What’s For Lunch?

A school lunch tray on a white background with copy space

Tips to consider when buying or packing your child’s meal.

By Debbie Eisele

Fresh, healthy food is necessary for children to thrive, grow, and have the brainpower necessary to perform well in school and in activities such as sports. Whether students pack or buy, there are multiple things to consider to ensure they are obtaining the nutrients they need.

According to Beth Potter, MS, RD (a registered dietician/nutritionist at Fauquier Health), “Although children need the same nutrients that adults need, they are not little adults, so they don’t need the same quantities of food that an adult would be served. Because calorie needs depend on a person’s size and activity level, among other things, two children that are the same age may need very different portion sizes to meet their individual nutritional needs.” Healthy Children offers a chart that is very helpful, explaining portion and serving size.

Potter suggested utilizing the “plate method” for packing lunch. Portions on the plate are divided into one-quarter protein, one-quarter starch (whole grains), and one-half fruits and vegetables. “Each meal should contain three to four food groups,” she said. The food groups include proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and dairy. Although the plate method doesn’t have a designated section for dairy, it is a valuable nutrient for growing children. “In addition to the food groups suggested in the plate method, dairy should be included in a healthy well-rounded lunch, too.”


“The protein section of the plate should include a lean source protein such as turkey, ham, chicken breast or water-packed tuna,” said Potter. Other good sources for protein are cottage cheese and yogurt (ones low in sugar). Plain yogurt with added fresh fruit is a tasty option and Potter suggested “adding sunflower kernels for an added ‘yum’ factor.”

Whole Grains

Whole grains are an important component to a balanced meal. “I see many lunches missing this component,” Potter stated. She also explained because there are many processed and refined grains in cereals, crackers, and bread, individuals of all ages are not consuming enough whole grains they require. “Like refined pasta, many rices have been refined (the fiber- and nutrient-rich outer shell has been removed). That’s why they cook faster. Brown rice and wild rice are better sources of fiber and nutrients than white rice. Just read the ingredient listing and make sure it says ‘whole grain brown rice,’ or ‘whole grain wild rice,’” Potter suggested.

When incorporating whole grains into lunches, Potter’s advice for parents is to read the label. The first ingredient should state “whole grain.” If it doesn’t, locate other food options that do have this as the first ingredient. If parents seek bread substitutes, Potter mentioned that whole grain tortillas are a good choice to create a sandwich wrap; offering children a different taste and texture. Inclusion of a side dish, like popcorn, is another method of supplying children with more whole grain foods. “Popcorn is a whole grain and is a healthier option than many chips. It should be made in either an air popper or in a pot without a lot of butter or salt,” advised Potter.

Fruits & Vegetables

Fresh fruit is the best option. Potter explained, “Chewy fruit snacks and fruit juice boxes do not count as a serving of fruit. Purchasing fresh, seasonal fruit or canned fruit packed in its own juice is a healthier way to go.”

Vegetables are a challenge at times. Some children refuse to eat just about any vegetables. But, Potter shared a simple trick to increase children’s intake of vegetables. Mix raw vegetables in the same container as fresh, cut fruit. “The juice from the fruit will sweeten the vegetable, making it more enticing for kids to eat,” Potter said.

Dietary Restrictions

Many children have special dietary needs. In many cases, parents will opt to pack their child’s lunch. But if the individual does need to purchase a school lunch, “communication is key.” Potter also advised, “Parents and school staff need to discuss the details, so that everyone is clear on the specific dietary requirements of the student.” She also recommended parents provide a doctor’s letter to the school that states, for medical reasons, the child cannot have certain foods. This letter needs to include pertinent information such as which foods are acceptable substitutes. There is an online form available to help plan for dietary restrictions at school.

There are many resources available online that discuss other important aspects of meal planning and preparation. Potter suggested utilizing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, revised 2015 edition, which discusses portion sizes for both children and adults. Plus, parents can schedule time with a dietitian to address specific concerns or to create an individualized diet for their child. This is very helpful for those with allergies or for those who suffer from celiac or other diseases that may affect nutrition and dietary needs. For parents wanting to pack healthy lunches for their children, Potter had some advice. She said, “Get kids involved in making the lunch. They are more apt to eat what they make.”

To schedule an appointment with Beth Potter, MS, RDN, contact Fauquier Health & Wellness Center, 419 Holiday Court, Suite 200, Warrenton by calling 540-316-2644 or email her at beth.potter@fauquierhealth.org.

Healthy Snack Ideas

Potter offered up a few suggestions to offer a nutritious and tasty treat for your kids.

Homemade Trail Mix: Use a low-sugar cereal in a resealable bag and include raisins or other dried fruit with unsalted nuts.

Kabobs: Use cubes of low-fat cheese and grapes on a pretzel stick.

Fruit & Dip: Apple slices and yogurt make a great combination for those who love to dip their snack.

Spreads: Spread peanut butter (or almond butter) on a small tortilla, put a peeled banana on it, and roll it up to eat.

How To Read A Food Label

Everyone can learn how to read food labels. The essential information to look for is the percentage of Daily Value (%DV) each nutrient provides. The %DV is the amount of nutrients that is recommended for people ages four and older. Potter shared that anything labeled as a %DV of five or less indicates “food is low in that particular nutrient.” Anything listed at a %DV of 20 or higher “indicates food is high in that particular nutrient.” Look for higher %DV in the following nutrients: calcium, dietary fiber, iron, and vitamins A and C.

Debbie Eisele
About Debbie Eisele 60 Articles
Debbie Eisele is a freelance writer and the Community Outreach Coordinator for Hero’s Bridge, a nonprofit serving older veterans. She lives in Warrenton with her husband and twin daughters.

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