A 180-day school year means 180 lunches to prepare! Here are some tips to make packing lunch more enjoyable.
There are 180 days in a school year, which makes for a lot of lunches to prepare. It’s understandable that many parents see this as quite a chore. Here are a few tips to help make your child’s lunch not only nutritious, but one they’ll want to eat.
The importance of lunch
Just like other meals, lunch is an important part of your child’s diet. Lunch at school is more than just a break between morning and afternoon classes.
Lunch allows kids to recharge. It nourishes their brain, helps them concentrate for the rest of the day, and provides nutrients that are essential for growth.
Getting your kindergartner used to bringing lunch to school
If your child is starting kindergarten, leaving home with a lunchbox is brand new! Here are some tips to help them stay organized.
- Show them their packed lunch the night before or in the morning and explain what’s for lunch and what’s for snack time. It might be a good idea to put their snacks in a separate container in their backpack. Just don’t forget to tell your child where they are!
- Explain that they will be eating lunch with other kids at school, but that they need to take the time to eat before going to play.
- Remind them that they can always ask a grown-up for help (if they can’t get their thermos open, for example).
- At home, teach them how to use utensils and let them eat on their own.
How to prepare your child’s lunchbox
Whether it’s on a plate, in a plastic container, or in a thermos, lunch should be planned in the same way as any other meal. It should contain a variety of foods to ensure a balanced plate, as recommended in Canada’s food guide.
Don’t worry if your child’s lunch is occasionally missing a component of a balanced plate. Their entire diet can’t be evaluated based on a single meal, or even a single day. Your child will have many other opportunities to eat each of the food groups.
What to put in their lunchbox
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables can be raw or cooked, and they can be incorporated into dishes or served on the side. In addition to making meals even more nutritious, they add colour and more textural variation.
You don’t need to pick a different vegetable every day—you can just use the ones you normally shop for.
Fruit can be served as is, or with something like a yogurt dip or homemade chocolate hummus. They can also be served as fruit squares or in a compote, crumble, or salad. Frozen fruit is perfect for adding to plain yogurt.
The fibre found in whole grain products can help make lunch more filling and tide your child over for the rest of the afternoon.
Grains can be part of either the main course or dessert. At least half of the time, choose whole grain products (e.g., brown rice, millet, quinoa, or oats, or whole wheat bread, pasta, or couscous) over refined ones (e.g., white bread or pasta).
This can be tofu, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and other legumes, eggs, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, salmon, sardines, or tuna. These foods should keep your child’s hunger at bay until snack time. You can put them in sandwiches, salads, or pasta dishes, or pair them with rice or other grains.
Should you avoid deli meats? Deli meats are high in salt and fat and low in protein, and they can also contain nitrites. It’s best not to eat them on a daily basis; opt for alternatives like leftover cooked chicken, sliced beef, eggs, or tuna sandwich filling instead. That said, it’s fine to eat deli meats occasionally (once or twice a week).
Milk, fortified soy beverages, yogurt, and cheese are also sources of protein, but they contain less than the foods listed above. For this reason, they should not be the only source of protein in your child’s lunch.
Plain yogurt can be used as a base for dips, sandwich fillings, or dessert. Different kinds of cheese can be served on their own as a snack or put in sandwiches, salads, or other dishes. Milk and soy drinks are nutritious beverages to give your child, but water should always be their go-to drink, especially outside of meals and snacks.
To stay hydrated, it’s important for your child to get plenty of fluids throughout the day. Water should be their main drink. They should have a water bottle in their backpack for whenever they’re thirsty.
Good choices of drinks at lunchtime are milk, fortified soy beverages, and homemade or low-sugar yogurt drinks. These options are thirst-quenching and, thanks to their protein content, filling. Other vegan drinks, such as almond or oat beverages, have less nutritional value. They’re hydrating, but they don’t provide the nutritional value of the others mentioned above, so you shouldn’t pack them in your child’s lunch too often.
Avoid juice as much as possible. It’s high in sugar, not very nutritious, and not equivalent to a serving of fruit, even if it’s made of 100 percent juice. Only give your child juice occasionally, in small quantities, at home.
Limit ready-made and frozen meals as much as possible
With so many lunches to pack and school restrictions to follow, you might find yourself resorting more and more to ready-made or frozen foods. However, most of these products are highly processed, and your child shouldn’t have them often. Homemade meals are more nutritious because you have control over the quantity and quality of the ingredients you put into them. If you need to pack the occasional prepared meal to get by, make sure it contains a high-protein food like fish, chicken, meat, tofu, or legumes. Add a serving of vegetables on the side if needed.
School lunch essentials
A few items are absolutely essential for preparing your child’s lunches:
- A lunchbox. Choose one that’s hard, insulated, and easy to clean.
