Planning healthy school lunches isn’t easy. Elementary, middle and high schoolers have limited options due to lack of refrigerators and microwaves, especially if they’re picky eaters. And if they want nutritious foods, they have even fewer choices.
In order to give school students more variety, this guide on healthy school lunch ideas provides recommendations that even the pickiest eaters will love. These foods are both tasty and nutritious, so they’re perfect for kids and teens who need fuel to learn and grow.
Quick to make and easy to eat, sandwiches are common in school lunches for a reason. If peanut butter and jelly is getting old, here are some others you might want to try:
- Deli Meat and Cheese – Whether it’s ham and cheese or turkey and swiss, cold cuts and sliced cheeses are filling, protein-packed foods. If regular sandwich bread is too boring, try baguette, bagels or even Hawaiian rolls.
- Sandwich Wraps – Tortillas are for more than just tacos and fajitas: they’re also a great way to make a sandwich! Roll up deli meat and cheese, peanut butter and fruit or honey and granola and cut the wrap into smaller portions to make it more snackable.
- Hummus Sandwiches – Hummus is an excellent source of protein for vegans and vegetarians. Since it’s versatile enough for sandwich bread or wraps, it’s also a good change of pace for meat eaters who want something different.
- Cheese and Honey – Kids and teens usually like the sweet and savory combination of peanut butter and jelly, so they’re sure to love cheese and honey. Although it’s delicious cold, serving the sandwich toasted would make for a fantastic after school snack, too.
Cold Lunch Ideas
Even though sandwiches are a lunchbox classic, it’s good to mix things up a bit. If you’re looking for healthy school lunch ideas that go beyond sandwiches, try:
- Hard-Boiled Eggs – Hard-boiled eggs are great because they’re relatively inexpensive and can be prepared in large batches, making meal prep for the week easy. Whether they’re eaten plain or in salads, they’re a protein-packed food that tastes great at room temperature.
- Pasta Salad – A favorite at catered parties and salad bars, pasta salad would work well as a school lunch. Adding chopped vegetables, feta and chicken can turn this side into a full meal.
- Quiche Muffins – For an all-in-one, on-the-go meal, pour a mixture of scrambled eggs, ham or sausage, veggies and cheese into a muffin pan and bake. These crustless quiches are just as great for lunch as they are for breakfast, or even dinner!
- Cheese and Crackers – Give the school cafeteria classic a healthy makeover by using low-sodium crackers, reduced-fat cheese and uncured meats. Since you can make whatever combinations you want, the possibilities are endless.
In addition to a sandwich, wrap or pasta salad, sides help give elementary, middle and high school students enough fuel to get through the day. If you’re looking for something healthier than a bag of potato chips, consider:
- Veggie Sticks – Carrot and celery sticks, along with chunks of bell pepper, broccoli and cauliflower are full of vitamins. Cherry tomatoes are fun to eat, so don’t forget those, either. For picky eaters who don’t like vegetables, low-fat ranch dressing can change their minds.
- Nuts and Seeds – Peanuts, almonds and walnuts, along with pumpkin and sunflower seeds, add not only a nice bit of crunch but also a good dose of healthy fats.
- Applesauce Cups – Small applesauce cups don’t need to be refrigerated, so they won’t go bad in backpacks or lockers. If you really want to be healthy, look for unsweetened applesauce.
- Wheat Crackers – Although they can be high in salt, the good carbs and healthy fiber will help keep students satisfied until dinner. Whether plain or with some peanut butter, they’re great as a school lunch side.
No meal, including a school lunch, is complete without dessert. Although finding healthy desserts can be challenging, there are definitely a few sweet treats that won’t ruin your otherwise healthy lunch, such as:
- Trail Mix – Although nuts and seeds are good on their own, they’re even better with raisins and other dried fruit. For an extra special treat, add dark chocolate chips or candy-coated chocolate.
- Fruit Cups – Nobody wants to do a lot of cutting and chopping in the morning, so shelf-stable fruit cups are a good way to eat fruit salad with none of the prep. Be sure to look for fruit cups with juice, not heavy syrup, to make sure you’re getting the healthiest option possible.
- 100 Calories Packs – Eating a whole box of cookies definitely isn’t healthy, but indulging with a small portion every once in a while is fine. 100 calorie packs of cookies, cupcakes and other high-calorie sweets are good if you want a sensible portion of something sweet.
- Yogurt Cups – Even though it’s often eaten as a snack, yogurt can be a great dessert, too. Greek yogurt is smooth and creamy, reminiscent of ice cream or frozen yogurt. Add fresh fruit and granola to make a yogurt parfait that will rival any ice cream version.