Medically reviewed by Shahzadi Devje, Registered Dietitian (RD) & Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
Find a bunch of back to school healthy eating tips to help you get in the groove for the school year.
As the end of summer nears, like some of you, we're channelling our energy towards school preparations. Whether you're eager for new challenges ahead or worried about the change in routine, it's important to continue on the journey towards establishing healthy eating habits. Of course, we want to set up our kids to be at their best in the classroom.
Though it isn't easy to think about healthy eating in the morning; when everyone is prancing around frantically trying to get out the door, I'm sharing school nutrition tips along with an abundance of ideas for packing healthy back to school lunches. All these strategies are things I've tried and tested to ensure that the start of a new school year is uncomplicated, fun and doable.
Steps for packing healthy back to school lunches
Step 1: The first step is coming up with a game plan of what you'll pack in your child's lunch box each day. I'd suggest having a variety of foods on hand, to avoid your child getting tired of eating the same thing every day. Consider different variations for the school week that vary in theme or colour, and then shake things up on weekends - when you have more time to plan.
Step 2: is deciding what you would like to make each day and how much. When it comes to selecting recipes, complement familiar favourites with new ideas.
Bonus: Meal planning can help reduce unnecessary trips to the grocery store, which means less time wasted driving around making decisions.
Step 3: The third step in packing lunches is ensuring that you have all of your ingredients handy for your healthy recipes. Remember, any recipe that includes fish, chicken or beef should be stored in an airtight container to keep it fresh.
Step 4: Now you're ready for step four - actually making lunch!
Fun healthy lunchbox ideas to try
Here's how I like to think through fun and healthy lunchbox ideas - to maximize flavour and nutrition.
Bento boxes are just one type of healthy lunch idea that you can include in your kids' backpacks. Bentos originated in Japan but have gained popularity over the years and are now a staple for children's lunches. A typical bento will have three compartments, with protein (for example, tuna fish cake), carbs (like a slice of handvo or sushi), and vegetables (think rainbow salad) in each compartment.
Sandwiches, wraps & tacos
Sandwiches and wraps are an excellent option for kids because they're transportable and can provide balanced nutrition. You can go a step further and offer your children higher quality, more nutritious bread options: whole grain varieties like rye and pumpernickel. Consider limiting refined white bread, which offers little to no nutritional benefit. It lacks the fibre needed to keep kids fuller for extended periods. Here are some sandwich and wrap filling ideas:
- Veggie omelette
- Tofu scramble
- Slices of lean meat like turkey or chicken with lettuce and tomato
- Grilled chicken with salad greens
- Canned fish with veggies
- Tofu with root veggies
- Spicy smashed chickpeas with spinach and grated carrots
- Avocado egg salad
- Cheese and tomato
Load up on greens to increase your children's intake of vitamin A, C, and K. Leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula) also provide folate, iron and calcium.
Pizza can be on the lunch menu — not just for Friday's pizza day. It's a versatile option, scrumptious and can include nutritious toppings. A box of bakery rounds or peel-able crusts at the grocery store will do if you don't want to purchase pre-made pizzas or specialty kid-friendly dough that come with a hefty price.
Naan and pita bread are perfect quick options as bases because they're usually on-hand. Make sure you choose a crust that has some fibre. Here are a bunch of nutritious toppings to try when preparing your pizza:
- Canned fish
Pasta is an excellent choice for lunch because it's nourishing and budget-friendly. Plus, it's a fast and easy way to make a meal, especially when you're after comfort and something hearty for your child. Experiment with veggie-based noodles like zucchini - if you're looking for a nutritious and light lunch option. Remember, pasta made with whole grains and legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas) will provide more fibre, nutrition and staying power. Here's how to make your back to school pasta delicious and nutritious. Throw in some:
- Lean protein: beans, lentils, chickpeas, poultry, meat, seafood, tofu
- Vegetables: homemade tomato sauce, spinach, mushrooms, peppers, peas, carrots
- Herbs: basil, thyme, cilantro, rosemary
Even though salads are a great healthy eating idea for kids, they can be a tough sell for some. What's great though, is that greens can be dressed with all sorts of fun things like cheese, seeds, eggs, fruits, dressings, sauces etc.
One review suggests focusing on strategies such as repeated exposure and modelling and incentivizing tasting with non-food rewards.
Encourage your kids to choose what they want on their salad by packing veggies that they like and then let them pick which dressing or sauce they prefer.
To set yourself up for success, one back to school healthy eating tip is chopping your vegetables the evening before and putting them into an airtight container or bag. This will save time in the morning. Here are three of our favourite sassy salads - taste-tested and approved by our 7-year old:
Fun Fruit and veggie kebabs for kids
Fruit and veggie kebabs are perhaps the most fun of ideas - especially for easy snacks. Most kids love them because they're colourful and can be made with just about any combination of fruits or veggies you have in your kitchen. Plus, their nutrition value is far better for your child's health than foods laden with added sugar. Here's how to make fruit and veggie kebabs:
- Grab some tasty fresh fruit and veggies (ones that can be eaten raw) from the grocery store: peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, grapes, olives, berries, oranges, melons etc.
- Use skewers or toothpicks
- Put all your fruit and veggies on the skewer or toothpick in whatever way you want it to look
- If the veggies require cooking (mushrooms), brush with olive oil before cooking to avoid sticking to the grill. Grill until cook through.
Pack for lunch, and voila! You have some healthy ideas for kids that are fun to eat too.
Dips and hummus for kids
Most kids like to snack. The key thing is to have hummus (or another favourite dip) alongside fresh veggies as a nourishing snack for kids. Here's how we prepare a super simple dip with fruits and veggies for our children:
- Cut up different types of raw veggies
- In a separate bowl, mix 1 part hummus and 4 parts water. If it's too thick, add more water until you get the consistency of yogurt
- Pack and enjoy!
Follow a themed week to create fun and healthy lunch boxes
How about incorporating a theme for your lunch menu? If you decide to follow this, remember that every week will have its own theme. It's such a fun idea because the kids anticipate it with so much excitement. Quite simply, it's a wonderful way to help children try new foods and expand their nutritional palate. Some themes you could try are:
- Days at the beach
- Lunch in jar
- Barbecue week
- Bento boxes
- Cultural cuisine: Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese etc
- National food
Balancing a healthy lunch is key. Children need the right proportion of protein, carbs, fruits and veggies to feel satisfied, so it's important to create satisfying options that they'll love.
It's no surprise that achieving a healthy dietary pattern can be difficult for a child to maintain since it's not unusual for kids to resist trying new foods or textures. However, as parents, we can make adjustments by gradually adding small amounts of these foods - consistently - and introducing them slowly over time.
Shahzadi is an award-winning registered dietitian (RD) regulated by the College of Dietitians of Ontario and certified diabetes educator (CDE), approved by the Canadian Diabetes Educator Certification Board. A YouTuber and notorious foodie, she's dedicated to helping you end your cooking wars, transform your health, and be the best version of yourself! Shahzadi is an on-air nutrition expert for CTV Your Morning and a regular contributor for Global News and other national media outlets.