Kids aren’t exactly known for their refined palates, which can cause issues for parents who want to pack healthy lunches for them to take to school.
But delicious and nutritious options are available ― and they don’t always take a long time to put together.
HuffPost asked a group of nutritionists what they pack in their children’s lunch boxes, and they shared their general guidelines and kid-approved dish ideas.
“Like many parents, my wife and I work hard to find the balance between what our kids like and what is good for them. It’s important to us to reduce high-sugar and high-sodium options, which limits options, as many convenience foods tend to be saturated in these ingredients. It’s helpful for us to prepare healthier options at the beginning of the week and keep them in the refrigerator so they’re readily available and convenient when we need them. Our oldest daughter, as an example, likes edamame. Often, when we pack that in her lunch, she ends up sharing with friends who also like to eat them.” ― Rick Hall, a clinical professor and registered dietitian at Arizona State University
Favorite fruits and veggies
“While my goal is to pack all five food groups in my preschooler’s lunch, I really strive to serve a fruit, vegetable and healthy protein option. My preschooler is given a snack at school that is usually a whole grain, so I load up on his favorite fruits (apples, grapes, bananas) and veggies (cucumber slices, red bell pepper sticks, carrots). And when it comes to protein, he loves individual hummus cups and crackers, or cheese and turkey roll-ups.” ― Katie Serbinski, a registered dietitian and founder of Mom to Mom Nutrition
“Vegetables and fruit top up my kids’ vitamin needs, and add variety and color. Kids eat with their eyes first!” ― Cara Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian and founder of Words To Eat By
“A typical lunch for our kiddos includes a half sandwich with peanut butter and instead of jelly, fruit like grapes, banana, pomegranates, etc. We combine our professional knowledge in nutrition with our practical knowledge of ‘what will my kids eat’ ― we also often have them help us make their lunches so they have a say in what goes in there. Building off the base of always having a fruit (in this case on the sandwich), veggie (usually to dip), protein (peanut butter) and grain (sprouted grain bread), they can pick and choose from what we have. They love helping and getting involved, and it also teaches autonomy and teaches them how to balance their plates.” ― Christopher Mohr, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Mohr Results with Kara Mohr
“I’m a firm believer in serving something familiar or ‘liked’ when it comes to school lunch, with both something healthy and ‘treats’ mixed in. School is a time when your child might be missing Mom or Dad, so their favorite PB&J or Cheerios trail mix every day isn’t the end of their diet. Just serve a new fruit or veggie with their dinner to make up for it!” ― Serbinski
Whole-grain pasta salad
“One family favorite is pasta primavera salad with roasted tomatoes and chicken with baby spinach. I use whole-grain pasta (bowtie or pinwheel) with tomatoes roasted with crushed garlic (fresh or canned); chicken (shredded or cubed, which I cook in bulk and freeze in individual portions); and pre-washed baby spinach, which I quickly wilt in the microwave (kids like it more than grown-up spinach). Then I add a little lemon juice and olive oil, which makes everything taste better, and toss it all together. For sides, we’re partial to golden kiwi or frozen or fresh chopped mango.” ― Melissa Halas-Liang, registered dietitian and founder of SuperKids Nutrition
“One of my kids’ favorite items that my wife packs for them are spicy chicken quesadillas. She prepares them the night before school using organic tortillas, diced pre-cooked spicy chicken and a cheese blend. After cooking on a frying pan, we cut them into triangles and keep in the fridge overnight. They are easy to pack, hold and eat ― and the kids love them. They are often asked to trade with friends who want to eat them. It’s the most popular item we pack and super easy to make.” ― Hall
“I have two children who both have great palates, so I feel lucky that packing lunch is not too much of a challenge. Every day, I pack a mid-morning snack that usually consists of a Siggi’s yogurt tube or goat milk squeeze pouch, cucumbers, baby bell peppers and a portion with a side of hummus for my son. For my daughter, I pack a Siggi’s yogurt tube or goat milk squeeze pouch, cucumbers, berries, cherry tomatoes. On occasion I’ll swap the yogurt out for one hardboiled egg with seaweed.” ― Maya Feller, registered dietitian and owner of Maya Feller Nutrition
Dips for veggies
“We also pack mini peppers, cucumbers or baby carrots and hummus or guacamole to dip the veggies.” ― Mohr
“Sometimes I make Greek yogurt dip with veggies and whole grain crackers, chickpea salad and fruit.” ― Rosenbloom
“I keep pre-bought sliced jicama in stock and we make a lot of dips like this homemade ranch: 2 tablespoons of mayo, 2 tablespoons of nonfat Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon parmesan cheese, half a teaspoon garlic powder and half a teaspoon dried parsley.” ― Halas-Liang
Nuts (when possible)
“Other popular items for our kids include foods with peanut butter or nuts. Unfortunately, they are sometimes limited in taking these foods because of nut allergies of classmates ― but nuts tend to be high in healthy fats and proteins that are both healthy and tasty treats.” ― Hall
Bean and cheese sushi wrap
“A fun lunch is a bean-and-cheese sushi wrap. Spread mashed black beans with a bit of lemon juice on a whole grain tortilla, sprinkle shredded mozzarella cheese, and roll into a tight log. Cut slices just like sushi. Add in orange sunshine. Peel an orange and slice them into thick circles. Veggies would be edamame or sugar snap peas.” ― Halas-Liang
“When my daughter was in preschool, she loved bento box meal assembly dishes, like smoked Gouda chunks with whole wheat woven crackers (with no added sugar), frozen peas or corn (which she ate frozen), berries or baked apple chunks. We microwaved the chopped apple, then chilled in the fridge. It keeps it from browning and it’s sweeter. We grow cucumbers well into late fall so we add those in too. It was always a hit!” ― Halas-Liang
“My background in nutrition has taught me that kids fare better in school ― both academically and physically ― when their lunch is nutritious and provides long-lasting energy. That’s why there is always a source of good-quality protein in their lunchbox (chickpeas, cheese, Greek yogurt, chicken, lentils, etc.) and some slow-burning, high-fiber whole grains, like quinoa, whole-grain pasta or oats.
