5 nutrition must-haves for your kids school lunch

Getting kids back to school leaves parents scrambling — and that includes preparing nutritious and kid-pleasing school lunches. This is why Foodie-isms is bringing you the Love Box Love Series.  We know you put a lot of TLC into making your kid’s lunch. Unfortunately, the anxiety and self-doubt you also feel might be weighing you down.

Do you wonder if your little one is getting enough variety and nutrition?  Do you rack your brain trying to find ways to get them to eat something other than their favorite sandwich?  Are you searching for more healthy lunch box ideas?

This series is here to help you get more joy and peace of mind when it comes to packing lunches.  As a registered dietitian and mom of two, I’ve crafted an easy nutrition checklist for you to keep in mind as you  plan your child’s lunch.  Stephanie will follow-up with awesome meal ideas that are tasty, easy and nutritious.  I can’t wait to try them on my little preschooler.

So with that in mind, let’s talk nutrition:

New Nutrition Standards

Based on the 2009 Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations, new and tougher nutrition standards will be phased into school nutrition programs all over the country.  Yet parents packing their child’s lunch also need guidance about which key nutrients and foods to provide (and which to limit).

Source referenced.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that while both school meals and packed lunches had similar amounts of calories and protein, packed lunches had 50% more sugar, sodium and saturated fat than school lunches. Packed lunches fared better in fruit, iron and calcium content but contained fewer vegetables.

Here is a general nutrition checklist based on the IOM’s recommendations for School Lunches:

1. Include at least one Whole Grain serving: The Dietary Guidelines recommend that half of grain servings be “whole,” about 3 servings per day.  Make sure to include at least one whole grain serving in your child’s lunch such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, oats or whole grain crackers.  To find out the whole grain value in your favorite products look for the Whole Grain Councils stamped products (16g of whole = 1 serving)

2. Vary the fruits and vegetables: The biggest change to School Lunch nutrition standards is the variety and amount of fruits and vegetables offered.  IOM recommends 3/4 to 1 cup of dark green and orange veggies (high in vitamin A) and legumes (beans, lentils and dried peas). They also recommend 1/2 cup to 1 cup of fruit.

So include a fruit and veggie with most meals.  Experiment with broccoli, kale, romaine, spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash and other colorful veggies instead of starchy white potatoes and corn.  Try vitamin-C rich fruits like oranges, strawberries, kiwi and cantaloupe.  And  substitute legumes for meat whenever you can (see below)

3. Make Room for Low Fat Dairy: To limit saturated fat the new IOM guidelines recommend offering kids1% milk or fat free instead of 2% or whole milk.

But how much is enough?  To meet calcium and other nutrient needs, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends two cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products (cheese, yogurt) a day for children ages 2 to 8 and three cups per day for individuals aged 9 and older.

It’s important for parents to understand how much calcium their kids need. 1-3 year olds need 500 mg per day, 4-8 year olds need 800 mg and 9-18 year olds need 1300 mg.  Check these charts for dairy and non-dairy sources of calcium so you can make sure your kids get the calcium they need to build strong bones.

non-dairy calcium sources
Referenced from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.

diary source of calcium
Referenced from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services – Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.

4. Choose satisfying meat or meat alternatives: Every lunch box needs some protein.  The IOM recommends at least 2 ounces of meat or meat alternatives daily. When choosing meat stick with lean options (3g fat or less) like turkey, chicken or ham.  Fish or canned tuna make great additions and are rich in omega-3 fatty acids DHA & EPA.  Don’t forget to go meatless with beans, cheese, edamame, eggs or tofu.

Remember that 1/2 cup of beans, edamame and tofu or one egg, 3/4 cup cottage cheese, 2 Tbsp. peanut butter or 1 ounce of cheese all are equal to one ounce of meat.

5. Watch for Extras. The IOM guidelines recommend limits for certain foods and nutrients such as saturated fat, sodium, calories and sugar.  The idea is not to eliminate them but to watch how excesses can creep into lunch boxes.  Let’s go down the list.

