The Happiest Kid in the Cafeteria

Better School Lunches All Week Long

By Christina Katz

Eating meals together at home is important for families, but don’t underestimate the importance of the meal you send to school with your child each day. In the same way that it is important to sit down and break bread with our family, kids sit down at school and do the same with peers of their choosing.

A positive experience eating lunch at school begins with a positive experience opening up that lunch box and finding out what’s inside. The same old peanut butter and jelly, pretzels, and apple may work for the first couple of years of school, but as a child gets older and develops more sophisticated preferences, you can do better. Work together with your child to create portable, healthy meals your child will feel proud to eat.

Instead of complaints about how friends have better lunches, you’ll start to hear stories about the funny conversations that happened at lunch or who traded what for what. With a little bit of effort, you’ll notice that your child conveys a content, relaxed tone about lunchtime, exactly like the one you strive to create at dinnertime at home. So when it comes time to whip up a great school lunch, keep these simple tips in mind:

Experiment with nut butters. Why limit your child’s sandwich to just peanut butter when there is also almond butter, cashew butter, and sunflower seed butter? Or consider a healthy brand of chocolate nut butter with whole-wheat pretzels for dipping.

Expand your sandwich-making repertoire. For variety, cut sandwiches into halves, triangles, quarters, or use a cookie cutter to make shapes. Use whole grain rather than white bread. Experiment with whole grain wraps, bagels, pita, flatbread or naan.

Send real fruit instead of fruit-flavored or artificial fruit snacks. Stock up on small, no-leak containers before school starts so you won’t be afraid to chop up ripe fruit and send it to school. For variety, use whatever fruit you have on hand and make a simple fruit salad every Sunday night.


Chop up whatever veggies you have on hand on Sunday and separate into bags or containers for the week. Include a bit of damp or dry paper towel to keep veggies moist or dry—whichever helps them last.

Try homemade trail mix for snack time. You can come up with combinations that are customized for each child if you visit the bulk foods section of your grocery store and create combos to offer a week at a time.

Have “Thermos Thursdays” and send something hot to school like soup, mac n’ cheese, or pasta. Be sure to heat the food up well before pouring into your child’s thermos. Put the lid on tightly but not so tight your child can’t get it open.

Send low-fat milk in a thermos instead of sugary juice or let them buy milk at school. If you don’t want to send sugar-loaded juice, try flavored waters. In a pitcher refrigerate water with lemon, lime, berries, or herbs. Test flavors over the summer to discover what combinations kids prefer.

Make homemade cookies or bars over the weekend and store properly to last all week. Freeze, if necessary—they will thaw by lunchtime. If your child is new to the school, include an extra treat to offer to new friends. Remind them to eat veggies to keep the treats coming.

Why not give them something to look forward to each week? Offer bonus sweets in moderation. Keep a secret stash to offer on the last day before the weekend. Just a little something to help them celebrate the weekend with their friends like a tiny bag of jelly beans, a lollipop or two, or a couple of chocolate kisses.

Once a month, let them get hot lunch—but only once a month. Make a big deal about going over the hot lunch schedule and picking out a day. Then see which type of lunch they prefer. If you play your lunch-making cards right, hot lunch once a month won’t steal the show.

Healthy lunch foods to try:
Dried fruit
Nuts and nut butters
Cheese sticks
Cut veggies
Rice and beans
Granola or Granola bars
Rice cakes
Trail mix
Whole grain crackers
Hard-boiled eggs
Pita or bagel chips
Fruit leather
Protein bars
Veggie chips

Avoid foods with:
High sugar
High fructose corn syrup
Excessive salt
Hydrogenated fat
All of the above

After-school snacks for growing kids:
A cheese quesadilla
An ice-cream cone or frozen yogurt    bar
A bagel with cream cheese
Fruit and cottage cheese
Yogurt and berries
An English muffin pizza
Bowl of cereal with fruit
Oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit
Whole grain toast with nut butter
Cheese melted on whole grain chips
Protein bar
Fruit smoothie

Christina Katz knows better than to slack off on shopping for inspired school lunch foods or she’ll have to hear about it all the way home from school. Her latest book is The Art of Making Time for Yourself, A Collection of Advice For Moms.