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School Lunches: Better Brown Bag Bets 37752

Do you send your kids to school with a brown bag lunch, thinking it's a more nutritious option than what they'll otherwise find at school? You might be surprised to find out that might not be the case.

A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND) found that among 626 elementary schoolchildren, nearly half brought lunch from home to school on any given day. The most common lunch foods included sandwiches, snack foods, fruit, and desserts. Leftovers, dairy foods, and vegetables were also included, though to a lesser extent.

Of the lunches children brought from home to school, only about one in four met at least three of five National School Lunch Program standards. And that means most fell short of the standards created back in 2012.

Researchers also found that while 97%—or just about all the lunches brought from home to school—included a snack, only about 4% of snacks met at least two of four Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) requirements.

According to the researchers, previous studies suggest that children who bring lunch from home consume less produce, consume more calories and less fiber, and are more likely to consume sugar sweetened beverages and snacks high in added sugars and fats while at school compared with children who rely on the NSLP for lunch. Studies also suggest that those who eat school lunch are also more likely to consume milk, fruit, and vegetables during lunch than those who brown bag it.

My children go to a school that requires them to eat lunches that are provided by their school. But when they were younger, I used to love to send them lunch—not in a brown bag, but in an insulated lunch bag with ice to keep it at a safe temperature until lunchtime rolled around. If you are able and choose to send your child to school with their lunch in hand, below you'll find some great ideas from top registered dietitian nutritionists. These lunches provide a balance of nutrients to meet their needs for growth, development, and sustained energy—and a side of deliciousness—so that they're less likely to make a trade!

Mango-Orange Smoothie made with 1.5 cups frozen mango, 1/2 cup coconut milk, and 1/2 cup orange juice; string cheese; and a 100% whole wheat cracker-wafer.

My third grader doesn't have much time to eat at school. Drinking her fruit ensures that she has time to fuel up and helps boost her fiber intake, which is so important for kids. I include string cheese to give her some protein, and a whole wheat cracker-wafer that is 100% whole grain made with healthy fats for sustained energy and no added sugars.

Whole wheat flat bread with pesto and shredded melted mozzarella plus a smoothie.

My daughter eats the flat bread with pesto and mozzarella cold. Sometimes we even add a few olives or artichokes to our homemade pesto. I vary the smoothies by color, sometimes adding frozen blueberries, fresh kiwi, pineapple and a little parsley, baby spinach leaves or kale. This is a good, balanced lunch that packs in plenty of protein, fiber, and healthy fats.

From Holley Grainger, MS, RD:

One small whole wheat flour tortilla spread with seed or nut butter, topped with sliced banana, rolled up and cut into spirals; plain Greek yogurt with mashed blueberries stirred in; carrot and red bell pepper sticks with hummus; and a glass of nonfat milk or water.

My three-year-old daughter's lunches vary day-to-day but always follow the same simple formula to keep her meals interesting while exposing her to a broad range of foods for a balance of nutrients and flavors. The breakdown is simple, and includes at least one food from each of the five food groups listed below with examples for each:

lean protein: grilled chicken, low-sodium turkey, sliced pork tenderloin

vegetables: green beans, red bell pepper strips, or carrots

fruit: pineapple, apple slices, banana, mandarin orange segments, or berries

dairy: milk, yogurt or cheese

whole grains: popcorn, whole wheat pretzels, whole wheat flour tortilla

From Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN, author of Fearless Feeding:

A sandwich with hummus or turkey, leftover mixed salad (or shredded carrots, purple cabbage and lettuce) on a whole grain wrap/tortilla or bread; a large serving of fruit; a small packet of nuts and dark chocolate (trader Joe's); and a large water bottle.

The sandwich wrap is easy to make, utilizes my dinner leftovers and highlights a good protein source, whole grain and vegetables. In one meal, I am able to hit most of the food groups: protein, grain, fruit, vegetables and healthy fat. Since my girls (ages 12-17) are athletes, they usually eat the nut/dark chocolate mix before practice and I send in a separate chocolate milk box (dairy) for after practice.

From Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen:

Brown rice vegetable rolls, an apple, and low fat milk.

I like to buy vegetable rolls for my daughters, ages nine and seven, to bring to school about twice a month. This helps break the boredom of everyday sandwiches. The brown rice provides fiber, the apple has vitamin C and the antioxidant beta-carotene. The low fat milk provides nine essential nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

What's your favorite lunch to send with your kids to school?

Image of school lunch via shutterstock.