School lunches: To pack, or not to pack?

lithiumcloud/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

FEATURE — Can you believe summer is almost over? Back-to-school planning involves many things: new clothes, supplies, shoes, and don’t forget their favorite part of the day – lunch!

While we want to try and balance our children’s meals with healthy and delicious foods, we need to stay in line with our budget as well. Below are some helpful hints and tips that may help you decide “to pack, or not to pack.”

School lunch

According to, school-provided meals are based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. This means they have fruits and veggies at school every single day, half of all grains offered are whole grain, low-fat and fat-free milk options are always available and some portion sizes are smaller while still offering all the nutrition their growing bodies need.

School lunch is a great option when time is an obstacle. Set aside some of your grocery budget and pay for their lunch a few weeks – or months – in advance.

Don’t forget about the free/reduced lunch programs offered at all public schools. If your child qualifies, they may receive meals for less than half the cost or for free.  For more information on the School Lunch Program, you can review this USDA fact sheet. (See Ed. note)

Packed lunch

Packing your child’s lunch provides more control over what they eat. If you’re concerned that they aren’t choosing the fruits and veggies the school is offering, home lunch may be a great option for you. Picky eaters may benefit from home lunch as well.  Allow them to make some of the food choices, offering ideas from all five food groups.

Home lunches can also offer a lot of variety. Sandwiches can get boring, so throw in cheese, crackers and lunch meat instead, or shake it up with a wrap, tortilla or quesadilla. Kids love to make their own creations, so give them the ingredients and let them make it their way.

I can tell you from experience that if you pack it, they’ll eat it…most of the time. When carrot sticks, apples and grapes are offered, chances are they won’t come back in their lunch bag.  Just keep offering the healthy options along with some of their other favorites. Most of the time, lunch can be made with what you already have in the fridge or pantry.

For some quick and easy recipes for those days you decide to pack a lunch, click here.

Can’t decide?

Do both!

Stock photo courtesy of USU Extension Create Better Health blog, St. George News

Pre-pay for some school lunches in advance. Your child’s school will offer the lunch calendar online or in the office. Have them choose school lunch on days when they really like what is being offered and home lunch on other days. If you plan ahead, packing may not be such a hassle or a surprise.

If you choose this option and they forget their lunch at home, school lunch is still there to feed their body and energize their brains.

Written by CANDI MERRITT and BECKY EGLI, Certified Nutrition Education Ambassadors.

This article originally appeared Aug. 7, 2020, on the USU Extension Create Better Health blog.

Ed. note: The USDA has extended the free lunch program through June 2022, allowing school districts to offer free lunch to all students for another year. However, because various funding and programs are available to individual schools based on free and reduced-cost meal student eligibility percentages, school officials are requesting that potentially qualifying parents should still fill out an application for free or reduced cost meals this school year.

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