My kids’ lunches are made with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and something high in protein. Some of their favorite combos are: cubes of chicken, grape tomatoes and cucumbers on a skewer, with whole grain crackers and fruit; a turkey or cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato on whole grain, and fruit; and quinoa and bean salad with string cheese, carrots, peppers and fruit.” ― Rosenbloom
Flavor, texture and variety
“When I’m building my kids’ meals I think about variety, temperature, texture, flavor and of course nutrition. Lunch is usually one of the following with a side of fruit and vegetable: bean and rice burrito, veggie dumplings (tofu and cabbage), soup with a side of fruit, spinach and cheese tortellini with a nut-free sauce (the school has a strong nut policy), homemade salmon salad with carrots and celery topped with tzatziki on a whole wheat English muffin, or a spinach and potato patty inside of a whole wheat English muffin.
Children are in a phase of growth and development and ideally their foods should support this. My goal for my children is to give them healthy options that they love, so they will eat and have the energy they need to focus and engage during school hours, play and continue to grow. I aim to send them with a tasty balanced meal that supplies vitamins and minerals from whole and minimally processed sources.” ― Feller
“Lunches for my children are nearly always leftovers from dinner the night before. I like to start with the vegetables first, such as sautéed broccoli, roasted Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower mash. We always supplement with additional vegetables, which are typically raw, such as avocado, cherry tomatoes, peppers (though never green ones) and celery. If we include animal protein in the lunch, it can be roasted chicken, hard-cooked eggs, lamb or beef ― basically whatever we may have had for dinner. If there is no animal protein available or if that’s not preferred, we add sunflower butter in an individual packets, raw almonds or walnuts, or hemp seeds. Juices, carbonated beverages, sweetened drinks and milk are never included. Always pure water.” ― Laura Lagano, a registered dietitian and owner of Laura Lagano Nutrition
“Family favorites include supper leftovers in a thermos (pasta, soup, stew) along with fruit (of kids’ choosing) and a couple of homemade cookies.” ― Katja Leccisi, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of How To Feed Your Kids: Four Steps To Raising Healthy Eaters
“People always ask about dessert. In an effort to encourage children to focus on vegetables first, I suggest not putting fruit in the lunch box until you’re certain that your youngster craves the vegetables. And, when you do include fruit, start by opting for the lower-sugar fruit such as organic strawberries and raspberries.” ― Lagano
“Sometimes I add a small treat, like some chocolate chips or my homemade no-bake granola bites.” ― Rosenbloom
“My kids always also get a dessert ― usually something homemade, like cookies, muffins or date squares.” ― Leccisi
“When I pack my children’s lunches, I always think food safety first and include adequate ice packs to keep cold foods cold.” ― Halas-Liang
“My expertise in nutrition shaped my choices by thinking about food safety, temperature controls and balanced nutrition to prevent childhood obesity and reducing refined products. I also teach my kids to recognize foods as ‘everyday’ versus ‘sometimes’ foods. Therefore they are aware of what foods make them healthy eaters, readers and leaders.” ― Tambra Raye Stevenson, founder and culinary nutritionist at NativSol Kitchen
Rule of three
“I avoid the three S’s: stinky (like fish); sticky (like maple syrup); and soft drinks (too much sugar).” ― Rosenbloom
“For a balanced lunch, I aim for three plant-based colors, plenty of fiber and a good source of protein. ― Halas-Liang
“It’s not just about what you pack, but when you pack it. Make packing lunch the night before part of the nighttime routine ― for us, it’s eat dinner, clean up kitchen and pack lunches. You’re not rushed and can make better decisions vs. adding one more thing to the already crazy mornings as everyone is trying to get out the door.” ― Mohr
“I think it’s easy to get stressed out about packing lunch. To avoid this, I usually pack after dinner or during the after-school snack if I’m home. That way the food is already out. Plus I keep a few sets of containers, some of which are dishwasher-safe. I also don’t make everything from scratch, but do a lot of meal assembly! It’s quicker and with so many healthy options, like beans from a can or pre-washed spinach, it’s easier. And I like to include a quote or little note when I have time.” ― Halas-Liang
Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.