As you prepare your kids to head back to school, what to pack for lunch and snacks becomes a top priority. Making healthy choices at the start helps fuel kids to learn, grow and begin the new school year right.  Through the following Q&A, Registered Dietitian and Pediatric Nutrition specialist Mildred “Mitch” Bentler from Summit Medical Group New Jersey provides tips on achieving a nutritious start to the day, healthy lunches and smart snacks, as well as getting kids involved in eating well.

What are some barriers to starting kids off with a healthy breakfast and what can be done? 

Skipping a healthy breakfast can be due to lack of time, dislike of breakfast foods and not feeling hungry first thing in the morning. But, study after study shows that eating breakfast daily improves school performance. Breakfast should include a protein source, whole grains or fruit.

If you have no time, have “grab and go” foods in the fridge. A few suggestions include:

  • Yogurt, fruit and granola
  • Whole Grain toast, waffle, English muffin with nut butter and fruit
  • Hard boiled eggs, toast and fruit
  • Trail mix of cereal dried fruit and nuts with glass of milk
  • Smoothie of milk, yogurt, fruit

Don’t like breakfast foods? No need to limit choices to traditional breakfast foods. Try leftovers from the night before (spaghetti and meat sauce) or sandwiches (turkey and cheese, PBJ, tuna, grilled cheese). Don’t fall into the processed toaster pastries, breakfast sandwiches or “breakfast biscuits” trap. They are generally high fat, white flour and little nutrition.

If your child is not hungry when he or she first gets up, start small to change the habit. Try a glass of milk, or a small container of yogurt, and gradually add items to create balance. Soon your child’s appetite will kick in and he or she will look forward to eating in the morning. Also, limit late night snacking.

What are lunch box “should-haves”?

Lunch, like breakfast, should include a protein, whole grain and a fruit or vegetable. Keep lunch simple since most schools have limited lunch time. Small amounts of healthy finger foods are sometimes better accepted than sandwiches. Think cheese cubes, whole grain crackers and grapes or hummus, raw veggies and pita chips.

Don’t discount the fruit cups packed in juice. They travel well and provide good nutrition. Avoid the temptation to put daily snack foods and treats in the lunch like chips, cookies, and fruit snacks. Also steer clear of sweetened beverages, juices, and flavored milk drinks. These are not part of a healthy food group; they are treats and should be reserved as such.

How do I encourage smart snacking?

Keep in mind that snacks are not meals, but just enough to get kids to the next meal.  A combination of a protein food and a whole grain, fruit or vegetable can provide enough energy and satisfaction without spoiling the next meal. Examples of nutritious snack options:

  • Apple slices, celery or banana with peanut or another nut butter
  • Small bowl of cereal and milk
  • ½ sandwich
  • Yogurt
  • Low fat cheese and crackers
  • Raw vegetables and hummus or low-fat dip

How can kids get involved in meal planning, cooking?

Kids are more likely to eat foods and meals when they had some input. My favorite method of letting kids plan their lunch is to set up a chart of preferred grains, proteins and fruit or vegetables.  Then, they can select an item from each column to create a balanced lunch.

Protein Grains  Fruit or Vegetable 
Turkey Pasta Carrot sticks
 Almond butter  Whole wheat wrap Mandarin oranges
Cheese Wheat crackers Applesauce
Yogurt Rice Salad
Hummus Pita Grapes


This also helps with grocery shopping. Encourage children to accompany Mom or Dad to the grocery store so they can help select foods they like as well as select a new food to try.


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