Back-to-School Lunch Ideas for Healthy Kids

Acceptable Snacks for a Peanut-Free School

  • Plain soy, rice or coconut yogurts mixed with fresh fruit and veggies
  • Bean dips such as hummus, or those made with black beans spread on a variety of crackers or chopped vegetable crudite.
  • Nut free sunbutter, made from sunflower seeds spread on rice cakes, sliced apple or banana
  • Air popped popcorn, unbuttered, but sprinkled with cinnamon 
  • Quinoa salad mixed with dried fruit, pumpkin seeds and herbs
  • Fresh salsa made with tomatoes, onion, cilantro and mango dunked with blue corn chips
  • Pumpkin seed-based trail mix with dried fruit tossed in yogurt
  • Roasted garbanzo beans made with spicy curry powder
  • Edamame sprinkled with lemon and a touch of sea salt

Brown-Bag It

While many schools are working very hard to make healthy changes in their cafeterias, parents are still questioning whether to send their kids to school with a homemade lunch, or let them purchase a hot one. With homemade lunches you are in control of the ingredients and you and your child can choose items based on preferences and budget. With the right amount of creativity and preparation, your child can be excited to open their lunch box and see all of the fun snacks and meals that you have prepared with love. 

Here are some ideas:

  • Leftovers from the day before
  • A Bento box with sliced turkey, tuna, or grilled chicken, and a whole grain pita with lettuce and tomato
  • Chopped hard-boiled egg, brown rice, fruit, and greens
  • Seasonal warm or chilled soups
  • Noodle salad with dried fruit and veggies with a balsamic dressing
  • Lettuce wraps filled with grilled chicken and celery
  • Taco salad fixings with a few corn chips
  • Fill a thermos with mini turkey, lamb, or beef meatballs with brown rice or whole grain noodles 
  • Frittata made with low fat cheese, veggies and chicken sausage
  • Homemade pizza on a whole grain English muffin
  • Shish kabob skewers lined with cherry tomatoes, pickles, cheese and turkey, and whole grain croutons

What You Can Do

First off, see with your own eyes. Go to your child's school and have lunch with them in their cafeteria to see the choices and quality of what's being offered. Then set up a meeting with the food service manager. Discuss your concerns about healthy, quality food and variety in meal choices. Ask about food costs and the challenges that the school faces. Offer to help monitor the lunch room and direct students to new food choices.

If you are not able to attend lunch, offer to chaperone an after school program, teach cooking classes, or work with the chef on menu planning. In New York City, the Wellness in the Schools program pairs parents and chefs with public school wellness committees to improve lunch room menus, organize market trips, and teach cooking classes on balanced meals.

In Chicago, the Healthy Schools Campaign focuses on environmental health in schools by connecting community groups, schools, and local farms. They sponsor programs like student cooking contests and public rallies. 

Educate Yourself

Read the following literature to receive more information on school lunch programs:

  1. Fed Up With Lunch (Blog) - Written by a teacher in the Midwest who vowed to eat school lunch every day for a year and document it.
  2. Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (Book) - Written by Hunter College sociologist Jan Poppendieck. This book will "walk readers through the cultural wheelings and dealings that completely altered the school food landscape."
  3. Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (Book) - "An upbeat and impressive manifesto (with recipes!)" by "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper.

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Chrissy Wellington is co-author of Navigating the Supermarket: A Nutritious Guide to Shopping Well. To pick up a copy of her book, please visit

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