Grocery Shopping List: School Lunch Staples

By: Lauren M. Koch, RDN

The countdown is on. For us, it’s only four three short days away. 

New backpack: Complete with 25½ compartments, water bottle pocket, jacket holder bungee, and personalization.

New shiny kicks & perfect first-day outfit

Back-to-school ‘do

Freshly sharpened pencils, carefully-chosen folders, and 3-ring binders that actually close (for now).

You’ve got it all. They’re ready! Fully stocked with all the tools to nourish their brains (and their self-esteem). But what about their bodies?

Yep, it’s that time again. School lunches. Those of us who pack lunch for our children know how tedious it can be. Maybe your kid is super picky (though I prefer the term selective). Maybe it’s a constant worry, because your child has a serious food allergy. Or maybe it’s just a constant battle between giving them “healthy” choices, or what “all the other kids have”.

I feel you. The struggle is real. But a little strategery, and planning ahead can go a long way.

First, a few notes about kids and food.


‘Cause one thing they really excel at is making us parents nuts around meal times. I mean, they are really stinkin’ good at it, amiright? Resist! Try this instead:

  • Give them choices. Basically, make it seem like their idea to eat. Present several acceptable options, and let them pick what they want. Get lost, power struggles!
  • Make it fun. Try and think like a kid. They like to use their hands, so finger foods are a hit. Bright colors, and fun shapes make everyday items special. Try cutting their sandwich into a puzzle, or their melon slices into shapes. It’s all about presentation.
  • Don’t forget the condiments. Kids will eat almost anything if they have something to dip it in. I’m not kidding, it’s science people. But be careful about offering options like regular ranch dressing, or cheese sauces. These may help get those veggies in, but come with excessive calories, fat, and sodium. Try more nutritious choices, such as hummus, guacamole, or salsa instead. Even light dressings or ketchup, while higher in sodium, are a better bet.
  • Get a little creative with your packaging. Trade up from everyday plastic bags to colorful or thematic reusable pouches or bento-type boxes. These are not only enticing to dig into, but also more environmental.
  • Quit stressing! This goes back to the power struggle thing. It’s developmentally normal for kids to skip meals, or go long periods refusing entire food groups. Most nutrients can be found in other foods, so do your best to make substitutions as needed. The worst thing to do is stress. Unless of course, you want them to really dig their heels in.StockSnap_93BIRH8NFG

You’ve got this mama! Next up, stock that pantry.

Before planning our grocery list, let’s review the basic guidelines for feeding their brains & bodies well. First, some carbohydrates for brain fuel & energy. Plus, some proteins & healthy fats to keep them going all day. Fill up half their bags with a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables (cue: fun presentation, and dipping). Avoid added sugars whenever possible (the teachers will thank you). And don’t forget the importance of good hydration. A thirsty brain is a tired brain! 

With that in mind. The Family Foodnag’s favorites:

Produce. I mean, how can you fill half their lunches with it, if you dont have it? For well-rounded nutrition, be sure to rotate what you offer. The color pigments in fruits & vegetables come from the micronutrients themselves (vitamins, minerals, and other phyto-chemicals). So, red apples contain a very different nutrient profile than orange clementines. And they are all important. So think about the rainbow when choosing your produce. Include choices that are red (raspberries, tomatoes), orange/yellow (pineapple, carrots), green (broccoli, spinach), blue/purple (blueberries, eggplant), and white (mushrooms, pears).

Rotisserie chicken. This is one of my go-to’s for busy weeks. It is easy to find, economical, and best of all, loved by most kids. Dice it up into a flavorful chicken salad, shred it into a quick quesadilla, use it to prop up some noodle soup with extra protein, or even just serve it as finger food.

Hummus. High in protein, healthy fats, fiber, and best of all, FLAVOR. Kids love the smooth texture, and parents love the versatility. Use it as a dip for veggies, stuff it with tomatoes, peppers, or cucumber in a pita, or roll it up into pinwheel sandwiches with veggies.

Eggs. If this isn’t a staple, I don’t know what is. Eggs are a complete protein, full of brain-building nutrients. Boil them up to serve whole, or chop up for a creamy egg salad. Whip up finger-friendly egg muffins, jam packed with veggies & tastiness. I particularly like options I can prepare ahead and store in the freezer like this. Makes for short work on those extra-busy mornings.

Plain Greek yogurt. Make note of the word “plain” in this one. Skip the varieties with added sugars, or artificial sweeteners. Plain yogurt finds its way into so many of my meals that it’s hard to keep track. Rich in protein, bone-building calcium & vitamin D, and probiotics to keep them healthy. Use it to make dips for their veggies, or in place of mayonnaise in their tuna salad. Add it to quesadillas, or baked potatoes for a more nutritious condiment choice. Or make a superfood parfait with tasty additions like fruit, nuts, shredded coconut, or even a few dark chocolate chips.

End Notes.

You may have noticed a lack of many starches in my favorite list. That was intentional. Of course, I do use them. 100% whole wheat, or whole grains breads. Whole wheat crackers. Whole grain chips like our favorite, “Food Should Taste Good” Multigrain Tortilla Chips. These foods do provide valuable nutrition, including energizing carbohydrates, fiber, iron, and B-vitamins. But it is all-to-easy to fall into the trap of feeding kids 98% carbs. I wanted my list to highlight your other options.

34776192110_86fc58f018_hLastly, the beverages. Stick with water if you can at all manage it. Introducing sweetened beverages, even artificially sweetened ones, has been repeatedly linked to weight gain & obesity in children. I know it seems tempting, but acclimating their test preference to such sweetness as children can make it very difficult to undo later. In other words, just ’cause it’s not impacting them now, doesn’t mean they won’t have trouble later.

For more ideas throughout the year, check out my facebook page. I love to post new foodie finds as I see them!

Have a great year!




Photo Credits:
Tomatoes: photo by Anne Preble
Cereal bowl: Photo by Providence Doucet
Boy: photo by Hunter Johnson
Water: Photo by World’s Direction

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