The content of the lunch you pack for your child is just as important in showing them how much you care about them as the “I Love You” note written on their napkin. Setting your child on track for future wellness starts with instilling healthy eating habits. Seventeen percent of children in the United States are classified as obese, and 32% are overweight.[1] In large part, this is due to the idea that children will only eat “kid foods” like French fries, candy, and hamburgers. Teaching your child a wide variety of foods is essential in dispelling this idea and reducing childhood obesity. A simple way to begin this process is revamping what they eat for lunch at school.

School-provided lunch, while improving as of late, is most often a collection of unhealthy fats, sugars, and carbohydrates that negatively impact your child’s focusing abilities for the afternoon. If you are able to pack a lunch for your child, this is undoubtedly the best option. Here are some strategies to get your kids eating healthier at lunchtime:

1. Let them pick out a new lunchbox they like. Not only will a new lunchbox get them more excited about eating healthy, it will also decrease the chances of them throwing away the healthy lunch and trading for unhealthier food. (You can find lunch boxes fairly cheap these days.)

2. Pack lunch with your child the night before. If they loved the healthy dinner you prepared the night before, ask if they would like to eat the leftovers for lunch. Take this opportunity to teach your child the importance of eating healthy, particular in its power to improve academic performance.

3. Offer your child a choice between two good options, such as apple slices or pears; baby carrots or strawberries. Kids want both boundaries and freedom to choose. Therefore, presenting it as a choice makes them feel like you aren’t forcing them to eat healthy. They begin to own their responsible decisions.

4. Involve your child in the grocery shopping to give them a greater sense of control, which is an easy way to teach them about smart choices. Teach your child about serving size and how to read nutrition labels.

5. Try small substitutions that your child may not even notice, suggests Dr. Rallie McAllister, author of the book Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom’s Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.” For example, if you switch to mustard instead of mayonnaise on a sandwich 3 times a week, your child can lose up to four pounds in a school year.[2]

6. Make food fun. Try a dipping sauce for their baby carrots, or cut a whole wheat and peanut butter sandwich into a exciting shape with a cookie cutter.

If you are afraid that it would be too difficult to completely cut out unhealthy foods like candy or fried items, you’re right to be worried. It is not wise to “forbid” certain types of foods. It not only makes these foods more alluring to children, but also creates a sense that they must be ashamed and secretive when eating them, which can lead to disordered eating behaviors later in life. It is important to teach children how to eat these types of foods in moderation. In fact, a study in the 2011 Journal of Food and Nutrition Research found that the presence of candy in a child or adolescent’s diet was not by itself a precursor for health risks, if it is consumed in small amounts.[3] Children must be taught balance in their diets.

Also remember that children learn by example. To raise healthy children with healthy eating habits, it is essential to practice what you preach. If you only keep and eat unhealthy foods in your home, your child might be very resistant to trying new, healthier foods. What can you do to change your diet, to be healthier for yourself, and your children?

If interested, Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom’s Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim can be purchased here on

[1] Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Flegal KM (May 2008). “High body mass index for age among US children and adolescents, 2003–2006”. JAMA 299 (20): 2401–5.

[2] What’s For Lunch? (2006) Scholastic Parent & Child, 14 (3), p. 46.

[3] O’Neil, C.E., Fulgoni, V.L., Nicklas, T.A. (2011). Association of candy consumption with body weight measures, other health risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and diet quality in US children and adolescents: NHANES 1999-2004. Food and Nutrition Research, 55.

Edited by Jacques Courseault, M.D.