Health & Wellbeing
Easy Back to School Lunch Ideas
Katrina Hartog
Katrina Hartog
Clinical Nutrition Manager, Lenox Hill Hospital

Back to school can be a hectic time of the year. Regardless, if you pack your kids lunch or send them with lunch money, it is important to think about what they will be eating and ensure it is as healthy as possible as children consume at least a third of their total daily calorie needs at school.

On average, U.S. children consume more than double the amount of sugar recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but only about one-third the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.1 About one-third of the intake of fruit in the U.S. population comes from fruit juice. More staggering data shows nearly 19% of our nation’s children are considered overweight or obese, with lower income and racial or ethnic minority children at the greatest risk.2 As a reference, a child above the 85th percentile for weight is considered overweight. A child above the 95th percentile for weight is considered obese.3 Obese children are as much as 10 times more likely than healthy-weight children to become obese adults.4 In turn, this increases their risk of developing type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), low self-esteem and depression.

Despite the statistics, there are wonderful resources available to educate parents, caregivers, and children on the importance of healthy eating and exercise. We Can! is a national education program with the goal to achieve healthy weight, eat right, get active, and reduce screen time. Let’s Move! is a comprehensive initiative, launched by Michelle Obama in 2010, dedicated to solving the problem of obesity within a generation. On both websites, you can find recipe ideas and exercise tips.

Children often model health behaviors of their parents so healthy eating starts with you! My suggestion is start packing lunch 2-3 times per week for not just the kids, but the entire family using the same foods. Depending on your child’s age, you may want to give half a sandwich as the appropriate portion size and always include a child-size water bottle. Here are some ideas:

  1. Simple: Turkey sandwich with hummus and tomato or cucumber on whole-grain bread. Add a string cheese, a whole apple or apple slices, and 2-3 fig bars (for the kids).
  2. Breakfast for Lunch: Whole wheat waffle sliced into strips. Add a hardboiled egg, side of cut-up strawberries or blueberries, and baby carrots. Substitute low-fat yogurt for the hardboiled egg if desired.
  3. Leftovers: Cut up grilled chicken into slices over spinach. Add in cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, or any leftover veggies. Side of cantaloupe or watermelon. Include 1 string cheese for kids or add goat cheese to salad for adults.
  4. Italianinspired: Whole wheat penne pasta mixed with pesto sauce; sprinkle parmesan cheese on top. Side of cut-up red peppers or any leftover veggies. Include 1 whole banana or grapes.
  5. Mexican-inspired: 6-7 flaxseed tortilla chips. Side of guacamole, chunky tomato salsa, and black beans. Include cut-up watermelon or strawberries.

Packing lunch doesn’t have to be so complicated or nerve-wracking. Continue to remind yourself the healthy behaviors you foster now will have long-term benefits! Good luck and have fun with it!


  1. Agriculture, U. D. (December 2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition.
  2. Hales, C. M., Carroll, M. D., Fryar, C. D., & Ogden, C. L. (October 2017). Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015-2016. NCHS Data Brief.
  3. Barlow, S., & Expert Committee. (2007). Expert committee recommendations regarding the prevention, assessment, and treatment of child and adolescent overweight and obesity: summary report. Pediatrics, 120 Supplement.
  4. Cullen, K. W., & Chen, T. A. (2017). The contribution of the USDA school breakfast and lunch program meals to student daily dietary intake. Preventive Medicine Reports, 82-85.
  5. Gordon, A., Fox, M., Clark, M., Nogales, R., Condon, E., Gleason, P., & Sarin, A. (November 2007). School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study- III: Volume II: Student Participation and Dietary Intakes. United States Department of Agriculture.


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