Back to School and Back to Lunch

Pack a Rainbow in your lunchbox and other tips to make this year’s lunches happy and healthy for everyone!
Many parents break out in smiles as the familiar back-to-school ad chimes “’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Those smiles often fade with the realization that back to school means back to packing lunches; the daily and often dreaded routine that returns along with September’s arrival.  
My three kids are independent young adults now, but I’ve been there! I’ve packed thousands of lunches over the years. Today I support parents and educators with tips and tools for making it simple to eat well for life. It doesn’t have to be a chore. Try approaching this task as a fun, family activity that can help build lifelong healthy habits. To help you, I’ve shared some tried and tested, simple and colourful tips that will take the stress out of school lunch prep, and ensure that your kids enjoy delicious and nutritious lunches all year.
Timing is Everything.  The biggest stress of lunch packing is often the time crunch to get it done while everyone is racing the clock to get out the door in the morning. There’s enough to do between wake-up and the school bell, without the challenge of filling all those lunch bags.  Try this tip:
  • Pack lunches at night – ideally right after you’re finished dinner. That way you can always include dinner leftovers, or at least have access to the kitchen at a time when the food is out and everyone is more relaxed. This will also help you to get creative and move away from the usual sandwich standbys.
Get your kids involved in packing their own lunches.  There’s no better way to avoid “lunchbag letdown” than to take the surprise factor out of discovering “what did I get?”
  • It’s been proven that kids are much more likely to eat what they helped to pack themselves. Now, don’t worry about your kids packing a bag full of chips and oreos. Your job is to set some boundaries (shop only for items you want them to eat!) and help guide the process. Packing lunch together is a great time to gently teach kids about the importance of balanced meals.  
  • Let younger kids pick out foods from a few different options you provide, and have them help make sandwiches (spreading, mixing, chopping), assemble leftovers (kid’s thermos containers make hot lunch happen!), or pack reusable containers with veggies and fruit. Older kids can prepare most of their lunch themselves.

Chill out about leftovers. Openly stressing about what got eaten each day, and what didn’t, often causes more friction around food lunch than anything. Relax and your kids will too. Encourage your child to pack the amount they think they will eat, taking into account the day’s activities and energy requirements.
  • Think about your child’s appetite and how much time they have to eat lunch at school.  Some children get overwhelmed if there is too much food or there are too many choices in their lunchbox. Keep it simple.
  • Don’t fret too much if your child’s lunch comes home uneaten after the first week at school. There’s a lot going on, and their appetite will often be affected by their new routine.
  • Once your child is into the school groove, check their lunchbox after each day to see how much was eaten. Remember their appetite can vary but you will get an idea of how much is too much, or too little, based on leftovers.
Make it easy to eat. Ensure that lunch items are easy to eat in the busy classroom or lunchroom, in the short time that’s available.
  • For younger kids, pack hand held foods, bite sized items, and foods that don’t require assembly.
  • If foods are to be eaten out of a container with a spoon or fork, ensure that containers are easy for your child to open themselves.
Pack a rainbow in their lunchbox! Adding colourful real food to every meal is my favourite tip for a healthier diet. Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables is an easy concept for kids to remember, and it makes packing lunch a colourful and nutritious adventure.
  • Do your best to include a variety of colourful vegetables and fruits in your kid’s lunch and snacks. Involve them to help find creative ways to add these colourful and  power-packed foods to every meal (check out my Youtube channel and Pinterest page for ideas).
  • Remember, every bit of real colour counts! See how many colours of the rainbow you can add each day. Try red/purple rice, vegetable pastas, rainbow wraps, cut up rainbow fruit and vegetables. Some additions will be hits, some misses, but keep introducing new items with the familiar foods to broaden your kids’ taste buds.
  • Take your kids to the market or grocery store and discover some new fruits or vegetables. Pick a “colour of the week” and see what new produce items you can discover together. Ask them to think about how many colours they’re eating.

Focus on fuel that fills!  Balance out lunch with at least one food item that will keep your child full for the afternoon.  
  • Include a protein source such as lean meat, cheese or yogurt, egg or tuna salad, hummus or bean dip, edamame or beans.
  • Healthy fats like avocado, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, and roasted soybeans are great nut-free additions to any lunch and will also be a source of lasting energy for the busy day. Kids love to scoop guacamole with tortilla or pita chips. Try this nut-free trail mix from Yes Peas! It's full of filling fibre, protein and healthy fats to keep your child's energy levels up.  
Aim for whole grains. Skip the white stuff and choose bread, pasta or crackers made with whole grains.
  • In addition to providing more nutrients than refined grains, these foods (along with fruit and veggies) are also higher in fibre.  Fibre helps tummies feel full, and also slows the rate of digestion; ensuring that your child’s energy level stays steady throughout the afternoon.
Mix it up!  Don’t fall into the trap of sending the same thing for lunch every day.  
  • The only way for kids to learn to like new foods is to be exposed to new foods!
  • Sit down with your kids and make a list of “lunches we like.” Rotate through the different options, to make variety the norm.
  • Always serve a new food along with something you know your child will eat, but try to include a small amount of something different whenever possible.  Trust me, eventually your child will eat it, even if it takes 10-15 tries!
Treats are important too! Let’s face it, there are all kinds of food out there, and treats can fit into any healthy overall pattern of eating.
  • Decide as a family what type of treats you’re ok with, and how often they will be part of lunch. Let your kids take responsibility for choosing from your “approved” list of treats and including them as part of the lunch rotation.
  • Treats can take many forms, try a healthier option that is more nutrient dense that still tastes sweet. The Jule's Wellness Boutique has a ton of allergen friendly options!   
Break the juice habit.  One of the best things you can teach your child is to drink water when they are thirsty.  
  • Juice should be enjoyed as an occasional treat but not an everyday hydrator. Beware of added sugars in chocolate milk, prepared smoothies and fruit drinks. Many of these contain more sugar than soda pop!
  • Try 100% coconut water or chocolate coconut water as a treat for extra potassium and electrolytes 


Article written by Rainbow Plate – Healthy Eating Made Simple
Rainbow Plate is a fresh approach to food and food education. We make healthy eating simple and fun. Our mission is to inspire kids and adults to cultivate a lifelong happy, healthy relationship with real food. We do this by providing innovative hands-on, educational programs to kids and the adults who influence them in schools, camps, child care and health care settings. | t: 416 895 9511
Click here to sign up for our newsletter | Watch our #inspirationstation on Youtube
Socialize with us
Facebook: RainbowPlate
Twitter: Rnbowplate
Instagram: RainbowPlate
Pinterest: RainbowPlate

Written by Janet Nezon, Founder of Rainbow Plate
Janet Nezon is a former academic nutrition lecturer and health promotion expert. She holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto as a Specialist in Nutritional Science, and a Master of Health Science degree in Health Promotion, from U of T’s Faculty of Medicine. She founded Rainbow Plate in 2012 with a mission to translate theory into practice; to bring a vibrant and fresh approach to food education. Rainbow Plate’s action-packed, flavour enhanced approach has been woven into workshops, seminars and resources to encourage kids, teachers, parents and caregivers to create their own healthy eating environments.  In three short years, Rainbow Plate programs have inspired and engaged over 7000 children and adults across the GTA.

Emily Sawyer