Need to Know Nutrition – Tips for Healthful School Lunches

Published September 6, 2019

Dad and daughter baking together.

Photo credit: iStock


While children are heading to back to school this month, there’s one school supply that sticks on your list week after week – a healthy lunch. Whether your child gets a meal at school or you pack a lunch for them each day, you want to make sure they are eating a nutritious meal that provides them with all the essential vitamins, minerals and proteins to help them grow and develop. Nutrition is complex, but we have some tips to help you make sure they’re getting everything they need.

Food to Grow

As children grow, their nutritional needs grow, too. Dr. Bridget Messina, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and member of the UBMD Pediatrics team, suggests that meals for school-age children should include a variety of lean protein, whole-grain carbohydrates, a selection of vegetables and fruits, and milk or a milk-based product like cheese or yogurt each day. Keeping these goals in mind will help create a balanced meal that provides essential nutrients and vitamins for children, and still allows for variety and versatility in lunch options for children who are picky eaters.

Not sure exactly what may qualify as a lean protein? Need help identifying how much of a specific vegetable qualifies as a serving? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate program offers help. Visit the site and get help developing a custom daily nutrition plan for your child based on their age, gender, weight and height.

Lunchroom Standards

In schools, nutrition guidelines are set by the federal government as part of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The USDA’s latest nutrition standards were issued in 2012, and reflected the first major update to the rules in more than 15 years. Each lunchtime meal has set requirements for how much fruit, vegetables, grains, meat and meat alternates and milk should be included, as well as overall guidelines for the allowable calorie maximum and minimums, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium. See the full table below to get a better understanding of school meal requirements.

USDA's nutrition standards table for meal patterns by grade level.

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs also provide opportunities for families to qualify for meals at a reduced cost or even for free, depending on income eligibility. Families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are automatically eligible for free lunches. Other qualifying parents may apply for free or reduced meals at any time during the school year by contacting their local school district.

Packing a Lunch

If you prefer to send your son or daughter to school with a home-made meal, Messina recommends that you refer to the guidelines available from the Choose My Plate program. This valuable resource helps to outline balanced and healthy meal options so that you can easily pack a lunch that provides everything your growing child needs.

“Exclude junk food including candy, chips, sugary juices, soda and iced tea,” said Messina, adding that while these foods are flavorful and popular with children, they often are calorie-rich and low in nutritional value.

Sandwiches – often a staple of the packed school lunch – are also a good option, though Messina recommends using whole wheat or whole-grain bread instead of white bread to provide more nutritional benefits. She also recommends checking with teachers, nurses or school administrators for any classroom or district restrictions on specific foods or ingredients, as other students’ food sensitivities or allergies may mean children cannot bring peanuts, peanut butter or other reaction-causing foods.

Good Nutrition Starts at Home

Whether it’s at the dinner table, the morning breakfast or weekend lunches, establishing good dietary and nutritional habits always start at home. Children who are taught the importance of a balanced meal early are more likely to maintain healthy eating choices throughout their lives, allowing them to maintain a healthy weight and development.

The American Heart Association understands the importance of establishing and building these healthy habits within the family, and offers some recommendations to help start and continue positive nutrition. Read more on the AHA website.

Speak with Your Doctor

If you need help establishing or maintaining good nutritional habits, speak with your pediatrician. Your doctor can discuss the dietary needs for your child – whether they’re 10 months or 10 years old – and consider any family history of food allergies or sensitivities, developmental needs, and your child’s height and weight to calculate a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index).

UBMD Pediatrics is one of 18 practice plans within UBMD Physicians’ Group and are the physicians at Oishei Children’s Hospital. They have three office locations throughout Western New York, making it convenient to schedule an appointment near you. Schedule a visit today by calling 716.932.6073.