How to pack a healthy school lunch

A school lunch filled with fruits and vegetables

Packing school lunches for children prone to tummy aches or other digestive upsets can be tricky for busy parents. University of Chicago Medicine gastroenterologist Edwin McDonald IV, MD, is a father of three and trained chef dedicated to improving health through nutrition education. He shares tips for packing a healthy lunch that won’t aggravate your child’s digestive issues — and will please even the pickiest palates.

Avoid ultra-processed foods

While ultra-processed is a new buzzword as something to avoid in healthy eating, it refers to some familiar culprits.

“Ultra-processed foods are foods that have industrial ingredients in them,” said McDonald. “These are the ingredients that you can’t find on supermarket shelves, like yellow No. 5.”

Ultra-processed foods often contain emulsifiers, which are chemicals added to foods like ice cream and mayonnaise to keep them from separating. For a picky eater with a disorder such as Crohn’s disease, emulsifiers can be inflammatory and cause greater stomach cramping and pain. Even if your child does not have a digestive disorder, ultra-processed foods are high in calories and sugar but low in vitamins and fiber. So while they may be easy to pack and your child may eat them, they won’t feel full for long. Even worse, ultra-processed foods can lead to high blood pressure and obesity.

Some ultra-processed foods that you may typically add to your child’s lunchbox but should avoid include packaged bread, chips, cold cuts, soft drinks, and some energy bars and flavored yogurt.

Create a snack pack

Instead of the ultra-processed foods, parents should consider packing a variety of healthy snacks that you know your child likes and, when eaten together, will leave them satisfied. Options include grapes, almonds, homemade kale or sweet potato chips, baby carrots, mini sweet peppers, bananas or a hard-boiled egg.

If you are worried about protein, beans are great plant-based sources of protein that are still good cold.

“I put bean quesadillas in my kids’ lunches. They are safer to eat than having a meat-based snack sit in a lunchbox all morning,” said McDonald.

Up the fiber

If frequent stomach aches and constipation have made your child hesitant to eat, consider increasing their fiber.

“It’s really important to get picky eaters who are constipated a lot of fruits and vegetables like apples or maybe even popcorn, but not microwave popcorn,” said McDonald. Prepackaged microwave popcorn has a lot of chemicals from the packaging and empty calories from the added butter and flavoring.

“Instead, parents can put popcorn kernels in a brown paper bag, roll it closed, and microwave it for homemade popcorn without the added chemicals that’s perfect for a school lunch,” said McDonald.

Roll it up or stick it

Kids love to play with their food. Wrap fruits and veggies in rice paper wrappers for a lunch they can interact with and then hopefully eat. Don’t forget the dips. If you have an eater who does not turn their nose up at guacamole, hummus or salsa, pack it to go.

However, if your child suffers from acid reflux or complain of heartburn, forego the salsa and other tomato-based foods, along with citrus fruit, mint, and chocolate, all of which are triggers for kids with reflux.

author details Edwin McDonald

Edwin McDonald IV, MD

Edwin K. McDonald IV, MD, is dedicated to improving the health of individuals and communities through nutrition education.

See Dr. McDonald's profile