Bag it or Buy it? Healthy Student Lunches

School Lunch Advice

Making sure children eat a healthy lunch at school can be challenging, whether they eat in the cafeteria or pack a lunch from home. The good news is healthy options abound for buying lunch or bagging it. The key is teaching yourself and your children about good nutrition first.

“I think you can shape and change a kid’s excitement about [nutrition] if you approach it the right way,” says Sheree Vodicka, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the N.C. Dietetic Association in Raleigh.

Today’s lunch line

Thanks to ongoing efforts in North Carolina to provide healthy food in school cafeterias, children can eat nutritious and varied lunches every day. School cafeteria lines are a great place for students to gain independence, learn how to make healthy choices and learn social interaction, as well as try new foods.

Wake County public schools have introduced new healthy foods, such as kiwi and star fruit and a California blend of vegetables, to its lunch menus. “There are some unusual things kids might not get at home or in their lunch box,” says Marilyn Moody, nutrition director at Wake County schools.

This fall, more white breads will be replaced with whole wheat breads, and vending machines will offer only downsized snacks with fewer than 200 calories. Many schools in North Carolina are taking similar actions, removing sugary fruit drinks and replacing them with water, 100-percent fruit juice and flavored water, as schools try to help children get smart about nutrition.

The benefit of eating at school is a selection of healthy hot foods on the menu, including cooked vegetables and meats. However, temptations remain. There may be Rice Krispie treats by the cash register or ice cream on the menu for dessert.

You should monitor meal choices and review menus with your student before he or she heads to school each day. “It starts at home,” says Joan Marsh, the dining hall manager at Charlotte Country Day School. “You have to go over the options with your child of what they can and cannot have.”

Most schools publish menus online, giving you ample opportunity to review choices with your child. Convenient online systems such as in Wake County schools allow you to manage lunch money accounts and monitor students’ cafeteria purchases daily. This tool allows you to guide them to healthier foods when needed.

What’s in the bag?

Packing a lunch is an easy way to provide a balanced meal and have more control over what your child eats at school.

Vodicka, the dietician, warns, however, that packing a nutritious lunch means avoiding many convenience foods such as prepackaged snacks and lunches that are high in sodium, sugar and fat. Potato chips, crackers and even deli meat can be filled with sodium.

“It’s a good idea to think about what you can include that’s healthy, nutritious and simple, and include more of the things kids need, like fruits and vegetables,” she says.

Vodicka recommends replacing the jelly in a PB&J with bananas or apples or packing plain yogurt sweetened with frozen fruit. She also advises limiting fruit juice and letting kids buy milk at school.

Donna Trimble of Charlotte packs her son’s lunch four days a week and allows him to choose his meal in the cafeteria on the fifth day. “I really try to watch what he eats, and the only way to do that is to pack his lunch,” Trimble says.

Letting her son, a rising third-grader, choose a cafeteria meal once a week gives him some independence.

So, what should you stash in that lunch box? Dietitians recommend packing a protein, fruit, grain, vegetable and dairy in each meal. Consider choices such as whole-wheat bread, all-natural peanut butter, convenient precut carrots and celery sticks, or mini boxes of raisins.

Meleah Farlow of High Point packs her children’s lunches to make sure they get adequate nutrition. Typical lunches include a cup of soup, carrot sticks, low-fat ranch dressing and a cheese stick or a turkey hot dog on a whole-wheat bun with baked chips, orange slices and yogurt.

“Pick out those things that children like that are good for them and make it fun,” Farlow says. “Roll up a banana with some peanut butter on a whole-wheat wrap. Make a fun mix that has raisins, dark chocolate pieces, multi-grain Cheerios and peanuts.”

It’s important to encourage your children to eat healthy foods. Be a good nutrition role model and watch your food choices, because children often will try food their parents eat.

“You can’t expect them to drop the Oreos for carrot sticks in a day,” Farlow says. “I continually ask my kids to at least taste something and see if they like it. Sometimes they surprise themselves and find out they do.”

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer who supports the rise in the local food movement. She lives in southeast Charlotte with her husband and two kids, ages 6 and 3.


