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Pack An A+ School Lunch

School has started again so that may mean packing school lunches. You might be tempted to take the easy method and grab an assortment of pre-packaged all-in-one lunches, or assemble a collection of the many other “kid-friendly” packaged foods. Many convenience lunches include sugar in breads, dressings, and drinks, as well as the dessert. Sugar is becoming an increasingly common ingredient in foods targeted at kids, and it’s in places you might not suspect.

What’s Your Packed Lunch Score?

Researchers at the University of Texas found that more than half of parents scored an F when packing a lunch by failing to include foods loaded with enough energy, vitamins, calcium, iron, and zinc. How do you score?

Things to Consider

First of all, you want your child to eat the lunch you pack! Pack foods you know are liked. Talk with your child about what you are putting in the lunch and also teach your child how to do it!

An important goal is to make a lunch that adds nutritional value. Use the MyPlate nutrition guide, which is a graphic that looks like a place setting with the recommended servings of different food groups to help you visualize your child’s meal. Half of your child’s meal should be fruits and vegetables; about one-quarter should be grains and the other one-quarter a high-quality protein. Because kid’s bones are growing, always include plain low-fat or fat-free milk at lunchtime. Look for foods that are high on nutrients and low on sugar and ingredients that add only calories.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants and fiber. Children need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, so include one of each of them at lunchtime. Furthermore, remember that whole fruits are a better choice than juice (even 100% fruit juice) because they contain less sugar and more fiber.


Protein is vital for proper growth and function of the human body. There are lots of ways to go beyond peanut butter and lunch meat. Check this list of protein suggestions for choices that your kids might like: lean deli meats, beef, poultry, fish, Greek yogurt, cheese, low-fat cottage cheese, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes like lentils, black beans, garbanzo beans or hummus dip.

Whole Grains

Complex carbohydrates help your child feel full. For breads, wraps, pasta, and other starches, choose whole-grain varieties whenever possible. Make this a gradual change if kids resist—mix brown and white rice, combine wheat and regular pasta, or make a sandwich with one slice of white bread and one slice of whole wheat.

Tips for Healthier Options:

  1. Skip all-in-one lunch products. They are full of sugar, sodium and preservatives.
  2. Include sides with substance. Only one in four children consumes the recommended five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. Rethink that bag of chips. Each chip eaten is a ruined chance at a healthy option.
  3. Avoid “kids” yogurt, yogurt tubes, and yogurt drinks.  These may contain sugar or sweeteners but no real fruit. Purchase regular or Greek yogurt. Read the labels, and get the lowest amount of added sugar possible.
  4. Pass on fruit bites/chews and fruit leather. They are more like candy than fruit so pack fresh, dried, or canned (in juice) fruit instead.     
  5. Check the label on the granola bars. Choose one with whole grains, fewer ingredients and less sugar, at least 5 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber.   
  6. Avoid pop and fruit “drinks.” Pop and drinks are a huge source of sugar. Many people do not realize that they are essentially buying sugar water when they think they are buying “juice boxes.” Even 100 percent fruit juice contains about six teaspoons of sugar from natural sources. Choose unflavored milk or lightly sweetened non-dairy milk to add some protein power, or pack water. Don’t assume products with “low-sugar” or “sugar-free” claims are a good choice because they may contain artificial sweeteners.

Food Safety

As parents, you will need to gauge the portion size to your child’s age and activity level. Don’t forget to keep food safe to eat. Wash all fruits and vegetables before cutting up. Do not reuse perishable foods such as meat, poultry, or milk products that have come home uneaten from a previous lunch. Use a frozen juice box or water bottle to keep food cool, or a thermos to keep food hot. Note: some foods such as raw carrots or nuts may not be suitable for small children as they could pose a choking hazard.

A balanced, nutrient-dense lunch can help students stay focused, pay attention, and provide energy throughout the day, which leads to good grades and improved performance.


Lunchbox guide with food groups

Contact Our Expert!


Extension Educator:
Vicki Hayman – (307) 746-3531

University of Wyoming Extension

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Extension Educator:
Vicki Hayman – (307) 746-3531

University of Wyoming Extension

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Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelly Crane, Director, University of Wyoming Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

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