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Packing Lunches You'll Want to Eat

By Amy Culp

We’re in full swing of the school routine at our house. My daughter just started kindergarten and the first few days were a piece of cake – I guess because we were running off the excitement of starting school. Now we’ve gotten into a routine, but the excitement has worn off a little.

mzOne of the areas that I’m constantly working to improve and keep interesting is lunches. Being a mom who also happens to be a registered dietitian, I feel an extra sense of responsibility each day to make sure lunches are well balanced and include foods that are quick to eat and delicious. I’m happy to share my tips with you, hoping it will make your time making lunch for you or others a little easier.

Start with the basics: Remember the basics you keep in mind for your lunch. Kids need the same basic nutrients that we do, but smaller portions. Remember the basic food groups to include for your lunches: carbohydrate, protein, fruit, veggie, a calcium source, and fat.

Consider whole grains: Make sandwiches with whole wheat bread or whole wheat versions of pita, tortillas, bagels and muffins. Look for crackers that provide whole grains. Check the label for 2-4 grams of fiber per serving, and brands that list “whole (wheat or corn, etc.)” as the first ingredient.

Protein power: Turkey, chicken, ham and roast beef are good options for low-fat luncheon meats. Also, tuna or chicken salad, peanut or other nut butters, beans and hummus are great alternatives to the typical lunch meat sandwich. Stuff a pita with chicken salad and veggies. Include whole grain crackers and nut butter, or apples and nut butter – then you can spread or dip these when the time comes. 

Add color: Include at least one piece of fruit – choose whole fruit over juice most of the time. Six ounces of 100 percent juice provides one serving of fruit, but a whole piece of fruit has more fiber and less sugar, naturally. Make a big fruit salad on Sunday afternoon, and then you just have to scoop a serving into a container each day. Check out the canned fruit and fruit cups – check for those packed with no added sugar. Make a fruit dip by mixing yogurt, berries and honey, or a fruit kebob for dipping.

Slide lettuce, slices of cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, roasted peppers, zucchini or sweet onion onto sandwiches. Pita pockets are great for filling with all kinds of goodies. Baby carrots are another great way to get more veggies in –dip in low fat dip or hummus to make it more interesting.

Healthy Fat: Getting a serving or two of healthy fat is important at each meal. Fat is essential for absorbing certain vitamins, and is important for brain functioning! Nuts from trail mix, nut butters on bread/crackers/fruit, salad dressing to dip veggies in, ground flax seed sprinkled on yogurt, and avocado spread on sandwiches are all great ways to get some important healthy fats into your eating plan. 

I want crunch! Pack baked chips, pita chips, pretzels, air popped popcorn, rice cakes, or whole grain crackers instead of potato, corn, tortilla chips that are fried.

Snack attack: If snacks need to be packed for energy for mid-morning or afternoon, try to provide carbohydrate for energy and protein for staying power. Consider string cheese and whole grain crackers, fruit and peanut butter, trail mix or yogurt. Limit foods that are high in sugar to dessert as they will not provide the sustained energy needed from a balanced snack. Some healthful dessert ideas are granola bars, dried fruit, graham or animal crackers, cookies, brownies or bars with limited added sugar (compare labels), applesauce or homemade treats. 

Keep it safe: Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. I found a thermos at my local grocery store that I use to put hot leftover pasta in – it keeps it at a safe temperature until lunch time, and who doesn’t love having a hot option sometimes?

Use an insulated bag or thermos and an ice pack. Put drinks in the freezer for an hour or two before packing them to help keep other foods cold. Clean lunchboxes daily with warm soapy water. 

Have fun! I found a fun bento box that makes packing lunch fun. If you have children you are packing lunch for in addition to yourself, they may like helping to fill the containers with some of their favorite foods.

Amy Culp, RD, CSSD, LD is a skilled nutrition expert with a passion for promoting nutrition and wellness.  She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian and is Board Certified in Sports Dietetics.  Amy specializes in sports nutrition, eating disorders and weight management.  Amy and her husband Yancy (a certified personal trainer) own sCULPture Nutrition & Fitness, LLC in Austin, TX. For more, visit

Athletic Foodie LogoThis article originally appeared on, founded by Olympic gold medalist Garrett Weber-Gale and his family, who believe that good taste and healthy food really can go together.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.