A kid’s packed lunch has a big job to do: it has to fill their belly, be appetizing enough not to get thrown in the trash, and be healthy enough that you don’t feel that juice-and-twinkie guilt.

So we asked Maryann Jacobsen, a registered dietitian who writes about kids’ nutrition, what are the most important things to know about packing a lunch for your kids. Here’s what she said:

Parents need to consider nutrition, children’s preferences and how much time children have to eat. Parents should try to squeeze in as many food groups as possible — protein, dairy or non-dairy alternative, grain, fruits and vegetables to maximize nutrition. It’s important that kids have some say in what goes in their lunch, with older kids helping make key choices and even making their own lunch some days. … Parents can check in with their kids on a regular basis about lunches. Is it enough or too much food? Do they enjoy it? What changes would they like to see?

That may sound like a tall order, but it’s possible to accomplish all of the above with a little planning. Let’s dig in.

Know How Much to Pack

The bigger the kid, the bigger the lunch. While that’s obvious advice, it’s easy to get sucked into making the same size meal for the big brother and the little brother, or to pack a tiny adorable lunch for a preschooler without realizing you’re falling short.

Here’s your reality check for how big a kid’s meal should be, straight from the American Academy of Pediatrics. They give calories and servings per day, so I’m giving a rough ⅓ of that number as an estimate for lunch. If you know your kid eats big breakfasts or dinners, adjust accordingly:

  • Age 2-3: 350 calories
  • Age 4-8: 400-450 calories
  • Age 9-13: 550-600 calories
  • Age 14-18: 600-750 calories

Aim to make those good, healthy calories: mostly from veggies and healthy fats and protein-rich foods. Here’s a tip I learned from (no joke) a zookeeper: If you want your charges to eat all their food and not just their favorite few things, err on the side of giving them just slightly too little—either a smaller portion of the favorites, or a smaller meal overall. If leftovers are coming home with your kid every day, that’s a hint to adjust portion sizes.

Make It Filling

Whatever you pack, it has to last your kid for the rest of the day. Nobody likes being in a carb coma for their afternoon activities, whether that’s corporate meetings or, you know, math class. Remember that fat, protein, and fiber slow down digestion and will keep your kid feeling full; sugar and starch digest more quickly and have the opposite effect.

Don’t fall into the trap of packing low-fat everything thinking it’s healthier, either. Kids need about a third of their calories from fat (little ones need even more—about 40% for a 1-year-old). If you run the numbers and the lunch is looking too high in calories, don’t jump to cutting out fat; leave in the whole milk and look for sugars or starches to reduce instead.

And it is a good idea to run the numbers, especially when you’re packing fresh fruits and veggies: they’re healthy, but don’t provide a ton of calories. An apple might take up a lot of real estate in the lunch box, but it won’t fill up the kid’s tummy. Make sure to pack energy-dense foods alongside it—maybe some peanut butter (or sunflower butter) for dipping?

Make It Appetizing

Your hard work will go to waste if the kid doesn’t want to eat the food you’ve packed. Jacobsen recommends involving kids in the planning and packing: asking younger kids for preferences, and teaching older kids to pack their own lunch: “They won’t just be providing a break for parents—they are learning how to put a meal together.”

Having all the food visible when they open the lunchbox is a great tactic for making it appetizing. Some lunch kits, like Bentology, are designed to make as many things visible as possible. If you’re creative, you can go full-on bento style with visually pleasing arrangements—or even something as simple as shaping sandwiches with a cookie cutter.

All this is to say you can keep kids’ interest without resorting to junk food. A little sugar is fine, but keep it to a dessert, not a whole lunch chock full of the stuff. It may be tough to wean your kid off juice or soda, but hey, back-to-school is a great time to start a new routine.

For little kids especially, you’d be amazed at what a container with a favorite character can accomplish. It was easy to switch my kids away from juice and chocolate milk when they found out they could have water in a dinosaur bottle.

Make a Go-To List

Don’t lose track of your plans when it’s crunch time—the early morning or late night when you actually have to put the food in the lunchbox. Here’s a strategy that works equally well for bleary-eyed parents and kids learning to pack their own lunch: You need a formula and a go-to list.

The formula is just a small number of categories: if you have one of each, you have a complete lunch.

MyPlate, despite its flaws, is a great rule of thumb: roughly equal portions of fruits, veggies, protein, grains, with optional dairy. It can be tough to get every food group in every meal, so you may want to pare down your formula to keep it simple. For example, I think it’s fair to lump fruits and vegetables together, and I count dairy as a protein food, like the cheese in a cheese-and-crackers lunch.

So we end up with a formula like:

  • Fruit or veggie
  • Protein
  • Drink
  • Small dessert
  • (and whatever rounds out the meal—grains, etc)

Here’s the go-to list: survey your kids and make a list NOW of packable foods in each category that they’ll eat. Post it someplace you’ll see it, and refer to it when shopping. As long as you have an item or two from each category in the house, packing is a breeze. Teach your kids the rule and they can pack lunches themselves.

Here’s what an example go-to list might look like:

  • Fruits: raisins, apple, banana, applesauce
  • Vegetables: carrots, broccoli
  • Grains: bread, crackers, rice
  • Protein/dairy: lunch meat, peanut butter, cheese, yogurt
  • Drinks: milk or water
  • Dessert: fruit snacks

Leftovers from dinner can figure into the formula, but you may want to leave them off the go-to list unless you have them on hand regularly. For example, I’d count pizza as a grain + protein, or chili as a protein + vegetable. Apple pie is fruit + dessert.

Keep the list big enough that you won’t get into a rut, though. Jacobsen points out that teaching kids to eat a variety of foods is important: “I think the biggest mistake parents make is serving the same thing day in and day out. Parents can inform kids that they won’t make the same lunch two days in a row and they need input increasing variety. Working with children on lunches is the best way to make them successful.”

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