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Healthy Lunchbox Hints for Back-to-School

By Ricki McWilliams, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent, University of Florida Extension, Walton County
Reviewed by Agata Kowalewska, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

 It’s time to get the backpacks ready, the lunch boxes packed, and the kids ready for school. Back-to-school is the perfect time to start a new routine by packing a healthier lunchbox. Making your child’s lunch may take a few extra minutes, but it’s worth it for many families. You know your child and his or her likes and dislikes better than anyone, so start with what you know–and take a look at the tips below for a few new ideas.

The first step to packing a lunch is to determine how much food is enough for your child. If you don’t pack enough, children may come home from school with an empty box. Make sure to ask if they were still hungry! On the other hand, if you pack too much, you may see uneaten or half-eaten items in lunch boxes at the end of the day.

Start by packing between 3 and 6 items. This creates enough variety in the lunch box to sustain children throughout the school day without (too much!) waste.  is a great resource for building balanced meals that include protein, vegetables, fruit, grain, and dairy items.

The second step is to pack as much as you can the night before. This will decrease morning stress. Cut up fruits and vegetables and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Prepare sandwiches and refrigerate—you can even freeze these if they don’t contain vegetables or mayo. Make up cracker or dried fruit packs. It’s nice to sometimes include a wrapped, home-baked treat.

Last, keep in mind this food safety tip: Include at least two cold sources to keep refrigerated food at the proper temperature. One way to do this is to include a gel or ice pack as well as a frozen water or drink bottle. Also make sure you use an insulated lunch bag, not a plain paper bag. Food that requires refrigeration shouldn’t go above 40 degrees for more than two hours due to the possibility that increased bacterial growth will cause illness. Here’s a short video from UF-IFAS on lunchbox food safety:

Here are some fun lunchbox meals to try:

–Whole wheat crackers, cheese cubes, deli meat, strawberries or blueberries, and snap peas (with their favorite dipping sauce*)

–Mini quiche, carrots, celery with peanut butter and raisins, whole fruit (pear, orange, banana)

–Leftover meatloaf slice or chicken breast, yogurt parfait (include fruit and granola to add to top), whole wheat crackers, bell pepper strips, and a small oatmeal cookie.

–Good old fashioned peanut butter and honey cut into a shape with a cookie cutter, two small cutie oranges, frozen grapes and milk.

–Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread or hamburger/hotdog bun with a pudding cup and baby carrots

–Whole grain tortilla with hummus (stuffed with crunchy veggies like bell pepper strips, cucumber, shredded carrots, baby spinach), cheese stick and applesauce cup

*Want something to dip kid-friendly veggies in besides ranch? Try low-fat Greek yogurt, hummus, or this cottage cheese veggie dip:

-1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese
-1/4 teaspoon lemon pepper
Enjoy with baby carrots, snow/snap peas, bell pepper strips

Here are a few healthy snack ideas:

  • Whole wheat pita cut into wedges with 2 tablespoons hummus for dip
  • Trail mix: mix 20 almonds, a miniature box of raisins, and ¼ cup sunflower seeds
  • Low-fat cheese stick and cut-up fruit
  • “Ants on a log” (celery with peanut butter or cream cheese and raisins)

For additional information on creating nutritious meals, contact your local Extension office.

(Photo credit: Puzzle sandwich, organic apples & strawberries, cukes, pretzels & tiny treat by Melissa. CC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading:

Keeping Bag Lunches Safe

Watch the White House chef pack a healthy school lunch!

How to Make Healthy School Lunches for Your Children


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2014). Retrieved from

USDA. (2014). MyPlate. Retrieved from