Journal of Obesity found that too much variety may lead to overeating, so more is not necessarily better in terms of choices,” Sciamanna added.

He recommends children participate in all aspects of the preparation from “start to finish.” Taking an active role in creating their lunches can encourage even the most finicky children to eat at lunchtime. “The helping hands involved in creating the lunch will be the healthy hands that are eating those smart lunch choices,” he noted.

Some suggested examples for including children in lunch preparation include:

  • Consider growing vegetables with your child, such as cherry tomatoes in a pot, which can be included in their lunch.
  • Discuss what items should be on the shopping list and bring your child to the grocery store to participate in selecting and buying their lunch food.
  • Create a picture chart with lunch items they would like to try in each of the different food groups. The child can draw and color the pictures or cut them out of magazines
  • Use the picture chart to identify options to make lunch fun.
  • Designate areas in the kitchen or refrigerator where the child can find the lunch items to assemble in the morning or have a packing station where you can arrange it together.

“Children experience food through taste, touch and sight, so adding an element of fun can help keep them interested in eating a nutritious lunch,” explained Sciamanna. Some of his ideas include changing the look of foods by creating sandwich shapes using cookie cutters, or serving cheese in slices, cubes or sticks. Vary the types of bread used for sandwiches such as pita, bagels or tortillas. Include dips for fruits or vegetables such as cottage cheese, hummus or yogurt. You can even create different themes each day and pack lunch items of one color like orange or blue, or one consistency, such as crunchy things.

A well-balanced breakfast is also important to fuel the brain and body for the day. For middle- or high school-aged children rushing out the door to early morning classes or activities, Sciamanna recommends packing an easy-to-eat breakfast to send with them to school.

Registered dietitians perform nutrition counseling to both inpatients and outpatients at Washington Hospital. For more information, visit