We Asked Nutritionists to Look at What We Pack Our Kids for Lunch. Yes, Really.

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When we asked parents to submit pictures of what they put in their kids’ lunch boxes, we were met with a lot of hesitation. “Don’t judge me!” one mom pleaded with us, and “My child is super picky!” said another. And yeah, we get it—kids are weird. And parents are busy! Not to mention how annoying it is when they come home with a half-eaten sandwich and the same number of cherry tomatoes you put in there that morning. Which is all to say that parents are doing the best they can… and sometimes that means tossing last night’s pizza, a handful of chips and a gummy bear in and calling it a day.

So, when we asked two nutritionists to weigh in on what we’re putting in our children’s lunchboxes, we were expecting the worst (or at the very least, a stern reminder that Veggie Stix aren’t actually vegetables). Instead, their assessments were surprisingly encouraging, with lots of useful (read: doable) tips for how to upgrade a packed lunch to a more complete meal.  

Read on for their feedback.

Meet the Experts

kids packed lunch turkey sandwich

1. The 8-Year-Old Who Could Eat Turkey Sandwiches Every Day

Contents: turkey sandwich, M&M cookie, Ritz crackers, strawberries.

“This looks very similar to what my 8-year-old would request for lunch! We always pack our sandwiches on whole grain bread for some added fiber (which looks like what he is having too), and varying the protein helps in case they get bored of one type of meat. Fruits provide additional nutrition and fiber. My only suggestion is possibly varying the crackers now and then for something with whole grains such as whole wheat crackers, Lesser Evil popcorn or whole grain pita chips.” —Melissa Buczek Kelly

lunch box for kids bagel

2. The 7-Year-Old with Sensory Issues

Contents: half a bagel with cream cheese, vegan marshmallows, Clif Kid Z Bar, Veggie Sticks, mini Oreos.

“First, I love this type of lunchbox (and use the same one with my daughters), because it allows for a lot of variety. Sensory issues can be challenging because a child may have difficulty with their food preferences day to day, and a bento type of lunchbox allows him or her to have multiple options to choose from. In addition to the variety, this lunchbox also packs some good protein. I would suggest adding some fruits or veggies for added fiber to keep them fuller and energized through the afternoon.” —Melissa Buczek Kelly

school lunch box grilled cheese

3. The 4-Year-Old Who Sends Her Lunch Home Half-Eaten

Contents: grilled cheese sandwich, carrots, apple and pretzels.

“This is a wonderful lunch box! The good groups are covered: fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains. Pretzels are a terrific snack. It can be challenging and frustrating for parents to figure out what to pack for their preschooler’s lunch. When making something like grilled cheese or other sandwiches, I strongly encourage parents to select breads that have at least 4 grams of fiber per slice.” — Dr. Felicia Stoler

school lunch box cheerios

4. The 5-Year-Old Who Packs His Own Lunch

Contents: Cheerios, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumber, granola clusters, two pouches of apple sauce.

“Kudos to this 5-year-old for packing such a great lunchbox! This lunch has a nice mix of fruits and veggies, as well as whole grain carbs. I would suggest adding a protein source such as a string cheese, a Justin’s nut butter packet, some slices of deli turkey or ham, such as Applegate Farms, or a Stonyfield yogurt tube, to balance out the meal while keeping him fuller until afternoon snack.” —Melissa Buczek Kelly

5. The 6-Year-Old Girl Who Loves Antipasti

5. The 6-Year-Old Girl Who Loves Antipasti

Contents: olives, cheese stick, pepperoni slices, M&M cookie, Ritz crackers, strawberries.

“This lunchbox has a nice mix of fiber, protein and healthy fats from the olives. As a suggestion, I would try to offer a variety of proteins to help balance out her sodium intake, such as nut butter packets, grilled or breaded chicken, hummus or yogurt. You can even add a little more fiber by serving these proteins with whole grains such as whole wheat crackers, bread, granola or some additional fruits or veggies.” —Melissa Buczek Kelly

school lunch box picky eater

6. The 5-Year-Old Snacker and Picky Eater

Contents: a yogurt pouch, a Trader Joe’s apple bar, dried strawberries cauliflower crackers, a graham cracker and a sun butter sandwich in the shape of an animal (“if the sandwich is just in a regular shape, he won't touch it!”).

“Love the creativity here. It’s OK to be flexible with what you call foods – meals vs. snacks. They are terms we’ve created yet are really about getting in the nutrients we need… it’s all FOOD. My kids also liked sandwiches cut into shapes! Whatever works… keep doing. This particular lunch box is colorful and integrates all of the food groups: dairy, fruits, grains, seed-butter… so carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats and fiber are all accounted for. With the exception of the sandwich, all of these other foods are pre-made making it easy for the parent to put it quickly – either the night before or the morning of school! Shelf stable and not messy!” — Dr. Felicia Stoler

school lunch pasta

7. The 4-Year-Old Who’s All About Pasta

Contents: cheese ravioli, grapes and a Trader Joe’s apple and carrot pouch.

“Kudos to this parent! I love the combo apple/carrot puree pouch. This is an easy grab’n go option. Clearly cutting the grapes in half is a smart way to avoid choking. Cheese ravioli is a great idea… it’s wonderful finger food and a great way to get cheese other than a cheese stick! In fact, the ravioli could have been leftovers from dinner. Consider using leftovers for your child’s lunch the next day—this way you’re cooking once. And pack it the night before… so it’s one less thing you need to do while getting your little one out the door! — Dr. Felicia Stoler

school lunch meatballs

8. The 4-Year-Old Who Likes a Little Treat

Contents: Kidfresh chicken meatballs, tomatoes, berries, Veggie Stix and a gummy bear. (The string cheese and blueberry bar are for snack time).

“This is an adorable and creative lunch and snack assortment. Parents are clearly making more effort to get balanced meals into their kids’ lunch boxes! Chicken meatballs are super clever and you can never go wrong with fresh berries. I’m impressed that this child eats mini tomatoes, and the veggie straws will add a nice crunch. The solo gummy bear is cute—all foods can fit (in moderation), even for small children. The snack choices are really great, too!” — Dr. Felicia Stoler

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...