Back to school is just around the corner! It’s time to prep some healthy school lunch ideas to keep your loved ones safe and thriving.
The school lunch system in the US is, at best, broken.
We have known for a few years now that the foods and snacks available to our most precious people -our children- are not the healthiest for them. As of 2018 federal regulations around school lunch food standards changed, allowing more salt, sugar, and fat. While this move makes school lunches more affordable, they’re not the best for our kids in the long run.
Some previous studies concluded that students who had total energy intakes of 50% or less of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of macronutrients, and 2 or more micronutrients of 50% or less of the RDA were considered to be at “nutritional risk.”
What’s interesting is that we’re looking at macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, plant-based phytochemicals) to determine whether our kids are well-nourished or not - this isn’t about satisfaction. Children can feel full and “look” healthy on the outside, and still be at nutritional risk if they’re not getting a balanced diet of macro and micronutrients. Moreover, it could affect their future:
Eating healthy meals has been proven to impact academic and athletic performance in children positively.
Research shows that eating a healthy meal for breakfast and lunch is essential for growing children to thrive academically, athletically, and socially:
- This Australian study found that eating more vegetables 7 days a week was associated with “higher test scores in the domains of spelling and writing.”
A US review found that eating breakfast “increases student achievement” while another, quoted in the same review, noted that children significantly improved their grades in math.
- Young athletes -from little league players to pre-Olympians- should focus on nutrition for “growth and maturation” as their energy expenditure is higher at this stage of their lives.
According to this study, young athletes perform better when:
- 15–20% of total calories come from protein, and 20 g of high-quality protein is supplied shortly after exercise.
- Less than 50% of their total calories come from carbohydrates, adding 30–60 g/hr for exercise lasting more than 1 hour.
- Less than 15% and up to 30% of total calories come from fat.
Alternatively, this study on the dietary habits of adolescents concluded that “consuming several processed foods such as soft drinks, instant noodles, fast foods, and eating confections more than 7 times a week showed correlations with poor school performance,” with lower grades in math, science, communications, and P.E.
The Australian research cited above found that “increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages” including sugary milk and bottled juices, leads to “significantly lower test scores in reading, writing, grammar/punctuation, and numeracy.”
Excess fast food could slowly kill your kid’s chances at higher education or a sports career.
It’s not just children who benefit from your healthy school lunch ideas: a systematic review of college students and their academic performance found that dietary habits play an important role in their academic success.
The review noted that higher consumption of fruit, vegetables, and certain micronutrients, including Vitamin A, Vitamin B, iodine, folate and iron, coupled with lower consumption of junk foods, was directly proportional to better grades, attendance, and social interactions.
It’s up to parents to come up with healthy school lunch ideas to ensure proper nutrition.
The challenge? Parents are also really busy! Keeping a home and a job or business afloat, while caring for the kids, family, and the seemingly endless errands needed every day can make home-cooking really difficult.
That’s where we come in!
We’ve put together a short list of healthy school lunch ideas you can do at home with your kid’s favorite meal themes, but without the addictive sugar and fat that threatens their performance and future.
12 Healthy School Lunch Ideas for Successful Kids
Our This, Not That rule of thumb: find something your kid already loves, but replace it with one of our easy healthy school lunch ideas to strengthen their immune system, help them grow strong, and of course slay their schoolwork and sport of choice.
#1 Instead of Peanut Butter and Jelly: Apples with Chocolate Peanut Butter
Simply slice an apple and add up to ¼ cup of this gluten-free, vegan, soy-free, sugar-free and low-carb chocolate peanut butter by Amy’s Healthy Baking. One of our favorite healthy school lunch ideas because it’s only 4 ingredients but has some proteins, healthy fats, and micronutrients.
#2 Instead of Cheesy Nachos: Quesadilla with Fresh Fruit
Served cold or hot, use a whole wheat flour tortilla to spread your kid’s favorite cheese or vegan cheese, smashed avocado, and some protein like shredded chicken. Add fresh fruit cuts on the side.
#3 Instead of Chicken Nuggets: Healthy Chicken or Vegan Chicken Nuggets
Although not super easy healthy school lunch ideas, every kid loves nuggets. We found two low-fat, low-sodium, protein-rich alternatives for a weekend meal prep. Freeze and reuse!
