Packing Nutritious School Lunches

Does your child bring a packed lunch to school? Preparing the midday meal at home, then handing it off to your student, puts you in control of your child’s nutrition. It also presents an opportunity to be creative while meeting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.1

From fresh produce to lean protein, you want to pack a lunch for your student that will provide fuel and energy throughout the day. To gauge whether you’re whipping up adequately nutritious meals, consider utilizing the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) as determined by the National Academy of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board (FNB).

What are the RDA requirements for school lunches?

Before we explore this question, let’s go over the RDAs themselves. RDAs represent the average daily intake level of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals that meet the nutrient requirements of 97-98% of all healthy people.2

In simple terms, RDAs indicate the specific nutrient amounts—which vary based on age, among other factors—the vast majority of people need each day to maintain good health.3 Federal regulations require schools to serve lunches that account for one-third of the age-appropriate RDAs for protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and other categories.4

Consider it this way: The carbohydrate RDA is 130 grams for youth of all ages. This means students should consume at least 43.33 grams of carbohydrates—that is, at least one-third of their total carbohydrate RDA—in their school lunch.

The specific RDAs for students through the age of 18 can be found here. Parents who pack lunches for their children should strive to meet the same objectives.

What does this mean for packed school lunches?

In addition to focusing on RDAs, aim to limit the amount of sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar you include in your child’s packed lunch. Consuming less sodium reduces one’s risk of high blood pressure, while cutting back on saturated fat and refined sugar can help to promote a healthy weight.5

That said, it is okay to indulge in moderation. While you should pack a lunch that meets at least one-third of the various RDAs for your child’s age group, there’s nothing wrong with including a treat on occasion. Just bury it beneath the more healthful items, and let that special treat be an exciting surprise at the bottom of the lunch sack!

Share this information with your child, and consider sitting down and going over both the MyPlate guidelines released by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and perhaps a simplified version of the RDAs. You might explain that variety is key to good nutrition, and that all the kale in the world won’t make up for not eating enough protein (or vice versa). Ample produce, whole grains, and protein-rich items like turkey and almond butter are crucial.

What are some healthy packed lunch options?

When packing a school lunch, focus on whole foods whenever possible. Keep in mind that fruits and vegetables should be varied and colorful and represent at least half of the meal.

Here are some options based on recipes the USDA has compiled:6

  • Tuna-cucumber wrap with a whole-wheat tortilla, canned tuna, Greek yogurt, cucumber sticks, and an apple on the side.
  • Turkey sandwich with whole-wheat bread, turkey, romaine lettuce, and Greek yogurt. Serve an orange or some berries on the side, along with carrot sticks.
  • Lentil stew with tomatoes, potatoes, lentils, chicken broth, carrots, celery, garlic, olive oil, and brown rice. Be sure to pack this lunch in a thermos!
  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich with whole-wheat bread, peanut butter, banana slices, and carrot or celery sticks on the side.
  • Green salad with salmon using romaine lettuce, salmon, tomato and cucumber slices, vinaigrette dressing, and whole-grain crackers.

These meals are easy to pack, tasty, and nutritious. Consider incorporating them into your child’s school lunches, and your student will be meeting the RDAs in no time.

For more information on healthy eating, visit the USDA’s


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015). “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.” Accessed December 12, 2018.
  2. National Institutes of Health (2018). “Nutrient Recommendations: Dietary Reference Intakes.” Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed December 12, 2018.
  3. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2018). “Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Vitamins.” Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies. Accessed December 13, 2018.
  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2017). “National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program: Competitive Foods,” updated version. Food and Nutrition Service. Accessed December 13, 2018.
  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2018). Accessed December 13, 2018.
  6. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2018). “Sample 2-Week Menus.” Accessed December 13, 2018.

Submitted by the Metagenics Marketing Team

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