Packing a Healthy School Lunch

Ali Segersten May 05, 2009 45 comments

Simply making sure you have a good lunch can be a challenge sometimes, but what about your child? I know mornings can be frenzied and kids may go to school with less than optimal lunches. Or you may be the type that packs a super healthy lunch everyday only to find most of it uneaten in the lunchbox at the end of the day.

There is a solution.

Have your child pack his or her lunch in the morning! This way they pack what they want within the realm of healthy options and you have more time for other things in the morning.

We haven't always done this, in fact we just started having Lily pack her own lunch 2 weeks ago (she is 7 years old now). So far she has done it every morning and done a great job! She chooses the food she would like for that day, does any cutting or chopping necessary, and packs it all into her lunch basket.

making nori rolls - packing lunch

The inspiration for this came from my sister-in-law. Her girls, 8 years old and 10 years old, have been packing their own lunches for the last few years. On a visit to their house I noticed this lovely chart they had posted on their pantry door. The chart had categories with food options written in each one.

So I decided to make my own chart and add little pictures next to each food to help younger children who may not be reading yet. The chart is no artistic masterpiece, I just used clip art, though in the future I may update it and use my own photographs.

Download Healthy School Lunch Chart Here:

The basics of the chart give 5 categories:

Fruit, Vegetable, Whole Grain, Protein, and Treat. The child can choose at least one food from each category to create a healthy, balanced lunch.

I didn't mention anything about "gluten-free" on the chart so it can be used by all. For example, under the Whole Grain category I list "Whole Grain Muffin," which could mean a Teff Muffin or even a grain-free muffin such as my Banana Almond Butter Muffins for those of you who are paleo/grain-free, but this could be entirely different for someone else. Although dairy products are not actually necessary for proper human development, I have added "Yogurt" under the Protein category. This could mean cow, goat, or coconut milk yogurt. If you add other dairy products to your child's diet then you could just hand write in, say milk or cheese, under the protein category.

packing healthy school lunch-2

This morning Lily made a nori roll with sticky brown rice and carrots, put some heated Lentil Noodle Soup into her Stainless Steel Thermos, sliced some fruit, and placed a handful of raw almonds and dried mango into a lunch bag. She loves the chart and is very inspired to make her own lunch. It is also certainly a self-esteem builder to know you are capable!

If you would like your child to start packing his or her own lunch then print off the chart and show it to your child and ask what he thinks about it. You may want to try some practice runs with it on weekend days. Don't expect it to go super smooth the first week. It didn't for us. We had to remind Lily to pack her lunch instead of sit at the counter and color! One day I decided not to say a thing to see what would happen. I figured it couldn't hurt her to go to school for one day without a lunch, certainly she would never forget if that happened. Well, she got to the car with no lunch packed, it was 8:15am, and then she comes rushing back into the kitchen, grabs what she could in 5 seconds, and then rushes back to the car. She came home very hungry that day, but has since remembered to pack her lunch before she colors and has breakfast!

nori rolls - packing lunch

Also, don't underestimate what a child as young as 3 years old can do. They can pretty much pack an entire lunch, though they may need some training if they are not accustomed to working in the kitchen. I remember when Lily was barely that age, Grace had just been born, and I was completely consumed with caring for a newborn. She would go into the kitchen when she was hungry and make herself almond butter and jam sandwiches, and sliced bananas!


About the Author

Ali Segersten

Alissa Segersten holds a Bachelor's of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University and a Master’s of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States. She is a Functional Nutritionist, the mother of five children, a whole foods cooking instructor, professional recipe developer, and cookbook author. She is passionate about helping others find a diet that will truly nourish them. Alissa is the author of two very popular gluten-free, whole foods cookbooks and guidebooks: The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook and Nourishing Meals. She is also the co-author of The Elimination Diet book. Alissa is the founder and owner of Nourishing Meals®.

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Here is another link to it...hopefully it works for you. If Not just google packing a healthy lunchbox chart and it comes up on this site but in a different location...

The link to the pdf of the chart is broken. :(

I absolutely love this chart! You are doing such a good job with your kids. So many of your recipes have become staples for us! I was just wondering if there's anyway to get this chart as a word doc so that I could edit/add a few things tailored to our diet?

Thanks! Renee

I would love to print this chart. Is there a new link? Thank you.

