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Surprise: a recent study showed that meals packed at home tended to have more calories, fat, and saturated fat than school lunches. Here, 4 tips for packing healthier meals.

November 25, 2014

For so many parents, it’s a happy morning ritual: sending their kids off to school with a quick kiss good-bye and a packed lunch, secure in the knowledge that they’re handing the little ones a healthier alternative to the on-a-tray meals dished out at school cafeterias.

Well…not necessarily.

A recent study which focused on three Virginia elementary schools found that both packed and school lunches for the most part met nutrition standards, but—here’s the surprise—the edibles pulled together at home tended to have more calories, fat, and saturated fat. (Check it out: Of the 1,000-plus lunches, the school meals averaged 512 calories and 13 grams of fat per lunch, while the packed lunches had 608 calories and 21 grams of fat.)

“We assumed there would be differences between school and packed lunch, but not such stark differences,” said the study’s lead author, Alisha R. Farris of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.

So how do you boost the nutritional value inside that little brown bag or glossy lunch tote—while making sure you’re offering up food that your finicky eater will finish off?

Actually, it’s not all that hard. “You don’t have to be a chef, or even a good cook,” says Beth Lipton, Food Director for Health and All You. “It can be as easy as opening up a can of tuna fish, mixing in chopped celery and mayo, and making tuna salad.”

Here, a few more inspired ideas for healthy lunchtime offerings your little ones won’t refuse.

Keep it simple

Prep-ahead veggies can be a godsend for frazzled moms. “Don’t have time to peel carrots?” says Lipton, “just get them pre-cut and pre-washed.”

Give it a twist

Take foods your kids like and serve them up in a different way. For example, instead of the same-old turkey sandwich, use the lunchtime staple to make a chef’s salad. Or, rather than serving it as a sandwich, ditch the bread and try a lettuce wrap.

RELATED: 13 Delicious Twists on Classic Lunches

Divide and conquer

“For kids, it’s not about the food as much as it is the look of what they’re eating,” says Lipton. If your little ones love Lunchables, make your own. Buy plastic containers with little compartments, and put wholesome food like cherry tomatoes and applesauce in the individual slots. "Think smaller portions of bite-sized edibles—they’re more manageable for small hands," says Lipton.

Slice fruits and veggies, dice ham and cheese, and cut sandwiches into appealing shapes with holiday cookie cutters. Ateco makes them in fun shapes like stars and hearts ($12.50 for a set of six, amazon.com). Also, says Lipton, embrace the rainbow by including a variety of bright colors.

Try a skinny dip

A 2013 study done by the Center for Childhood Obesity Research at Penn State found children were three times more likely to chow down on vegetables served with a reduced-fat dip than they were to eat the same veggies alone. Lipton's suggestion: Pair celery sticks with a quick dip made from plain yogurt and taco seasoning.

RELATED: 7 Healthy Dip Recipes

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