It’s back-to-school season — and while the kids embark on a year of new discoveries, parents can help fuel them by making lunch healthy and enjoyable. Forget the same old PB&J sandwiches and potato chips. Here are some ideas for healthy lunches to help introduce nutritious variety to your child’s diet.

Start With the Healthful Basics

The essential building blocks of a healthful lunch — fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and low-fat meats, according to – don’t have to be boring.

  • Low-fat dairy, for example, can be as simple as a slice of reduced-fat cheese but spans a variety of offerings, such as fat-free (or low-fat) yogurts, cottage cheese parfaits and more.
  • When it comes to fruits, sliced apples are easy and healthful, but berries, mangos, kiwis, and other fruits can introduce new flavors to the same old lunchbox.
  • Protein alternatives include beans, hummus and leftover dinner meats, such as lean roasts or chicken.

Switch it Up

Some kids enjoy the same flavors and textures on an ongoing basis, says the American Heart Association (AHA), but many prefer greater variety in their foods. Packing a sandwich and carrot sticks every day can quickly bore kids. Instead, says the AHA, re-think classics such as the sandwich by adding a few creative twists:

  • Sammie shapes: Try using cookie-cutters to make fun, new shapes out of bread and toppings.
  • Pitas and roll-ups: Fill whole wheat pita bread or tortillas with sandwich fixings to create wraps or roll-ups in place of traditional sandwiches.
  • Protein power: Instead of deli meats, try grilled chicken, lean pork or egg white salad as alternative protein sources.
  • Flavorful fillers: Low-fat cheese is flavorful and nutritious, but other fillers, such as shredded carrots, guacamole, or hummus, can also add flavor to a sandwich.

Make It Interactive

The AHA and suggest including foods such as salads and dips that your child can partly assemble for themselves. These interactive foods can provide an added level of engagement with and enjoyment of healthful foods. Some ideas include:

  • Dip it: Pack fruit or veggie slices for dipping into yogurt, peanut butter, salsa, bean dip or hummus.
  • Dunk it: Add a few whole-wheat crackers or pita chips to dunk into hot soups.
  • Toss it: Along with cut veggies, protein and salad greens, pack fun mix-ins — such as low-fat cheese cubes, pistachios or dried cranberries — separately. Allow your child to assemble the salad to his or her liking.
  • Stack it: Pack crackers, cucumbers or whole wheat bread slices for your child to top with a protein or filling of their choice.

Let Kids Choose agrees that children – especially older kids and teens – should be given some opportunity to choose their favorite healthy lunch foods. This helps kids learn how to choose nutritious foods and gives them more responsibility for their well-being. (Of course, it also helps ensure kids like – and will eat – their lunches.)

LetsMove suggests going grocery shopping with kids, focusing their attention on healthful choices. Trips to farmers markets — or even planting a small backyard garden — are other ways to help kids familiarize themselves with healthy food choices.

Keep It Safe

Food safety is an equally important component of healthful lunches, and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends the following steps for ensuring your child’s food is free of harmful pathogens:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly during food preparation, and encourage your child to do the same prior to eating.
  • Invest in a thermos, insulated lunch box, and other food containers designed to keep perishable foods at their intended, safe temperatures (refrigerated items should be stored under 40 degrees, according to A frozen juice box can also double as an effective cooling device. Remember that many perishable foods, such as cold-cut sandwiches and dairy, can only be left unrefrigerated for two hours and still be safe to eat.
  • If you’re packing a paper bag lunch, consider using food items such as canned tuna, peanut butter, whole fruits and veggies, or hard cheese, in order to minimize the chance of your food spoiling.

Preparing healthful school lunches can be a fun learning experience for parents and kids, alike. With a little creativity, kids can enjoy a variety of nutritious lunch foods to fuel their learning.