Fat: The IOM guidelines focus on the type of fat instead of total fat restrictions.  Fat is a rich source of calories that is important for kids growth.  So include plant sources of fat including nuts, seeds, olive and canola oil and avocados.  Go easy on saturated fats contained in high fat meats, full fat dairy, butter and processed foods.

Sodium: Sodium can become problematic when adding salt to foods, using packaged/canned items and utilizing cured meats in sandwiches.  IOM recommends limiting sodium to <636mg (5-10yo), <704mg (11-13yo) and <736mg (14-18yo). So check your labels.

Calories: I don’t recommend counting calories in your kids lunch but it’s good to have a general idea on calorie limits as you read labels.  IOM recommends no more than 650 calories for students in grades K-5, 700 for children in grades 6-8, and 850 for those in grades 9-12.

Sugar: According to a report by the American Heart Association, the average intake for sugar is 22 teaspoons per day with 14-19 year olds having the highest intake (34 teaspoons!).  Soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages are the main source of added sugars.  So stick with water or 100% fruit juices instead of “fruit drinks” and read labels on packages to keep added sugars to a minimum.  There’s nothing wrong with including a sweet treat in some of your kid’s lunches.  Moderation is key.

So there you have it.  Some guidelines to help as you plan nutritious lunches for your kids.  But knowing what to do is one thing, making it happen in a way your kids will like is another.

Stay tuned for tasty lunch box ideas from Stephanie. And let me know any nutrition worries you have in the comment section.

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen is a registered dietitian, mother of two and creator of Raise Healthy Eaters, a blog that provides parents with simple and sound nutrition advice.

Check out Maryann’s latest series on how to turn picky eaters into healthy eaters.

Lunchbox Menu Ideas For Everyday of the Week:

Monday’s Lunch Idea is featured in a lunchbox made by PlanetBox.
Tuesday’s Lunch Idea is featured in a lunchbox made by LapTop Lunches.
Wednesday’s Lunch Idea was provided by Super Healthy Kids.
Thursday’s Lunch Idea is featured in a lunchbox made by GoodByn.
Friday’s Lunch Idea is featured in a divided container made by LunchBot.

9 Responses to “5 nutrition must-haves for your kids school lunch”

  • Jill Says:

    nice article, I always struggle with veggie and protein ideas to put in my 18 month old’s lunches that are easy for his teachers to feed him and don’t need to be heated.

  • Audra Losey, MS, RD Says:

    Tons of great information here! Thanks for sharing. One thing I’d add is to make sure to keep food safety in mind when packing your kids’ lunches, especially with those perishable foods like meat and dairy. Here’s one example, go-gurts (yogurt in a tube) can be frozen and then they thaw by lunch time. One of my colleagues wrote a great blog about keeping your kids’ lunches safe. Check it out at: http://nutritionknowhow.org/wordpress/?p=29

  • Marge Caron Says:

    Hi Maryann,
    My daughter has been following TLS Shape Up since March. It teaches goal setting and planning skills while instructing kids on the fundamentals of good nutrition and exercise. It helps not just kids, but families understand that their decisions today will affect them tomorrow. Her TLS coach suggested she make videos because she loves to cook. Please check out her videos. I’d love to get your opinion. She named her show Awesome Cooking 4 Kids. On facebook it’s under Reagan’s Awesome Cooking 4 Kids. Here’s her latest video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxXmdudKutU
    thanks for your input!!


  • Maryann Says:

    Audra, thanks for the tips and link. Food safety is so important.

    Marge, what a cute video. You daughter is amazing. I don’t know much about TLS Shape Up but it seems to have had a positive impact on your daughter (great lunches). If you have any specific questions you can reach me through my website contact form.

  • G. Says:

    I educate my kids at home but, these are great tips for home lunches as well! Thanks. 😉

  • Jillian Says:

    I will be referring many people to your site. So many of us are stumped on healthy meals for our children.

    Thank you, Jillian

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  • Lora R Says:

    I am thankful that I do not stess about this area. My son is a good eater and his favorite sandwich is tuna which most kids don’t like. I don’t worry too much since I send them off with a good breakfast and I know he will have a good dinner. If he does not eat his fruit or veggies and I just tell him he has to eat it when he gets home. I know he would rather play than eat.