When It Comes to Packing School Lunch, Experts Say: Think in Threes

updated May 1, 2019
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Not to give cafeteria lunches a bad rap, but packed lunches are almost always the way to go. You can ensure that kids are eating more of the good stuff and less of the junky stuff, and probably save a few bucks, too. Plus, eating a lunch made by someone your kids love (you!) can make all the difference in helping a child have an enjoyable and productive day at school.

If you’re reading this and thinking, I know packed lunches are better, but I just don’t have the time, we get it. That’s why we talked to food and health experts to get their advice on packing easy, balanced, and delicious school lunches.

School Lunch: A Balanced Equation

All of our experts agreed that the key to a good school lunch is balance and moderation. Alanna Waldron, a New York-based registered dietician and nutritionist suggests a combination of lean protein, fruit and veggies, some dairy, and whole grains. Likewise, Clara Norfleet, an RD with an MS in health science, encourages parents to include protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber in packed lunches, and, ideally, they would include one to two servings of fruits and veggies as well.

So what’s the best way to make sure you’re getting the right mix? The secret is to think in threes.

Why You Should Think in Threes

The rule of threes applies on a number of levels. First and foremost, we’re talking the basics: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. But the rule of threes also applies to the actual items you pack. Three is just enough to provide variety (and variety is, after all, the spice of life) without being overly taxing in terms of assembly.

This might be a sandwich and two sides, which is what David Guas, chef-owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery, typically packs for his two sons. He has the butcher in his local grocery store slice Virginia country ham, roast beef, or fresh turkey, and pairs them with whole-wheat bread, mustard, and hot sauce to add flavor, and then adds in some vegetable chips and whatever fruit is in season.

But if you want to think outside the bun — or whole-wheat wrap — there are other options. If your child is more of a snacker, Waldron says you can put together a mix of sliced veggies and hummus or guacamole, nuts like pistachios or almonds, and a side of fruit.

Norfleet has a few more ideas.

  • Deli turkey roll-ups with cheese + banana + yogurt with pistachios
  • Chicken salad with pita chips + cucumber slices + an apple and nut butter
  • Black bean, corn, and tomato salad + whole-grain tortilla chips + guacamole

Advanced Math

In her guide to building a healthy lunchbox, McKel Hill, MS, RDN suggests a slightly more advanced equation. Her ideal “recipe” is as follows:

1 serving protein + 1 to 2 carbohydrates + 1 healthy fat + 1 vegetable + water/tea/juice

Hill, who is the author of Nutrition Stripped: 100 Whole-Food Recipes Made Deliciously Simple, recommends beans, chicken, and eggs as good sources of protein; sweet potatoes, wild rice, whole-grain pastas, and sprouted breads for carbs; and avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil for fats. For a kid-friendly beverage option, her pick is fruit juice diluted with water.

Extra Credit: Make It Fun & Colorful

Kids are more excited to eat foods if there is a fun component to them or if they are presented in a different way. This might mean cutting sandwiches into fancy finger sandwiches instead of two large halves, or putting some color in the mix.

Deborah Soffel, the chef coordinator for Wellness in the Schools, a national non-profit that inspires healthy eating and fitness for kids in public schools, says that not only does it look more appealing, but it also guarantees that they’ll be getting enough nutrients as well.

Another idea? Waldron suggests “PB&J sushi.” Spread peanut butter and jam or on a whole-grain tortilla, roll it up like a tight burrito, and then cut in circular slices.

Just some extra thought and only a bit of additional effort means that your child will be eating and enjoying a lunch that will fuel them for their busy school day.