There’s nothing less appetizing than a bruised apple, pear, or banana. If you want your child to eat their fruit, make sure it’s well protected. Whether it’s in their lunchbox or packed separately as a snack, put it in a plastic container if it’s delicate.
- Microwaveable containers, if your child has access to a microwave at school. Be sure to label them as microwave-safe. Also, check what types of containers are allowed at the school. Glass generally isn’t permitted since it can break or get very hot.
- A thermos. This will allow your child to eat hot meals even if they don’t have access to a microwave.
- Ice packs. These are particularly useful if there are no refrigerators at school. If you don’t have an ice pack, you can simply use a frozen water bottle.
- Small containers for compotes, yogurt, or raw veggies.
To prevent bacteria, certain foods must be kept cold: milk, yogurt, cheese, cooked legumes, cooked vegetables, rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, cold cuts, eggs, and tofu.
In addition, when you get home, throw away any food your child didn’t eat and wash their bottles, containers, and utensils. Clean and air out their lunchbox to prevent it from getting smelly.
Making lunch prep easier
With so many lunches to prepare, you might feel overwhelmed by the task. Here are some tips to make it more efficient.
- Pack lunches in the evening rather than in the morning. You’ll feel less rushed.
- Double your recipes when you make dinner so you have leftovers to use for lunch. When tidying up after dinner, divide the leftovers into individual portions that can go directly into your child’s lunchbox.
- If the leftovers are too difficult to reheat, turn them into another meal. For example, pieces of fish are great in a sandwich, and you can put pieces of chicken in a nice rice salad.
- Wash and cut fruits and vegetables ahead of time so that you always have a two- or three-day supply. Pineapple, melons, carrots, celery, and broccoli can last for a little while, so feel free to cut them up in advance. Apples, cucumbers, and peppers, on the other hand, don’t last quite as long, so don’t prepare them too far ahead of time. Rice, pasta, and quinoa can also be cooked in advance. You can keep them for a few days in the fridge or a few weeks in the freezer. This way, they’ll be ready to go when you’re packing your child’s lunch.
- Plan out the week’s meals and shop accordingly so that you’ll have everything you need on hand when it’s time to pack lunch.
- Keep your pantry stocked at home so that you always have ingredients for a meal (e.g., legumes, canned tuna or salmon, eggs, cheese, and single-serving foods like applesauce).
- Give your child a meal they can assemble themself. You don’t have to follow a recipe to make a real meal. For example, lunch can be a small can of seasoned tuna (one your child can open without a can opener) combined with mini pitas, raw veggies, and pieces of cheese that your child can eat separately. Another possibility is a hard-boiled egg with good crackers (like Triscuits®), hummus, and raw veggies.
What about snacks?
If your child goes to daycare, they’ll need both a morning and an afternoon snack. Every school has its own rules about snacks. The most common are rules prohibiting candy, nuts, and peanuts, as well as any products that contain them, such as many granola bars and cookies. The teacher might also prefer that your child have snacks they can eat with their fingers.
Here are some snack ideas:
Cheese strings and snacks
Yogurt (regular or drinkable)
Involve your child in preparing their lunch
If you ask your child to help you pack their lunch, they’ll not only feel a sense of pride but also learn a few skills. Being involved will help them get more interested in and knowledgeable about food while developing their tastes.
They can also adjust the portion sizes to better suit their needs and their appetite, resulting in less waste. Plus, you’ll be preparing them to make their own lunches in a few years.
Here’s how to get your child involved:
Ask them to suggest some meal ideas
Let them assemble their sandwich
Bake muffins, banana bread, rice pudding, or other desserts together, which your child can then take to school
Ask them to let you know what size portions they want
Have them pack their lunchbox
Give them the responsibility of emptying and washing their lunchbox when they get home from school
Things to keep in mind
Your child’s lunchbox should ideally contain a combination of fruit or vegetables, grains, and protein.
It’s a good idea to keep your pantry stocked to make preparing lunch easier (legumes, tuna, eggs, pasta, frozen fruit, etc.).
Involving your child in preparing their lunch gives them a sense of pride and make them more interested in eating it.
Scientific review: Stéphanie Côté, M.Sc., nutritionist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2020
Photos: GettyImages/FatCamera, courtneyk, RuslanDashinsky, and MachineHeadz
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Books for parents
Côté, Stéphanie. Enfants, 21 jours de menus. Montreal, Éditions Modus Vivendi, “Savoir quoi manger” series, 2018, 207 pp.
Karmel, Annabel. Repas et boîtes à lunch pour enfants. Saint-Constant, Éditions Broquet, 2015, 184 pp.
Morin, Marie-Claude. Boîte à lunch pour enfants. Montreal, Éditions Modus Vivendi, 2013, 192 pp.
O’Gleman, Geneviève. Les lunchs. Montreal, Éditions de l’Homme, 2019, 256 pp.