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Tired of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches in your Lunch Box? Try These Healthy School Lunch Ideas

By Edited Mar 23, 2016 2 6
Peanut Butter and Jelly Sammy
Credit: Hollster

Should My Child Bring or Buy?

I’m one of those parents who always found it easier to just have my kids buy lunch at school; especially as a working mama. One day, I thought it would be fun to make a date with my child to eat a school lunch with her at her elementary school. As I moved through the lunch line with her, the other kids giggled as they watched a grown up shuffle through the line with them. My daughter beamed with pride that her mama was hanging out with her for lunch. While spending time with my daughter was the best thing ever, eating a purchased school lunch was not quite the experience I thought it would be. The milk in my milk carton was not very cold; it sort of tasted as if the air conditioning in the truck that transported the milk had broken down and the milk had become too warm; it wasn’t exactly spoiled…just ‘off’. Then my daughter advised me not to get certain things from the salad bar because her friend had found a maggot in one of her peaches the prior week. Then my child whispered to me that the lettuce was usually wilted and warm, so that I shouldn't eat that either. Thus. we were stuck buying the greasy pizza. I was very disappointed that our kids receive what seems to be the crap end of the food stick. My daughter seemed okay with the status quo since she had learned to navigate the food maze of what not to put on her lunch tray.

Okay, My Child Should Definitely Buy

I decided that I would make lunches for my elementary school-aged kids. While this daughter was, and still is, my least picky eater, I have 3 other kids that would have been happy to live on macaroni and cheese, pizza, and chicken nuggets. My oldest daughter went to school with a girl who brought a king sized chocolate candy bar and a can of soda every day - no kidding! However, I think typical lunch boxes usually contain peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; maybe some pretzel sticks or goldfish crackers; a juice box; a tube of yogurt; and maybe some cookies, gelatin, or some other dessert. When I really started to think about what I was putting in my kids' lunch boxes, I started realizing how much refined sugar our kids are consuming each day! 

Student Sugar Crash
Credit: Hollster

What's the Maximum Amount of Sugar My Child Should be Consuming?

The World Health Organization (WHO) strongly recommends that the total sugar intake of every adult and child should be less than 10% of his or her caloric intake[1]. So if your growing child consumes about 2,000 calories per day, that means he or she should not consume more than 50 grams of sugar per day. Here’s what a typical American household child’s food diary might look like, at a bare minimum, for the three square meals per day; the quantities listed below are for a child that only eats one serving as labeled on the packaging of each food item:

 Breakfast   ¾ cup of standard bowl of kids’ cereal: 10 grams sugar
  ½ cup low-fat milk:    7 grams sugar
  ½  cup orange juice: 12 grams sugar
  Total: 29 grams sugar
 Lunch Peanut butter and jelly sandwich: 15 grams sugar
  Pretzel sticks:  2 grams sugar
  Juice box:                                                 18 grams sugar
  Yogurt tube: 10 grams sugar
  Total: 45 grams sugar
 Dinner 1 cup spaghetti with meat sauce 8 grams sugar
  1 slice Garlic Toast     2 grams sugar
  ½ cup broccoli  ½ gram sugar
  ½ cup vanilla ice cream  15 grams sugar
   Total:  25.5 grams sugar





       GRAND TOTAL:  99.5 grams sugar* 

(*Note: This does not include sodas, juices, or other snacks consumed throughout the day.)

A sugary, bread-filled lunch like the above listed foods is sure to send your kid on a fast trip to a blood sugar crash, making him or her super sleepy during the last hours of school. Any single item by itself is not too high in sugar, but, as you can see, when we add them all together, we get sugar galore! Grab your kid’s lunch box, bento box, or thermos and let’s get to work!

(Tip: I save tons of money buying things in bulk and divvying them up in washable little containers instead of buying individually wrapped servings.)

Healthy Lunch Box
Credit: Holly Perez

School Lunch Ideas During the Warmer Months

  • Fresh-cut veggies and hummus: add whichever veggies your kids will eat, such as: carrots, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, broccoli, etc.  I make my own hummus since I don’t like most store-bought brands.
  • Reduced fat string cheese and hummus: dip the cheese in the hummus.
  • Fresh fruit: grapes, apples (squeeze a little fresh lemon on them to prevent browning), cantaloupe, pineapple, orange slices, or any seasonal fruit.
  • One-half cup of vanilla yogurt (much less sugar) topped with ½ cup frozen cherries or frozen blueberries.
  • Put frozen tropical fruit in a reusable wide-mouthed water bottle, then, fill it with ice and water; this makes water tasty in a healthy way and kids can refill the bottle with water and use the same fruit all day.
  • Pretzel sticks with peanut butter as a dip
  • Dried sugar-free (if possible) fruit: apple rings, banana chips, apricot, pineapple
  • Hard-boiled eggs: sliced with a little salt & pepper is fun for kids.
  • Peanuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews (if no nut allergies, of course).

