Healthy Lunch Ideas For Kids (That They'll Actually Eat)
Mornings are chaotic enough as it is, and packing a healthy lunch for your kids can feel like just another stressful item on your to-do list. But putting together a healthy lunch can be easy if you follow a simple formula.
“A healthy lunch for kids should have the same elements as a healthy adult lunch: a variety and balance of nutrients,” says Krista Maguire, RD, CSSD, nutrition manager for Openfit. Maguire offers this simple strategy for packing a lunch:
- Start with “eating the rainbow”: Pack fruits and veggies in a variety of colors.
- Balance carbohydrates (veggies, fruits, and whole grains) with protein and healthy fats.
- Choose fresh, wholesome ingredients whenever possible. “It’s fine to have the occasional packaged snacks,” Maguire says — but look for snacks with minimal added sugars and refined flours.
Need some lunchtime inspiration? Here are some creative and nutritious options for lunch entrees, fruits, veggies, snacks, and sides. (Don’t get discouraged if your picky eater is skeptical at first — they may need to try a food a few times before they enjoy it. “The palate is a muscle that needs to be exercised, too,” Maguire says.)
Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids: Main Course
Skip the PBJ everyday routine and try one of these outside-the-box, protein-packed main courses.
- Mini taco bites: Wrap shredded chicken, beans, avocado, shredded cheese, and mild salsa inside a whole-grain tortilla. Roll and slice into bite-sized pieces that are easy for kids to eat.
- Pasta with butternut squash: Boil pasta in fun shapes and top it with a creamy butternut squash “cheese” sauce (like this recipe).
- Turkey meatballs: Serve these with pasta and tomato sauce. Bonus points for blending other veggies, like carrots and bell pepper, into the tomato sauce for added nutrients!
- Pinwheels: Roll up tortillas with ham or turkey, then add your child’s favorite extras like cheese, lettuce, hummus, cucumbers, and/or tomatoes. Slice into pieces. (Check out recipe ideas here.)
- Soups and stews: Try making healthy chili, lentil stew, or another broth-based soup (like these) and pack in a well-sealed thermos — perfect for a chilly day.
Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids: Fruits and Veggies
The USDA recommends children consume between 1–3 cups of vegetables and 1–2 cups of fruit per day, depending on their age and gender. Help them reach that goal by making these nutrition powerhouses more appealing.
- Cute fruits: Use cookie cutters to make creative shapes out of fruits like melons or pineapple.
- Apple “sandwiches”: Layer thin apple slices with nut butter and other tasty ingredients, like bananas or raisins. (Find a recipe here.)
- Veggies and dip: Slice raw veggies and pair with flavorful dips like hummus, strawberry yogurt, or a healthier take on ranch dressing (like this).
- Fruit kabobs: Layer fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, and banana slices onto kabobs (just make sure your child is old enough to ensure the skewer isn’t a safety risk).
Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids: Snacks and Sides
Save room for a few treats that are fun to eat and also add extra nutrients.
- DIY trail mix: Mix together different nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and unsweetened shredded coconut. Let your little one help you mix it together and portion out individual servings in containers.
- Hard-boiled eggs: HBEs are packed with protein and nutrients. Try making healthier deviled eggs by mixing avocado with the cooked yolks — voila, green eggs!
- Air-popped popcorn: This simple snack is a whole grain that contains fiber.
- Homemade fruit leathers: Skip the processed, packaged kind — which can be loaded with added sugar — and make your own with fresh fruit and only a few simple ingredients. (Try this recipe.)
How to Mix and Match Options
How much food should you include in your child’s lunch box? That depends on age, activity level, and whether they’re going through a growth spurt, Maguire says. For guidelines on calorie recommendations — and how to break that down into food groups for your child’s specific needs — Maguire recommends referencing the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (pages 77–81) as a starting point.
If you don’t feel like doing math, Maguire says, just aim for the majority of the food to be fruits and veggies — then add in some protein, healthy fats, and whole-grain, high-fiber carbs. “Kids usually have an innate sense of hunger and fullness — something adults tend to lose grasp of as we age,” Maguire says. “For the most part, they will meter the amount of food they consume.”