How to pack healthy lunches for school and work (with cheatsheet)

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Packing school lunches that are delicious and nutritious can be quite a challenge. Check out this post to learn how to pack a well-balanced packed lunch for school or work.

School lunch image with caption how to pack healthy school lunches
How to pack healthy school lunches

Note: I am not a doctor or a dietitian, and this blog post should not be used as a substitute for any medical advice.

What makes a healthy school lunch?

If you have decided to pack school and work lunches for your family but aren’t sure what to pack, you have come to the right place.

I have been there.

I understand how frustrating it can be not knowing if the lunch you are packing is well-balanced or not.

That’s why I was relieved when I stumbled upon MyPlate – an easy-to-follow food guide that USDA created to help us make the right eating choices for our mealtimes.

A depiction of USDA my plate concept. A plate is divided into fruits, grains, vegetables and proteins.
USDA MyPlate

As per the guide, a well-balanced meal should include foods from all five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy.

You can apply the same guidelines while making school or work lunches too!

Here’s what they recommend –

Fill ½ of your lunch box with fruits and vegetables

  • Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, pureed or cooked.
  • At least half of the recommended amount of fruit should come from whole fruit, rather than 100% fruit juice.
  • Limit fruit juice to one small glass per day.
  • Vegetables may be raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried/dehydrated; and may be whole, cut-up, or mashed.

In a nutshell – focus on whole fruits and vary your veggies.

A sign up form which reads pack a well-balanced school (or work) lunch with ease. Grab this free lunch packing cheatsheet.

Reserve ¼  of your lunch portion to protein

  • Choose from seafood; meat, poultry, and eggs; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products.
  • Limit red meat and avoid processed meats (hot dogs, sausages, deli meats, bacon etc.)

The remaining ¼ portion should include grains

  • Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain is a grain product. Examples include – bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, oatmeal, popcorn, rotis / chapatis, rice and tortillas.
  • At least half your grains should be whole grains.
  • Whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa and any products made from them, such as whole-grain pasta and 100% whole wheat bread.

Make sure to include dairy on the side

  • Includes milk, yogurt, cheese, lactose-free milk, fortified soy milk, and yogurt. Make sure to choose unflavored/unsweetened version of dairy products.
  • It does not include foods made from milk that have little calcium and high-fat content, such as cream cheese, sour cream, cream, and butter.

Use healthy oils

  • Use butter occasionally.
  • Choose cold pressed oils derived from plants such as sunflower, corn, olive, peanut oil, etc.

Don’t forget to pack water!

  • Make sure your kid is hydrated throught the day – always send them with a reusuable insulated water bottle.
  • Limit juice to one small glass per day, and avoid sugary drinks such as sodas, sports drinks, etc.

Note:

The dietary needs of kids and adults vary based on their age, gender, and physical activity. To determine their nutrition needs, select a MyPlate plan from the USDA’s website.

How to pack lunch for work and school?

Building your lunch for school or work can be a fun family activity. You just have to follow one rule – you need to pick an item from each food group to ensure that your meal is balanced.

To make things easy for you and your kids, I created this lunch packing printable that lists all the food groups along with a few options.

Lunch packing cheatsheet

Click on the image to grab a copy!

A cheatsheet with info on how to pack lunch
Lunch Packing Cheatsheet

Need school lunch ideas?

Here are a few of my kid’s favorite ones –

References

  1. Packing a healthy lunchbox by Harvard school of public health
  2. What is MyPlate – dietary guidelines by USDA
  3. Healthy eating plate – a guide for creating healthy, balanced meals

Helpful resources on packing school lunches

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