  • Whole wheat crackers, small cheddar slices, and summer sausage slices (or other lunch meat slices).
  • A different kind of low-cal, but super tasty sandwich for the less picker eater that we invented, as follows:
    1. Spread hummus in the inside of 2 whole wheat slices of round sandwich bread (or any whole wheat bread – 1st ingredient should say 100% whole wheat).
    2. Add turkey and your favorite reduced fat cheese to each bread slice.
    3. Use a zester to finely shred carrots and cucumber and add to your sandwich.
    4. Add a tomato slice and some sliced avocado. This sandwich is a favorite of my girls. We like it vegan style (we just add more veggies).
  • Cold Pasta Primavera (with noodles prepared ahead of time), as follows:
    1. Cook your kid’s favorite pasta then add all of his or her favorite steamed veggies.
    2. Add some olives (Spanish, Kalamata, or other), pepperoni (I know, not the healthiest), and some diced reduced fat string cheese.
    3. Drizzle with a little Fat Free Italian dressing and toss. Instead of Italian dressing, you can press a clove of garlic, squeeze some lemon, add some fresh chopped parsley (or dried), and drizzle a little olive oil over the top of the pasta assembly.
  • Our healthy version of trail mix, as follows (toss all together, divvy up into snack bags, then store in a cookie jar):
    1. Make 1 batch stove top / or air popped popcorn, very lighted salted
    2. 1 cup peanut butter chips
    3. 1 cup plain cheerios
    4. 1 cup raisins
  • Caesar salad chicken wrap (or any other favorite bagged salad):
    1.  Buy tortilla wraps, a bagged Caesar salad, and rotisserie chicken.
    2. Crush the croutons and mix all of salad contents together with shredded rotisserie chicken.
    3. Load up your salad wraps with this mixture and wrap tightly.
Smart Planet EC-34 Large 3-Compartment Eco Silicone Collapsible Lunch Box, Green
Amazon Price: $18.63 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 23, 2016)
We love this item. My daughter commutes and brings her food to college every day. We've had it a few years and it is still like new. It's microwave safe and we throws ours in the dishwasher every time. We've never had any leaking from one compartment to another either (although we haven't tried any soups...just dips, hummus, etc. and they stay put).
Kids Konserve KK035 12- Ounce Stainless-Steel Insulated Food Jar
Amazon Price: $16.95 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 23, 2016)

School Lunch Ideas during the Cooler Months

(I use a thermos frequently when it's cold)

  • Homemade soups or chili in a thermos (my kids loved chicken noodle the most): just heat the soup or chili for a few minutes then fill thermos; it's a very comforting lunch that warms the tummy in cold weather.

(Tip: I use my food processor to grate veggies and hide them in everything. Don’t tell my kids.)

  • Fill a thermos with warmed rice or macaroni and cheese halfway, then, cram cooked chicken nuggets in the top.
  • Teriyaki beef bowl in a thermos: you can buy the bowls and heat them up or use last night’s dinner).
  • Beef stew in a thermos and a separately packed bread bowl

Regarding our family favorites listed above, sometimes we forget the obvious stuff and, hopefully, if you already do all of the above, then new ideas will be sparked and you can share them with me in the future. Thanks for being a part of my family and for an interest in helping our kids have better school lunch food experiences!



Nov 5, 2015 4:50am
I grew up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and grew so tired of them. I love this article, great info! :)
Nov 27, 2015 10:24pm
Thanks! My kids spent the 1st half of their childhoods on them too. I felt really bad after awhile and looked for some creative ideas throughout the years. I regret not presenting more wholesome veggies and fruits to my kids when they were just starting to eat solids.
Nov 23, 2015 9:33am
Good healthy lunch ideas...for children and adults alike!
Nov 27, 2015 10:25pm
Golly, thank you! I'm trying to eat better, so I've been pre-packing little lunches for myself also, to take with me on errands so I avoid the drive-thru windows.
Nov 27, 2015 2:15am
Thank you! great healthy lunch ideas!
Nov 27, 2015 10:26pm
Thank you. :)
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  1. World Health Organization "WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children." World Health Organization - Media Centre - News Releases. 4/03/2015. 5/08/2015 <Web >

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