Healthy Back-to-School Meals

Back-to-school is a great transition time to start some new, healthy habits for the whole family. By improving snack choices and adding variety to school lunches, you can make a positive impact on your child’s school performance and overall nutrition. Here are four suggestions:
#1: Do a quick cupboard makeover. Get rid of the high-sugar cereals, high-fat crackers, chips, and cookies. Replace these snacks with low-sugar cereals, whole grain crackers, nuts, low-fat popcorn, dried fruit and lower fat cookies.  
#2: Add more fruit to the grocery list. By purchasing more fruit – including fresh, frozen, dried, canned or fruit cups packed in water or juice – your child will have plenty of variety to prevent fruit boredom. Make sure the fruit will hold up in a lunch box or bag. There’s nothing worse than a mushy nectarine or warm grapes. Keep fruit cool and well protected by adding an ice pack and using containers that can endure being tossed around in a backpack.
#3: Schedule a family meeting. Talk with your kids about the healthy changes the whole family will be making together. Change is hard, but by setting expectations and avoiding surprises, the transition goes more smoothly. I also encourage families to decide together what new snacks to try. When everyone is involved in choosing healthy options, it helps decrease the amount of complaining. Another strategy is to make healthy snack changes gradually. For example, start by eliminating chips and replacing with fruit, popcorn and nuts. After a few weeks, add another change, such as buying low-sugar cereals to replace the high sugar kind. With time, the healthy snack choices become “the norm” and unhealthy snacks become an occasional choice.
#4: Walk the walk. Children mimic what their parents eat. So if parents choose healthy snacks, their kids are more likely do the same. It’s also important for parents to show they enjoy eating healthy foods and are enthusiastic about trying new foods.
In addition to upgrading snack choices, add some back-to-school excitement by putting a twist on some traditional lunches.
Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich: Instead of jelly, try naturally sweet sliced apples and raisins with any nut butter. The sweet crunch of the apple along with a burst of raisin makes for a sweet, yet nutritious bite.
Turkey Sandwich: Skip the mayonnaise, substitute a whole wheat tortilla, pesto and add in some shredded carrots, broccoli slaw and red pepper along with sliced turkey or leftover chopped chicken for a significant sandwich upgrade.
Tuna Sandwich: Substitute plain Greek yogurt for the mayonnaise, which adds protein and calcium while decreasing fat. Next, mix in a hint of mustard, shredded carrots, diced celery and pickles. Spoon the tuna onto Triscuits or other whole grain crackers for a healthy, crunchy lunch.
Chicken Caesar Salad: If you have a child who likes salads for lunch or buys the school lunch salad but complains that the lettuce gets wilted, try using cabbage or broccoli slaw with a soy-sesame dressing or any favorite dressing. Packing the dressing in a separate container is ideal, but even if you add the dressing in the morning, these vegetables are hardier and stay firm longer. Top off the salad with diced leftover chicken, ham or tofu and some slivered almonds for a nutritious afternoon refueling.
Pasta Salad: Use leftover pasta, such as penne or rotelle, and combine with leftover diced chicken. Throw in some chopped celery and carrots, mix with Italian salad dressing and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. This can be made the night before and stored in a single-serving container. Add to the lunch box with an ice pack in the morning.
Lunch on a skewer: Skip the sandwich bread by preparing kebabs. The combinations are endless, but some ideas to get you started include:

  • mozzarella cheese balls, cherry tomatoes, melon cubes
  • tofu cubes, grapes, cucumber chunks
  • cheese cubes, apple chunks, celery
  • cooked chicken, strawberries, red bell peppers

Sometimes a small twist on a traditional school lunch can make all the difference in its appeal. Brainstorm additional ideas with your child to help them look forward to lunch for many months ahead.
Tagline Jill West, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified health coach with a private practice in Lafayette. She works with women, families and student athletes helping them make lasting changes that improve their health and performance. Jill is a professional speaker and author of the book 400 Moms. To learn more, call 925-310-5545 or visit or


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