- Low-fat, healthy chicken nuggets by Super Healthy Kids.
- Vegan chicken nuggets by Sweet Simple Vegan.
#4 Instead of Mac and Cheese: Healthy Protein Pasta
Our healthy protein pasta recipes include a high protein vegan mac and cheese and sweet potato gnocchi that kids and teens love. Perfect for the star athlete in the house.
#5 Instead of Pizza: Vegan Pizza Muffins with Broccoli
A great way to sneak in some veggies into your kid’s lunch, this vegan pizza from Vegan in the Freezersurprised us when trying new healthy school lunch ideas - you can pack a small container of tomato sauce to dunk and not taste the broccoli.
#6 Instead of Cookies: High Protein Brownies
These vegan protein brownies feature complete protein and are super tasty, yet low on sugar. Everyone loves them!
#7 Instead of Pumpkin Spice Lattes: Pumpkin Spice Protein Balls
Is your teen like totally into PSL? That’s OK! Encourage the taste, but not the sugar, with our pumpkin spice recipe for protein balls. More than healthy school lunch ideas, a healthy back to school snack for all.
#8 Instead of Icky Box Juice: Organifi Immunity
A study of 45 popular fruit juices for kids found that they all had concerning levels of arsenic and lead, in addition to high sugar levels. Organifi Immunity has nine superfood ingredients to shield your kids from colds and only two grams of sugar per serving.
Note: If you’re looking into how to boost immune system response for your kids, look no further than nutrition; it’s your first defense weapon.
#9 Instead of Potato Chips or Fries: Baked Fries
No easy healthy school lunch ideas can skip your kid’s favorite: fries! These oil-free and crispy fries by Code Green Wellness will keep them happy.
#10 Instead of a Hot Dog: Grilled Sausage Skewers
Packed with brown rice, cucumbers or tomatoes, sliced mango, and yogurt-covered pretzels, they can be vegan too! From the healthy school lunch ideas by the Kitchn.
#11 Instead of Frittatas: Baked Zucchini and Sweet Potato Strata
Ok, frittatas might not be their favorite, but they can be a great source of protein and hidden veggies. Good cold and hot this vegan strata by Kidgredients is low-fat, low-salt, and gluten free.
#12 Instead of Pop-Tarts: Vegan Berry Pop-Tarts
With just 3.5 grams of sugar and packing 4.5 grams of protein per serving, this Minimalist Baker vegan pop-tart alternative qualifies as one of our healthy school lunch ideas
Need more? We love:
- Easy Plant-Based Healthy School Lunch Ideas by Veggies Don’t Bite.
- Vegan Back to School Lunch Box by the Neurotic Mommy.
- Five-Minute School Lunch Box by Working Mother.
- Creative School Lunch Ideas by Happiness is Homemade.
BONUS! Back-to-School Super-foods
Worrying about how to boost immune system response for your kids, keep their grades up, help them get through gym class, and star in the little leagues can get overwhelming on your own.
Enlist these superfoods for their cognitive and physical powers:
- Apples: loaded with fiber, antioxidants, and vitamin C.
- Oatmeal: rich in Vitamin B and beta-glucans.
- Berries: strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries are sweet, but also full of antioxidants that keep minds young and active.
- Carrots: full of in Vitamin A and carotenes.
- Coconut Water: easy to sneak in, loaded with potassium. May help improve athletic performance.
- Fish: a great source of Omega 3 for growing hearts.
- Dark leafy greens: hide them in everything! They’re rich in iron, calcium, vitamins, minerals, and add protein and fiber in smaller amounts.
- Lentils and beans: amazing source of plant-based protein and can be mashed into burgers, falafels, and more.
The success of your own healthy school lunch ideas may ultimately fall to presentation! Kids can be very visual and if their lunch looks fun, they’re more likely to eat it. You can also have them help you prepare their lunch; it gives them a sense of pride, autonomy, and accountability that makes them more likely to eat it!
Try to follow the 80-20 rule in your lunch boxes: 80% healthy foods from natural and unprocessed sources (as much as possible) 20% a treat. Treats can be dark chocolate bites, our protein brownies or PSL balls, rainbow fruit skewers and yes, the occasional cookie to keep it interesting.
We hope these 12 ideas helped you get started on your back-to-school preparations and serve as a starting point for your own healthy and creative lunch box ideas.