Am very interested in the chart but the link doesn't come up with anything. Please update when you can.
Thank you.

yes. me too. can you post the chart again. i can't see it at all. it sounds great and my son is about to start kindergarten in september. i'd love to try it out with him. thank you.

Me too! I love this idea! Would love to find the link!

I'd love to see this food chart - is the link available elsewhere?

The link for the pdf chart is broken :( Please upload it again!

This chart is simply a god-send. But we can't print it! Please, oh please, make it available in some way for printing! Thank you!

Hi Ali, just chiming in to say thank you for this post and hoping the new link gets transferred for the chart. We love your recipes, website, and cookbooks!


Hello! I'm looking forward to using the lunch packing chard for my kindergartener. However i'm not able to print it. Is there anything you can do to help?

Anne - Oops! We have a new website and it looks like we forgot to transfer that link over. Will work on getting it up again, thanks for pointing it out. :)

Hi Ali,
The lunch chart is no longer available. Did it move? or will it be available again?

I love this! My only wish is that it were available as a doc as well so it could be cleanly customized, but I'll see what I can do with my pdf program. Thanks so much, this is JUST what we need at our house! And my kids love sushi, I'm not sure why I never thought of sending it for lunch!

I love the chart! I am not a fan of school lunches. My 10 year old packs a lunch nearly every day and they definitely get boring. I am hoping this chart will help change things up a bit. What a great idea.

If your child is choosing something from each group (and you have put healthy whole foods in each group) then she should be getting the nutrition that she needs. It is only mom that is bothered by it. Kids do tend to go on food jags, eating the same thing every day. Come to think of it, I do too.

One way to introduce variety is by making a boring or less-liked item more interesting. A special dip with vegetables. Using bento cutters to make interesting shapes. Putting it in a wrap, or giving it an interesting name.

How about if you added a "mom" category? After your daughter gathers one thing from each group, you get to add one more thing. Of course, there is no guarantee that she'll actually eat it, but you can try.

What a brilliant idea! My only question is what if your child wants to choose the same item from each category every day? My daughter is extremely picky and would go for the cherry tomatoes, noodles, yoghurt and popcorn EVERY day if she could. How do you get them to introduce some variety???

Okay somehow I have fallen back into packing lunch-so I am printing this again! I find the eating goes better when she packs her own, as her cucumber slices get eaten and mine do not :)

Of course you can make your own gf pudding! There are lots of recipes out there. And dairy free too. If you are okay with soy, consider one like this:

If soy is out, try a nice raw pudding like this:

I love the chart and I would have never thought to send sushi rolls into school for lunch, my son LOVES sushi. No reason why we can't make veggie ones or ones with smoked fish. We've been stuck in the rut of the lunches we ate as kids (hubby and I) and e never considered mixing it up for him. THANKS! Now one thing my son misses is pudding. When we went GF we cut out processed boxed things like jello pudding. Is their a GF way to take pudding at home? Perhaps something dairy free?

Loved your poster so much I added a link from a recent post on taking lunch ( Hope you don't mind, and please let me know if you want any changes.

Sandi - Thanks so much for your sweet comment. So happy to hear that you are all enjoying our cookbook. :)

Jenna - Glad to hear that your daughter is packing her lunch now! How fun - less work for you, huh!

talkinglikerain - Oh wonderful, thanks for the lovely comment! My daughter studies the chart too, have not done it on the way to the co-op, but that is a great idea! :)

-Ali :)

I can't thank you enough for this post and the chart! The chart has been a huge motivator for our 7yo - she gets so excited about putting her own lunch together now. She even studies the chart on our way to the grocery store, and chooses her own lunch items to put in the cart. She feels so empowered - it's lovely.
Thanks again!

Wow, My daughter is packing her own lunch. Thanks so much-what a great chart, this is going to help so many people!

Ali and Tom, your cookbook has become a "bible" of wonderful meals for all of us, including my son and his wife. Beautiful, delicious recipes! I also have several friends with gluten sensitivities and they too use your cookbook every day, with deep thanks. Keep up the yummy recipes and loving dedication.

Many thanks,
Sandi Jaynes, Bellingham, WA

Ali--Thanks so much for that info! I'm going to go look now. Maybe that would make a belated MD gift for me. ;-)


Shirley - The Bolga Basket company also makes larger baskets that are great for taking to the Farmer's Markets or picking up a small load of groceries from the store.

I think you can do a search online and a number of stores will pop up.

