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.
Note: I am not a doctor or a dietitian, and this blog post should not be used as a substitute for any medical advice.
Table of contents
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.
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.
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.
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!
Need school lunch ideas?
Here are a few of my kid’s favorite ones –
- Packing a healthy lunchbox by Harvard school of public health
- What is MyPlate – dietary guidelines by USDA
- Healthy eating plate – a guide for creating healthy, balanced meals
Helpful resources on packing school lunches
- 10+ reasons why you should pack your lunch
- Stocking your pantry for school / work lunches
- How to plan and prep for school lunches
- Healthy snacks and sides to pack with school or work lunch
- Best lunch supplies for packed lunches
- 10+ smart tips & hacks for packing lunches