"Under the sea" bento box

How to Pack a Balanced Lunch for Your Child for

Back to School

by Sarah Schlichter

Summer is coming to an end, and before we know it, it’ll be back to school season! The back to school sales will start, and if you have kids of your own, you’ll start thinking about what to pack in their lunchboxes.

As a kid, I always loved back to school season. It meant a new backpack, new clothes, new books, new notebooks and binders, and new sharp pencils. Oh, the novelty! I was (and still am) a huge nerd so I enjoyed getting new supplies for school.

While I look forward to the day where I can pack my childrens’ lunches, as a mom of a newborn, I don’t yet have to worry about foods other than breastmilk. However, as a dietitian, I’ve counseled many moms about what a nutritious, balanced lunch can look like for children, and we’ve brainstormed many out-of-the-box ideas. And of course, I remember some of my childhood experiences as well!

I was always a “brown bagged” lunch kid. I would buy lunch occasionally from school, but more often than not, I made my own lunch. In elementary school, my lunch was pretty simple – usually a sandwich of some sort, a piece of fruit, pudding and maybe some raisins or goldfish or another snack. In middle and high school, things started to get more interesting and I got more spontaneous! I’d throw a yogurt in there, more fruit, and even veggies like carrots, celery and cucumbers.

Close-up of person holding orange fruit

I never had any aversions to fruits or veggies and I think it’s because my parents introduced them to me at a young age and let me pick and choose which ones I most enjoyed. This is in line with Ellyn Satter’s approach to eating. Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and family therapist who specializes in eating competency, developed a division of responsibility in feeding to help raise healthy children who are actively involved in eating, feel good about eating and have the drive to eat. Part of Satter’s division of responsibility is that the parents choose and prepare the food, provide regular snacks and meals and make eating times pleasant. The children will choose whether they want to eat it and how much they need. Research shows that this can positively develop childrens’ eating habits and teaches them how to self regulate.

In today’s culture, there are now so many ways to liven up your child’s school lunch while still keeping it healthy and nutritionally balanced! Though nutritional needs vary depending on the age and activity of the child, children are still encouraged to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to meet their nutrient needs. A balanced lunch, based off of My Plate, should include sources of carbohydrate (grains), protein, healthy fat, fruits and/or vegetables and dairy.

Graphic showing how much of each food group makes up a balanced meal

Here are some tips for balancing your child’s lunch, and getting them involved:

Let Your Child Help

Depending on the age of your child, he/she may be able to help pack the lunch with you, giving them some autonomy in the process! This can even start in the grocery store, letting your child pick out foods that he or she would like to pack in their lunch. For example, perhaps you let your child pick a food from each food group (protein, carbohydrate, fruit or vegetable, dairy). So, lunch may be a turkey sandwich with an apple, baby carrots and a yogurt one day, and a pita with hummus with nuts, orange slices and string cheese the next day. Letting your child choose also gives them empowerment and helps teach them responsibility in decision making. It also allows parents to educate their children about healthy foods that are full of nutrients to help children grow and thrive.

Grocery store vegetables


Letting your children help pick out food teaches them empowerment and responsibility.

Go Beyond The Typical Sandwich

If you’re trying to get creative beyond the typical sandwich, think outside of the box. Bento boxes can be great for offering mini sections for each food group. Consider leftovers from last night, making a batch of egg muffins, serving a breakfast wrap, deli roll ups or chicken on sticks (like kebobs) rather than bread, including small portions of fun “treats” (like dark chocolate, popcorn or yogurt covered raisins), and/or offering single serving pouches of nut butters. Quesadillas and tacos can also go a long way and be catered to whatever the child likes in there (from avocado and guacamole to cheese, beans, cilantro and chopped tomatoes).

Fun Shapes

Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes out of fruits, deli meats, cheeses and breads. You can model shapes after your little one’s favorite movie, show or character (Disney themes are common)! This can help make the food more fun and palatable for children. Try melon ball shapes for fruit like watermelon, and stars for mini sandwiches.

Animal-shaped cookies


Shapes can make foods more fun and palatable for kids.

Make the days of the week fun!

Try introducing themes for certain days for your children’s lunches. Maybe Monday is Mexican, Tuesday is “Green Hulk” day, Wednesday is kebobs, Thursday is a “surprise,” and Friday is pasta or healthy pizza day with the kid’s choice of veggies.  Whatever works and gets your children interested!

Balance Convenience and Homemade

Don’t stress about everything being homemade! There are many store bought convenient snack options that can help make your life easier, plus they are probably things your children love! Individual or mini sized boxes of raisins or other dried fruits are great because they won’t go bad and are perfectly portable without refrigeration. You can also consider granola, trail mixes and mini sized bags of popcorn for easy grab and go items.

"Snaily" bento box


Raisins and dried fruits are great because they’re portable, won’t go bad and don’t need refrigeration.

We hope we’ve inspired you – the ideas are limitless for making school lunch fun!

Headshot photo of Sarah Schlichter

Sarah Schlichter is a Registered Dietitian with my Master’s of Public Health in Charlotte, NC. She works in nutrition counseling and consulting, and blogs at Bucket List Tummy.


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