-Ali :)

Wow, that's so beautiful and so reasonable, too. Lovely. I'm trying to think what I can use one for ... ;-)


I recently had a question about where to purchase the basket Lily is holding.

The lunch baskets can be ordered here:

-Ali :)

Deb - This is a great idea to use the chart to pack a snack backpack! Thanks for sharing!

Pavlina - I know, sometimes it is just easier in the short term to just do it all ourselves, but with a little practice and time, it is actually much easier to have everyone participating - the cleaning, meal prep, everything just gets done faster. The girls also have one night a week to make dinner now and are having fun with it!

Shirley - Yes, this chart would be great for adults too, I had not thought of that. It gives a nice visual on how to put a meal together. Thanks!

Tiff - I think it is great that you are packing lunches together and that your children are having fun using it, thanks so much for your comment!

Melissa - Thanks for your sweet comment, I appreciate it!

Kimberly - So glad you found us. Good luck with the practice this weekend. I am sure your son will have fun! Thanks so much for your comment.

-Ali :)

Thank you for creating this. A friend of mine passed along your blog --- I just signed up, thanks! I am planning on trying some dry runs this weekend with my son to see how this goes. You guys are great! --Kimberly


I love this, I love this, I love this! Seriously, this is a beautiful tribute to how you're raising your kids. Good for you. And that photo of your daughter carrying her basket is as charming as they come!

You're a good mom! Happy (almost) Mother's Day.


Ali, I am so happy to have this chart! So far my kids and I have packed lunches together using it. They are not big on health food so I thought it would be best to help them for a while. So far it is working! Little by little we have added healthier options, like popcorn instead of potato chips and fresh apples instead of fruit leathers. More importantly, my kids are having fun doing this! I am so grateful for this chart and blog, I have forwarded on the email to all of my friends! Thank you!!

Thanks, Tiff

That chart is even good for us as adults! How often can we just not think to pack or prepare a simple lunch when we're in the a rush or tired, morning or night? The pictures are so helpful to kids, too. And, that picture "choose and check off" concept can be applied to other things with children, like chores and assignments even. It's very gratifying to make a choice and then check off stuff instead of not knowing what to do. That's why I have my planner! LOL

Terrific post, Ali, and I loved the pictures. :-) Great job, Grace, too! It's so important to raise independent children.


Thanks Ali for sharing your wisdom with us. I don't know why we rarely think about involving out children (especially boys) into the daily chores. Sometimes it just seems so much easier to do things ourselves...not such a good idea in a long run of course.
I presented the idea to my older son right after I read your post and not only was he totally excited, he even dressed himself without fussing!
No he has a reason to get ready in the morning all by himself!

What a great idea! Since my kids are all grown, I will share the chart with my grandchildren. They will love this. Anytime we go on an outing they pull out their backpacks and fill them to the brim with snacks. This way they will know what options they have to pack. I am so glad you love to share all of these great ideas to help others!

Tree - Well, oatmeal isn't all that bad for a staple but I am sure a little more variety couldn't hurt, glad you like the chart. :)

Debbie - Glad we can help, and nice to hear you have our book! Thanks for your comment!

P - That sounds like a great site - thanks for sharing! I will go check it out now.

CDM - Thanks for your comment, you must be a school teacher? :)

Alison - ooh, a snack chart is a great idea!

yogamama - Thanks, I am sure you and the kids will have fun with it!

-Ali :)

Ali, this is great, thanks for posting it! I am printing it off as I type.

This is GREAT!! I love it!
I think I need a snack chart too!

What a great idea!! After seeing what my students eat every day I am so proud of your daughter's healthy choices.

Oh, I lied, it does use the label too. But you can use a pdf editor and remove them!

You can do something similar with the Canada Food Guide. Go to:

Click on "Create my Food Guide" and start entering data and picking foods to enter on your chart. You can create a different one for each member of the family, showing their favourite foods. You can save them as pdf's. Remember the final product will only show the pictures, so even if the title is "whole wheat waffle", you know it's really a picture of a gf waffle! Lots of fun.

Thank you for sharing this chart!
It is similar to what I had envisioned in my mind for a while, but never got it to paper. You are awesome!

I just got your cookbook and I am SO excited! What great recipes! I look forward to trying them all.

OMG, your chart is awesome! I've printed it out for my 3 year old, who only wants oatmeal for breakfast lunch and dinner. Thank you!

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