healthy lunch

Food for Thought: How to pack healthy (and fun) school lunches

Nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. The majority of American children do not meet daily fruit and vegetable recommendations. And empty calories from added sugars and solid fat (fats that are solid at room temperature) contribute to 40% of their daily calories.

Food choices are important. Research has shown that nutrition is closely connected with students’ thinking ability and behavior. Diets high in trans and saturated fats can influence learning outcomes, and nutritional deficiencies can affect their cognitive development.

“A child’s brain needs a variety of nutrients to reach its full potential,” said Deloris Gibson, MHS, RDN, LDN, CDCES, Registered Dietician/Diabetes Educator, Penn Highlands Diabetes and Nutrition Wellness Center. “Protein, unsaturated fats, complex carbohydrates, as well as elements like iron, potassium and selenium, are an essential part of brain function.”

“Inadequate nutrition can also cause low blood sugar, which has a negative effect on the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory,” said Karen Pritts, MS, RDN, CDCES, LDN, Director of Clinical Nutrition & Diabetes at Penn Highlands Mon Valley.

Fortunately, packing healthy lunches isn’t rocket science. A nutritious lunch for a child looks very similar to a nutritious lunch for an adult.

With back-to-school shopping on most parents’ minds, it’s also a great time to think about what you will put in your child’s lunchbox. When you pack a lunch for your child, fill half with colorful fruits or vegetables, ideally two or three different types. Next, fill a quarter with whole grains and choose a healthy protein to complete the meal.

Good options for grains include whole-grain pasta, bread, crackers and brown rice. For proteins, look to beans, nuts, peanut butter, hard-boiled eggs or lean and minimally processed meats such as turkey or chicken.

Making lunches healthy is the easy part. Making them fun, however, is another story.

Presentation goes a long way in making wholesome food exciting to eat. Try kabobs, a great idea for incorporating fruits and vegetables into lunches. Slice them into bite-sized cubes and thread them onto a blunt wooden skewer. For instance, you can alternate cherry tomatoes, slices of bell pepper and small pieces of broccoli. Or for a fruit-and-veggie skewer, try watermelon and cucumber together. You can also add protein to any skewer with cubes of low-fat cheese.

Themed lunches can be both creative and healthy. A Mexican-themed lunch could include brown rice for the grain, black beans for the protein and guacamole or salsa for a serving of vegetables. A color-themed lunch is another fun option. A “green” lunch could include a wrap of lettuce, avocado and edamame in a green spinach tortilla. Kiwi or slices of green apple add a side that’s sweet but still nutritious. Of course, a wrap in a whole grain tortilla that surrounds lean turkey, lettuce and low-fat items is another good choice.

Finally, you can never go wrong with fun shapes. Long ribbons of cucumber, sliced with a vegetable peeler, is much more fun than cubes of cucumber. Watermelon can be easily transformed into stars, flowers or even mustaches with mini cookie cutters. And ants on a log (celery filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins) is a classic for a reason.

If you have questions about your child’s nutritional needs, Penn Highlands Healthcare offers Nutritional Wellness Services in Northwestern/Central and Southwestern Pennsylvania. Registered dieticians provide diabetes management as well as nutrition therapy and education on disease prevention, management and nutrition guidelines. For more information in Northwestern/Central PA, visit; and in Southwestern PA, visit