9 News – Healthy School Lunch Ideas

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DENVER – It’s back to school time!  And you know what that means… making your kid’s lunch every day.  This process can be not only time-consuming, but also monotonous if you are making the same old PBJs and turkey sandwiches day in and day out.  The percentage of overweight kids is growing at an overwhelming rate, with one out of three children now considered overweight or obese.  According to LiveWell Colorado, Colorado kids get at least 30 percent of their daily calories from the lunches they eat at school.  Because of these statistics, it is critical that we make sure our kid’s lunches are not only tasty, but also healthy. 

According to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, lunches packed at home are generally not as nutritious as school lunches.  The study showed that packed lunches had more calories, fat, saturated fat, and sugar than school lunches. In addition, meals brought from home generally had less protein, sodium, fiber, vitamin A and calcium than school lunches.

For parents who want to pack lunches for their kids in order to increase nutrition, it’s important to include a fruit, a vegetable, and a protein.  This will help your child to stay full and focused at school.  Helping kids lead healthy lifestyles begins with parents who lead by example.  Try making the below meals with your child so that they can not only learn how to cook, but can be proud of what they have accomplished. 

The following are several quick, easy, and healthy recipes to mix things up and make your kid’s lunch the envy of the lunch table.  Each healthy lunch example is compared to a school lunch option or a “typical” packed lunch option for nutrition comparison.


HEALTHY Choice: The Elvis Pinwheel served with Carton of Skim Milk and ½ cup Sugar Snap Peas

• Whole-wheat tortilla, toasted

• 2 Tablespoons natural peanut butter

· 1 teaspoon cinnamon

• 1 whole banana

Spread peanut butter on the toasted tortilla, then season with cinnamon. Place a whole banana at the edge of the wrap, then roll, pressing gently to break the banana and form a cylinder shape.  Cut into rounds.

**Calories 540, Fat 18g, Saturated Fat 4g, Fiber 10g, Sugar 32g, Sodium 260 mg, Protein 24g

COMPARISON Choice: Denver Public School (DPS) Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich served with Sweet Potato Puffs and Carton of Skim Chocolate Milk

**Calories 761, Fat 20g, Saturated Fat 4g, Fiber 8g, Sugar 45g, Sodium 709 mg, Protein 24g

Takeaway: The biggest nutrition savers in this comparison are in calories, fiber, sugar, and sodium.  The jelly, chocolate milk, and sugary peanut butter used in the Denver Public School sandwich make it much higher in sugar.  Keep in mind that the majority of the sugar found in The Elvis are natural sources as well (the banana and the milk) while the majority of the sugar in the DPS dish are added.  With the addition of fruit and whole grains in The Elvis pinwheel, fiber is higher.  Ditching the high sodium sweet potato puffs and using a natural peanut butter helped to lower the sodium in The Elvis vs the DPS sandwich.


HEALTHY Choice: Homemade Pizza Lunchable served with La Croix Sparkling Water and an Apple

• 1 whole-wheat English muffin   

• 3 Tablespoons low sugar pizza sauce

• ¼ Cup part-skim mozzarella

• Toppings: Sliced green pepper, onion, mushrooms, 4 slices turkey pepperoni

Toast the English muffin. Store each topping in small individual food storage containers.  When ready to eat, spread 1.5 Tablespoons of pizza sauce on each muffin half and sprinkle with cheese; add toppings. 

**Calories 330, Fat 8g, Saturated Fat 4g, Fiber 12g, Sugar 22g, Sodium 550 mg, Protein 17g

COMPARISON Choice: Oscar Mayer Lunchable Pepperoni Pizza with Capri Sun

**Calories 410, Fat 11g, Saturated Fat 5g, Fiber 3g, Sugar 36g, Sodium 630 mg, Protein 16g

Takeaway: The biggest nutrition differences in these dishes are in calories, fiber, and sugar.  By making your own pizzas, you are able to use turkey pepperoni and part-skim cheese, versus the higher calorie choices in the Lunchable.  Pairing the homemade lunchable with fruit, using vegetables for toppings, and using a whole grain crust all helped to increase fiber.  Almost all of the sugar found in the homemade lunchable is from natural sources (the apple) versus the sugar in the Oscar Mayer Lunchable which is from added sources in the sauce, crust, and Capri Sun.


HEALTHY Choice: Lunch Box Fun-Due served with a Peach and Unsweetened Tea

• 1/4 Cup turkey breast

• 1/4 Cup ham

• 1/4 Cup cheese of choice

• 2 celery ribs

• 2 medium carrots, peeled

• 3 Tablespoons salsa

• 3 Tablespoons yogurt based ranch dressing 

Cut turkey, ham, and cheese into bite sized cubes.  Cut celery and carrots into sticks.  Mix ranch dressing and salsa in a small sealable container.  Use tooth picks to dip veggies, meats, and cheeses into the dressing!

**Calories 240, Fat 8g, Saturated Fat 3g, Fiber 7g, Sugar 20g, Sodium 1000 mg, Protein 14g

COMPARISON Choice: Homemade Turkey Sandwich served with Snack Bag Doritos, Fruit Snacks, and Dr. Pepper Can

**Calories 770, Fat 14g, Saturated Fat 1g, Fiber 3g, Sugar 68g, Sodium 1770 mg, Protein 22g

Takeaway: All nutrients are improved by serving your child the Fun-Due versus the turkey sandwich!  Fiber is increased with the vegetables and fruit.  Calories are decreased by ditching the calorically dense soda, chips, and fruit snack.  Fat and saturated fat are decreased by ditching the chips for vegetables.  Sodium is decreased by swapping the soda and chips for unsweet tea and a peach.  Protein is increased by increasing the meat while decreasing the nutrient void white bread.


Lauren Ott, RD is a registered dietitian at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Check out her website www.thedessertdietitian.com or follow her Facebook page and Instagram @thedessertdietitian for nutrition tips!


November-December issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.




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