How to prepare balanced school lunches

A Montreal dietician and mother shares her tips on packing a healthy, well-balanced school lunch that kids will eat.



If you have trouble making conversation with another parent, just bring up the topic of school lunches. You will both likely have a lot to say about this frustrating and mentally-draining task. 

Nicole Sabourin, P.Dt, a dietician from St. Mary’s Hospital with a private practice in Ville St. Laurent, has been making school lunches for her four kids for about 20 years.  She says having ice packs, insulated lunchboxes and a stainless steel Thermos are the keys to being able to provide a range of cold and hot meals.

Then it comes down to organization and planning. Sabourin says whenever she shops for groceries, she thinks about what the family will eat in the next few days and cooks more so they can have leftovers. “If you don’t plan, the contents of the lunchbox are going to be pitiful,” she says. “And I always try on the weekends to bake a batch of muffins so they have something nice in their lunch.”

While she’s not a vegetarian (she’ll roast two or three nitrate-free chickens and freeze one to use later in a stew or broth) she feeds her family predominantly plant protein in the form of low-sodium beans and peas that she mixes in salads and stews and douses with herbs and homemade sauces.

Protein is crucial for kids’ muscular and cardiovascular development (it creates hemoglobin, a part of the red blood cells that carries oxygen to the entire body), so she makes it the star nutrient in most meals. Fibre, a type of carbohydrate found in plant-based foods, whole grains and legumes, is also crucial for regulating digestion and lowering cholesterol. To satisfy both requirements, she often mixes together chickpeas, lentils, apples, celery and a dressing with olive oil, apple cider vinegar and Dijon mustard. Sometimes Sabourin purchases ready-made salads such as couscous and adds extra chick peas and vegetables to increase the number of portions. 

To round out the meal, she always includes a dairy product, be it milk or yogurt. For snacks, she’ll use different vegetables like red peppers and celery and add a side of cheese cubes.

Once or twice a week, she’ll cut up carrot sticks and peppers and keep them in a container so if she makes a sandwich, the raw veggies are ready. For dairy, she explores the environmentally friendly route by buying a large tub of yogurt and putting small servings in a container. Since sugary fruit juices can contribute to cavities and insulin spikes, she’ll include them in lunches sparingly. When she does, they go in Rubbermaid containers with built-in straws.

As a general rule, it’s important to pack three to four food groups, including fruits and veggies, lean protein, low-fat dairy and whole grains. And pack several small snacks.

Sabourin says parents need to involve kids in the lunch preparation as they are more likely to eat what they pack and it takes pressure off mom and dad. “At the age of 5, they can put the turkey between two slices of bread and mom or dad can cut it in two.”

Canada’s Food Guide, created by Health Canada, helps people better understand nutrition. On the website, children can create and personalize their own lunches by selecting foods from different categories (fruits & veggies, dairy, protein, grains, etc.)

Weekday food diary

Here is an example of what Sabourin will pack for her children:

Monday

Whole grain penne with tomato, lentil, mushroom, apple cider vinegar, tomato paste and herbs.

Salad with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and cherry tomatoes.

Greek lemon yogurt.  Orange, pear and apple.

Homemade whole grain banana muffin. Milk.

Tuesday

Chopped chicken sandwich (made with leftovers) on whole grain bun.

Sliced grapes and celery, Greek yogurt topping.

Plum and apple.

Squash soup (homemade over the weekend).

Preventia chocolate cookies. Milk.

Wednesday

Thermos of vegetarian chili (red kidney beans, tofu and veggies).

Slice of whole grain bread.  Pear and apple.

Greek lemon yogurt. Preventia cookies. Water.

Thursday

Quinoa salad (precooked the day before with supper), cooked in low-sodium V8 juice with grated lemon zest and added chickpeas, mild cheddar and veggies.  Apple.  Raspberry yogurt.

Whole grain orange and cranberry muffin. Milk.

Friday

Thermos of leftover lemon and rosemary chicken breast with mashed potatoes and carrots. Clementine and apple.

Yogurt. Orange cranberry muffin. Milk.

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