Getting more nutrient-packed foods to nourish our pint-sized learners should be parents' No. 1 lesson plan for health.

By Julie Upton, RD

With kids back in school, now is the time to stock up on healthy foods for their lunch boxes (or bags) and after-school snacks. Since 98% of children fail to meet the recommended servings of the five core foods groups—and some 25% of children’s daily calories are from junk foods like soft drinks, sweets, and desserts—getting more nutrient-packed foods to nourish our pint-size learners should be parents’ No. 1 lesson plan for health.

As a dietitian, I can rattle on for hours about research that shows how children with healthier diets perform better in school, sports, and social environments. Here are some ideas and guidelines of how parents can make perfectly packed lunches and great after-school snacks.

Be a lunch-box hero
When preparing a lunch, be sure it includes each of the following:

  • A serving of whole grain to maintain focus and concentration. Healthy options include whole-grain bread, pasta, English muffins, tortillas, and frozen waffles.
  • A source of protein for staying power. Healthy options include lean deli meats, peanut butter, 1 ounce of nuts, 1/4 cup of hummus, and tuna.
  • At least one serving of a fruit or vegetable for vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Healthy options include whole fruit, fruit kebabs, fruit cups packed in their own juice, raw vegetables with dip, and 4- to 6-ounce 100% juice boxes.
  • Nonfat or low-fat dairy for protein and bone-building minerals. Healthy options include nonfat or low-fat yogurt, milk, and cheese.

(Getty Images)

If you want to include dessert in your child's lunch, opt for a treat that's no more than 100 to 130 calories. Great options are cereal bars, whole-grain energy bars, or whole-wheat fig bars. Dark-chocolate-covered dried fruit is a better option than a milk-chocolate candy bar.

Try this dietitian-approved, kid-friendly lunch
Need some inspiration? Get the week started with this recipe, and branch out from there.

  • 1 cup whole-wheat pasta salad with 2 ounces of diced, cooked chicken breast, halved cherry tomatoes, sliced bell peppers, olive oil, and vinegar, and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese (this takes care of your whole grain, protein, and vegetable servings)
  • One 8-ounce container of nonfat yogurt (your dairy serving), topped with 1/4 cup raisins (1 fruit serving)

After-school snack solutions
Having a pantry and refrigerator full of nutritious options for kids to snack on will help ensure that they eat foods that add positive nutrition—not negative nutrients—when they get home from school. Replace high-calorie potato or nacho chips, candy and cookies, and sugar beverages with these fun, healthy snacks:

  • Fresh whole fruit, fruit cups, or 100% fruit juice
  • Flavored low-fat milk
  • Low-fat cheese with whole-wheat crackers
  • Graham crackers with nut butter
  • Nonfat or low-fat yogurt topped with fresh or dried fruit
  • Whole-grain fruit bars
  • Trail mix made with pistachios, seeds, pretzels, or cereal
  • Hummus with fresh-cut vegetables or whole-grain pita
  • Whole-grain energy bar
  • Air-popped popcorn