Better Than a Brown Bag!

Lunch bags come in an assortment of shapes and sizes, and it’s something kids like to have a hand in selecting. Here are a few fun, practical options, some of which help reduce waste in the lunchroom, too.

Balanced Lunch Kits

Balanced Day Lunch bags have two separate compartments that make it easy to separate hot foods from cold, and the cookies from the cold cuts.

A Blank Canvas

Not only is it eco-friendly, this organic-cotton lunch bag can also be a fun art project. The blank canvas lets kids decorate and personalize the bag, and it easily flattens and fits in a book satchel to carry home.


This lunch bag by Arctic Zone is carried over the shoulder like a purse. Made from neoprene and equipped with a reusable ice pack, it keeps things cold for hours. It also comes with a removable microbial snap-liner that makes it easy to clean. Available at Target.

CitizenPip Lunch Kits

Created by a mom who was tired of throwing out plastic baggies, these lunch kits and products are free of BPA, lead and phthalates. You can order what you need individually or in kits, including silverware, food containers, water bottle and insulated lunch bags. Schools can earn a percentage of the profits when purchased online with a school code.

Terracycle Drink Pouch Lunch Box

Made from up-cycled juice pouches, the Terracycle lunch bag is an unusual twist on the traditional insulated lunch box. TerraCycle diverts tons of waste juice pouches annually and donates 2 cents to a charity or nonprofit for each pouch collected.

Laptop Lunches

The Bento System 2.0 by Laptop Lunches includes five inner containers that rest in a tray, a set of stainless-steel utensils and a water bottle, all of which zip into an insulated mini-laptop case. Available at local retailers; try Earth Fare and Hold Your Own in Raleigh, Green Pea Nursery in Apex, Hold Your Own and Durham Food Co-op in Durham, and Twig in Chapel Hill.

Lunchbox Love Notes

Send a little love along with your child’s lunch with these credit-card sized notes that feature positive, encouraging words on the front and fun trivia facts on the back.


Make a Healthier Choice


Some of those lunch-box items you think are healthy may not be as good for you or your child as you think. Here are a few that might seem innocent for a lunchbox staple, but pack a lot of the three bad items: sodium, fat and sugar. We found some alternatives that are just as tasty.

Lunch Item: Oscar Mayer Lunchables Cracker Stackers Low-fat Ham and Swiss Cheese

Fast facts: This seemingly well-rounded meal contains 970 milligrams sodium. That’s about 320 milligrams more than an average stick of salted butter.

Alternative: Try a slice of Boar’s Head Swiss cheese, a slice of Hillshire Farm ham and a serving of Triscuit’s baked whole grain crackers for a lower sodium profile of 318 milligrams.

Lunch Item: Capri Sun Berry Breeze

Fast facts: Just because it’s 100 percent juice doesn’t mean it’s healthy. A single pouch contains 19 grams of sugar and 100 calories.
Alternative: Try Organic Mixed Berry Sensible Sippers juice boxes with 9 grams of sugar and 35 calories.

Lunch Item: Pringles Original Snack Stackers

Fast facts: One container holds 10 grams of fat. That’s one more gram of fat than a McDonald’s hamburger.
Alternative: Try Pirate’s Booty Potato Flyers for half the fat content.

Lunch Item: Otis Spunkmeyer Blueberry Mini-Muffins

Fast facts: One serving has 10 grams of fat and 40 milligrams of cholesterol. That’s three more grams of fat, and twice the cholesterol, of a serving of Breyer’s Vanilla Ice Cream.
Alternative: Try a Quaker Oats Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola Bar that has 3 grams of fat and no cholesterol.

Lunch Item: Ocean Spray Craisins

Fast facts: Dried fruit is as healthy as fresh fruit, right? Not exactly. One serving contains about 29 grams of sugar. That’s five more grams than what you’ll get from a standard Hershey Bar.
Alternative: Try tossing in a medium apple for just 14 grams of sugar.

Categories: Early Education, Education, Family Health, Fit Family Challenge, Health, Health & Wellness, Health and Development, Nutrition, School Kids, SK Health & Wellness