Health experts share nearly a dozen healthy lunch foods kids will love (really!).

By Brigitt Earley
Updated August 13, 2015
Healthy school lunch
Credit: Heidi Coppock-Beard/Getty Images

Yes, you’re busy… but tossing a PB&J, a pack of candy, and a juice box in your child’s lunch box probably won’t keep her energized. Think of the midday meal as fuel for the brain and the body to power the rest of their day, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN.

Here’s where it gets tricky: “It’s not a slam dunk that if you bring your lunch, it’s going to be healthy,” says Blatner, referencing a 2014 study that found packed lunches to be generally less nutritious than those offered by schools.

“To carry them well throughout the day, children need a little of everything, including protein for their muscles, carbohydrates for energy and their brain, as well as various nutrients that each provides unique functions,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN. Follow this easy-to-master, nutritionist-approved four-point (five… if you count the snack) guide—just mix and match from the options below to capture nutrients from each category.

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Healthy school lunch
Credit: Heidi Coppock-Beard/Getty Images

1 Whole Grains

Whole Grain Bar “Dessert”
Pack a whole grain-based snack bar (or half a bar!) that seems a bit dessert-like, but is really a healthful source of whole grains, says Newgent: “Whole grains provide a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and plant-based nutrients, including some dietary fiber.”

Turkey Swiss Pinwheels
Top a whole grain tortilla with one or two slices of turkey and Swiss along with some lettuce. Then, wrap it up and slice it on an angle, suggests Joy Bauer, MS, RDN, and founder of Nourish Snacks.

Mason Jar Pasta Salads
Layer things like a hardboiled egg, cooked noodles (look for whole grain!), and tomatoes in a mason jar, says Bauer. Include a side of balsamic vinaigrette—all kids have to do is pour on the dressing, close the lid, and shake.

2 Protein

Hard-Boiled Egg Pops
Pack a popsicle-style stick so your child can transform a hard-boiled egg into an egg pop, suggests Newgent. “Eggs provide high-quality protein that’s key for kids’ growing muscles—and so much more.”

Hummus in an Edible Bowl
Serve hummus in a hollowed-out crusty whole grain bread roll, which acts as a bowl with a lid. Kids can eat the entire thing—hummus, “bowl” and “lid,” says Newgent: “Beans [chickpeas] can provide ample protein in lieu of meat. Plus, they’re a good source of soluble fiber that can play a role in managing blood sugar levels, which may ultimately help keep potential food-related mood swings in check.”

Mini No-Cook Burritos
Instead of one large one, make two or three mini-sized burritos with small whole grain tortillas filled with pinto or black bean dip, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, avocado, and lettuce—plus a side of pico de gallo or salsa, says Newgent. “It’s basically balanced nutrition in every bite, so kids can meet a variety of their nutritional needs.”

3 Fruits and Vegetables

Carrot Coins
Cut carrots into thin coins. Encourage kids to play with them as cuisine, such as adding a layer of the carrot coins to their sandwich, dipping them into hummus, or eating them like snack chips. “Vegetables are loaded with plant-based nutrients that help organs develop while laying down the foundation for kids’ future health,” says Newgent. “Carrots, in particular, will help in the development of healthy eyes.

Strawberries ‘n’ Dip
Pair fresh strawberries with a small serving of something to dip them in to, like Greek Yogurt. “Strawberries are loaded with antioxidants, including vitamin C that is beneficial for protecting kids’ immune systems. Plus, kids tend to eat more produce when it’s paired with a dip,” Newgent says.

4 Healthy Drink

A mini water bottle is the ideal lunchtime beverage, says Bauer, but flavored seltzers make a great substitute. Many varieties have “no added sugar, sweeteners, or sugar substitutes,” she says.

Flavored Unsweetened Iced Tea
For a hint of sweetness and a small boost of sugar (try to keep sugar consumption at fewer than 12 grams per serving), add a small portion of 100 percent fruit juice, says Bauer.

5 Bonus: Snack

If you’re including a snack, Bauer recommends limiting the portion to 200 calories or fewer. When buying brand name goods, look for low sugar (again, 12 grams per serving or fewer) and whole grain options. And Newgent recommends asking yourself this: Can I pronounce all of the ingredients listed on the food label? “If the answer is no, then don’t give the food to your kids,” she says.

Trail Mix
Get creative with this easy-to-eat snack by starting with popcorn (a whole grain!) rather than granola and adding fresh fruit, like grapes, says Blatner. For kids who attend nut-free schools, seeds—like sunflower seeds—are a great alternative to peanuts, she adds.