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Back-to-school lunches: 11 nutrition tips and 25 lunch ideas for parents

Maude is a registered dietitian working with parents in person and online. You can find her at Family & Co. Nutrition ( where she shares evidence-based nutrition strategies for families. Because family meals should be enjoyable for all!

Back to school! Let’s face it. It is here.

Perhaps your child is starting daycare, kindergarten, high school or even university…

Perhaps you are the one going back to work after a mat leave, a pause or a change in career.

Either way, you’ve got this! We are not aiming for perfection, so be kind to yourself as you get used to this new flow.

Lunches…oh! lunches!

Because if you can’t beat them, embrace them?!

Here are our best nutrition tips regarding lunches for the whole family.

The basics: make sure your kid can open their lunch box and containers!

Maybe you want to practice at home so that’s one less new element your child has to deal with.

If you want your kids to eat warm meal, you can send them with a thermos. Same here, make sure they can open it and eat from it. To make sure food keeps warm, the morning off, boil water and poor it in the thermos. Let sit for a couple of minutes as you microwave the leftovers. Then, dump the water and put the warm food in.

For older kids, if you send them leftovers that you expect them to reheat, make sure they know how to use a microwave.

Food safety: lunch boxes are likely to sit at room temperature all day.

Make sure you have non-leaking icepack and an-easy to wash lunch box. It will get messy and dirty.

While some food items are okay ate room temperature, most food will go bad if not refrigerated or kept cool with an icepack. Consider buying extra icepack so that you can have some frozen on hands, and rotate them.

In addition to ice packs, frozen water bottle, frozen berries in yogurt, frozen muffins will help keep the content of the lunch box cool as they thaw.

Pack lunches that follow the healthy plate + 2-3 snacks

To be sustaining, snacks and lunch need to be a wise combination of food items.

For lunch, you want proteins, fibres, complex carbohydrates and a healthy source of fat.

For snacks, you want a source of proteins and complex carbohydrates.

We have a list of 25 snack ideas and what to keep in your fridge to be able to assemble quickly sustaining snacks .

Ditch the juice.

Kids don’t need juice. Kids need water. So make it the default choice on most occasions.

Offer a bottle of water for during the day. You can also offer milk in addition.

Get yourself familiar with the school nutrition policy.

Some places are very strict, others are only focussing on a peanut-free environment. Either way, better know what you are dealing with.

If possible, get an idea of how much time kids have to eat their lunch at school. You want to keep that in mind, specifically if they have little time – waiting in line forever at the microwave to end up not having time to eat is not gonna be fun!

Reassess as the year goes by. What is working? What is not? Your kid will tell you what would work best!

Lunch ideasDeconstructed lunches are perfectly a-okay

Lunch doesn’t need to rhyme with sandwich.

It can be fun to have several snacks or deconstructed lunch items to eat.

It doesn’t need to be one heavy main meal if your child is not a fan or doesn’t have much time to eat.

No need to go overboard

Kids typically like what they know.

Novelty is scary, and the busy school environment might not be the best place to get them experience new flavours, textures, foods…

So as cute as butterfly shaped tuna sandwich might look (and taste!), you might not get the desired effect you have worked so hard for.

Involve your kids in packing their lunches

Kids are not fan of novelty, but will also get bored of eating the same thing over and over. It’s a fine balance!

Get your kids involved in shopping, prepping and packing their lunch. Perhaps you set ground rules (2 veggies, 1 fruit, 2 proteins sources, 1 grains, 1 dairy, water, etc.) and let your kids take charge of putting these items from the fridge to their lunch box.

Kids are more likely to eat when they are involved in the process.

There is nothing more discouraging than going packing an amazing lunch…to see it come back untouched. Save yourself the trouble, teach your kids some valuable life skills and get them to participate. Win-win-win!

It is never too early (nor too late)!

Prep snacks, including for when you are all back at home cooking dinner

All attention is on the lunch and what to pack, but it is a great idea to keep snacks handy for when you arrive home and still have to prep dinner.

It can be the same snacks that you would pack in the lunch box, but having something ready for kids (and parents!) to munch on while you cook dinner can be the difference between hangry kids, and a pleasant family meal.

As you start working in the kitchen, place the snack on the table or counter, and let everyone nibble at it. Perhaps that strategy will take care of the “I’m huuuuungry mom”?

Mass produce freezable items

Cook batches of muffin, banana bread, energy balls, and all other snack items that can be store in the freezer. Freeze them individually on a cookie tray and then in bags, ready to be packed in the lunch box.

Do the same with meals that do well in the freezer: chili, meatballs, hearty soups… freeze them in containers you can put straight into the lunch box!

Pack a lunch for the adults in the house!

Lunches are not just for kiddos!

Understandably, parents focus on getting the kids out of the door in time with everything they need. And then they rush themselves to go work… but who is making sure you have your healthy lunch, all your documents, and that your shirt is ironed?

Yeah, exactly.

Make it a habit to pack a lunch and snacks for all adults in your house. Breaking news, you also need to eat!

And on top of that, you lead by example. Packing, eating and enjoying a lunch sends the message to your kids that this is the intelligent thing to do. Do I need to say more?

Let’s not lose perspective…

Lunches and school policies can be stressful and restrictive: no peanut, non-messy items, picky eaters, untouched lunches, quick bites, healthy snacks…

Let’s breathe here.

Let’s remember that kids also eat at home! Breakfast, dinner and night time snacks are eaten at home for most children, plus the weekends meals.

You can focus on the quality of these meals, if you don’t feel you are fully in control of the lunches. Healthy nutrition is a whole. No meal (or food) in itself can make or break it. Sure, in an ideal world, all meals would be healthy, balanced, enjoyed in a calm environment, with plenty of time, shared with friends and laughter… but let’s be real. This is not the reality for most of us and our kids.

Let’s leave a bit of the guilt aside, and focus on what we have power over. We don’t control the school environment. It’s okay. Let’s see it as a learning opportunity for your child. Adults provide the What, When, Where, but kids decide the If and How much food they eat . Eating can not always be done in the cocoon of your home. And as parents, school (or perhaps daycare) is the real first occasion to let go of our control over what our kids eat, and trust them!

You’ve got this!

Is it difficult for you to pack school lunches?

What do your kids love most in their lunch boxes?


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