What to send for lunch—advice from a dietitian

School lunch should fuel kids up for learning. But what does that actually look like? We asked dietitian and mom of three Sarah Remmer.

What should be in a kid’s school lunch?

A: The keys to a school lunch are nutrition, variety and balance. I offer at least five items in my kids’ lunches so they get a little bit of everything. Aim for one item from each of the following categories: fruit, veggie, whole grain, meat or alternative, and dairy or alternative. Whole grain foods can include homemade muffins, oatmeal, pasta, quinoa and bread—as long as they’re whole grain. These have lots of fibre, which helps keep tummies full and energy levels stable. Kids also need protein to sustain their energy throughout the day. Protein-rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils and milk products. Fruits and veggies can be offered cooked or raw; veggie pouches or sauces are a good option too.

How do I know how much food to send?

A: There’s no set guideline, but my advice is to include one food from each group and maybe a little treat. Keep track of how much food is being sent home to avoid waste. But it’s important to remember that kids’ appetites are all over the place. During periods of growth, their appetites will increase, and when kids are feeling unwell or not as active, their appetites will decrease. Encourage your kids to listen to their own hunger cues.

How can I make healthy food more appealing to my kid?

A: Keep it positive, and take the pressure off. Don’t force them to eat healthy food—instead, keep offering a variety of nutritious foods. Make the conversation around food positive, and get your kids involved. If they have input, they’re more likely to eat it. While you’re packing the lunch, give your child “structured choice”: offer two or three options for each food group, and let them decide. If vegetables are still coming home untouched, try adding dip, like ranch or hummus.

Is there something parents send that they really shouldn’t?

A: I don’t believe there are any “wrong” foods. Adding a little treat never hurts—and it teaches your child about moderation and that every food can fit.

This article was originally published online in August 2018.

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