With a rise in the number of overweight children, parents need to be extra vigilant when packing their children’s lunches.

From their first day in kindergarten through the last day of their senior year, children need nutritious lunches with fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy products to maintain good eating habits that will last for life and even improve their attention span and academic performance.

“Involve your children in picking out the foods and packing the lunch box,” said Elena Serrano, nutrition specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension. “You’ll find out what they like, and if they feel a part of the process, they’re more prone to eat it.”

Ensure that your children have a variety of foods in their diet that includes whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Use this opportunity to visit MyPyramid.gov and learn more about nutrition and healthy choices in each of the food groups. Serrano also recommends that parents prepare foods that are easy to eat.

Carmen Byker, a Virginia Tech senior majoring in human, nutrition, foods, and exercise, is studying the impacts eating local foods has on diet as a part of an undergraduate research program under Serrano’s direction. She suggested buying fruits and vegetables for your children at a local farmer’s market. Byker explained that this not only is a creative way for you and your child to pick out freshly picked produce, but it also benefits the local economy. The taste may also be better—resulting in kids being more interested in eating fruits and vegetables.

“Kids don’t have a lot of time to eat, and they don’t want to spend that time getting their foods ready,” Byker said. “Cut, peel, and slice fruits and vegetables in advance, or buy them ready-to-eat, like baby carrots, sliced apples, raisins, and grapes.”

Also, keep beverages low in sugar and high in nutrients. Rather than soda or juice, place a little bottle of water or a small container of low-fat milk in the bag, Byker advises.

Serrano also advised not to leave out a small dessert. “You can’t completely skip sweets,” she said. “Adding a small dessert will teach your child how to balance healthy foods and moderate unhealthier choices. Try a few animal crackers, graham crackers, or even a tiny piece of chocolate.”

Serrano and Byker had a variety of creative food suggestions for a healthy lunch box:

  • Cut apples and sprinkle them with lemon juice to prevent browning. Add peanut butter on the side for a healthy dipping snack. Celery goes well with peanut butter, too.
  • Use different kinds of breads and sandwiches. Use a pita, a bagel, a roll, or a wrap instead of plain bread, but remember to stick to whole grains.
  • Put vegetable soup in a thermos on cold days.
  • Let your children pick their favorite low-fat yogurt. Add granola to it for a whole-grain crunch.
  • Include sliced cheese for dairy, and pair with whole-grain crackers.
  • Add healthier desserts like trail mix, dried fruit, granola bars, fruit crisps, Jell-O, or low-fat pudding.
  • Don’t forget about safety. For younger children, be sure that the sizes and shapes don’t cause a choking hazard.

About Virginia Cooperative Extension

Virginia Cooperative Extension brings the resources of Virginia’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, to the people of the commonwealth. Through a system of on-campus specialists and locally based agents, it delivers education in the areas of agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, community viability, and 4-H youth development. With a network of faculty at two universities, 107 county and city offices, 13 agricultural research and Extension centers, and six 4-H educational centers, Virginia Cooperative Extension provides solutions to the problems facing Virginians today.