UACES Facebook BACK TO SCHOOL: Lunchbox 101 - good food and happy kids
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BACK TO SCHOOL: Lunchbox 101 - good food and happy kids

By Lisa Lakey
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Fast facts:

  • Well-packed lunches should contain fruit and vegetables
  • Protein, dairy and grains are also good to include in a packed lunch
  • School lunches can be nutritious too

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LITTLE ROCK - A well-packed lunch is key to overcoming the mid-day lull and ensuring your child has the energy to power through the rest of the school day. Add in busy mornings, a picky eater and a short lunchtime, it becomes yet another school year challenge. But packing the daily lunchbox doesn’t mean you have to fall back on yet another peanut butter and jelly sandwich and chips. 

According to Serena Fuller, associate professor of nutrition and food safety for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, the secret to a well-packed lunch is one that contains something that is good for children that they will eat. 

“There are lots of great options, but the key is planning,” she said. “If you are continually pressed for time lunches can become monotonous and there are not as many grab-and-go items. One thing to feel good about is that a study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech found that school lunches were more nutritious following the implementation of the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program Standards than packed lunches, so buying a school lunch can be a great option when pressed for time.” 

Portion Size is Important

Understanding portions can be helpful when deciding what how much to pack in a child’s lunch. Recommendations are based upon age and can be found at Fuller suggests aiming for the proper recommendations, but to remember that any one day of eating more or less won’t compromise your child’s nutritional status. Consider weekly and even monthly intakes. 

“Girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 13 should eat one and a half cups of fruit and two to two and a half cups of vegetables,” Fuller said. “Since that is for an entire day you could aim for half a cup of fruit, which would be one 4-ounce snack container of applesauce or 16 grapes and three-fourths of a cup of vegetables, which would be three-fourths of a cup of edamame or six baby carrots. A great way to know if you are providing too much or too little food is to watch your child’s growth too. If they are on track at the doctor’s office you can feel confident that you are providing the right amount of food for your child.” 

Again, Fuller said planning ahead is key to eliminating lunchbox drama. And making lunch a little more fun doesn’t hurt either. 

“A nice note or a non-edible surprise is always fun,” she said, “and get your child involved in the lunch making as much as possible.” 

Kid-Approved Lunchbox Options

Here, Fuller offers some kid-friendly lunchbox options for any age: 

  • Fruit – tangerines, all berries, banana, kiwi, 6-ounce box of 100 percent fruit juice, applesauce
  • Veggies – cubed, roasted veggies like squash and sweet potatoes, baby carrots, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, tomato sauce, all beans fall into this category too and so do hummus and bean dip, edamame, guacamole
  • Protein – almond butter, mashed or refried lentils, bean dip and hummus, hardboiled egg, veggie burger, roasted turkey or chicken
  • Dairy – make your own yogurt (plain yogurt with your own special add-ins like jam, fresh fruit, nuts, vanilla, cinnamon, granola, etc.), low-fat cottage cheese dip (blend cottage cheese with your favorite seasonings like ranch, for example), cubed and sliced cheese
  • Grains – baked whole grain crackers, popcorn, whole wheat muffin, tortillas, whole wheat pasta noodles, couscous, rice, bulgur. 

For more information about making healthy meals, contact your county extension office or visit

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.    

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Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
(501) 671-2126

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