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11 Things Parents Need to Know About School Lunch Programs (Slideshow)

11 Things Parents Need to Know About School Lunch Programs (Slideshow)

Find out more about the history and current state of school lunch programs


Since the National School Lunch Program started in 1946, over 224 billion lunches have been served. Each day about 32 million students get their lunch through the program.

Lots of Lunches!


Since the National School Lunch Program started in 1946, over 224 billion lunches have been served. Each day about 32 million students get their lunch through the program.

Lunch: Then & Now


A sample menu for an elementary school student is focused on meeting healthy meal standards. Under the Obama administration, the standards were updated to offer kids more balanced meals without junk food. So instead of the old menu of pizza sticks and marinara sauce with a banana, raisins, and whole milk, kids are now served a chef's salad with low-fat salad dressing, corn, carrots, a banana, and skim chocolate milk..

Myths & Facts

The updated guidelines for healthy school lunch programs have been controversial, especially with those who think the new rules are too restrictive. In response, the USDA has “Setting the Record Straight” talking points, which refute “myths” with “facts.” For example, regarding the myth that “schools can no longer serve seconds and leftovers,” they say leftovers can be served as seconds on the same day or stored and offered on another day.

Fun with Fruit


Getting kids to eat more fruit is a health goal for school lunches. Citing a Harvard study that found kids are now eating 23 percent more fruit at lunch because of updated standards, the USDA has a goal for 2014-2015 of serving more fruit at breakfast. Fruit, which can be fresh, canned, dried, or frozen, can be served whole, cut, or puréed. Recommended fruit options include bananas, grapes, peaches, and applesauce.



The NSLP costs $11.6 billion a year. In the 2013-2014 school year, kids could get free lunch if their family income was below 130 percent of the poverty level, which was $30,615 for a family of four. Income between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level ($30,615 to $43,568 for a family of four) guaranteed a student a reduced meal price of 40 cents or less for lunch.



Students can qualify for free lunches from the NSLP if they or any member of their household receive SNAP benefits or participate in other assistance programs, or of the student is homeless, a runaway, a migrant a foster child, or enrolled in a federally-funded Head Start Program.

Salad Bars


NSLP encourages schools to offer salad bars during lunch, explaining, “Schools with salad bars offer a wider variety of vegetables and fruits than other schools.” Plus, eating salads can teach students nutrition and encourage them to eat fruits, vegetables, and legumes. The problem? It’s tough for schools to know how much salad a student consumes. The solution is to offer planned portion sizes, such as a cup of lettuce as a base for a salad.

Whole Grains


The program has whole grain standards concerning breads, pastas, cereals, and other grain foods. The standards are flexible these days since many participating schools recently complained some whole-grain-rich foods didn’t hold up. For example, “lasagna and elbow noodles, degraded easily during preparation and service and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations.”

Smoothies are OK


Kids who want a tasty and refreshing smoothie at school can thank the government for approving the drink. In this five-page memo, the USDA discusses the benefits of yogurt in smoothies, concluding that they “will allow yogurt in smoothies to credit as a meat/meat alternate for the breakfast meal pattern,” noting that, “the addition of yogurt to a smoothie does not serve as a substitution for milk.” That means schools will still offer milk to kids, even when smoothies are on the menu. By the way, the USDA says smoothies can be served at any meal.

Appealing & Filling Foods


In an effort to make meals appealing and filling, the USDA advises schools to offer more fruits and vegetables, boosting flavor with herbs, spices, and lower-sodium sauces. It also recommends creatively marketing and presenting foods, and offering students the chance to taste-test dishes.

No Ban on Bake Sales


Contrary to all the rumors, bake sales aren’t banned under HHKFA, which overhauled the NSLP. But new changes to the program, which took effect July 1, do mean that states have to decide how many competitive foods and beverages (i.e., treats sold at a school bake sale) can be sold each school year. Plus, the foods and drinks have to be healthy, keeping sodium under 230 milligrams per item and containing zero trans fat.

Your Kids Should Make Their Own Lunches Starting in Third Grade, This Doctor Says

Teaching your kids to make their own lunch helps develop planning and problem-solving skills.

In the daily bustle of getting kids ready for school, everyone has a mental checklist of items they have to take care of before getting out the door. Brush teeth? Check. Make sure everyone knows where their shoes are? Check. Make sure you have your phone/wallet/keys? Check, check, check.

The key to making it all go smoothly is to make sure your checklist isn't overflowing with 20,000 items that you, personally, have to keep track of per day. That's why Damon Korb, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests that there's at least one task you can take off your list and put back on your kids': making school lunch.

In his book, Raising an Organized Child, Dr. Korb outlines five steps to foster greater independence and help kids get themselves to take on more of their own responsibilities. The steps can be tailored for any age level, and once they start to grasp them, kids can apply them to all different kinds of projects, from keeping their rooms tidy to breaking down and keeping track of a long-term project for school.

"The broad goal of parenting is to prepare kids for launch," Dr. Korb says. "We want to create independent thinkers and problem-solvers, so they can be ready for the real world. If we do everything for them, they never get there." If you help your kids take more ownership over their own lives, you get to step back. "You go from a coach to a manager to a consultant," he says. It's a win/win all around.

And guess what? In helping your kids take on their own lunch-making duties, you'll hit all of Dr. Korb's five steps. He suggests that kids can start tackling this task on their own at around third grade. You might have to set them up at first &mdash show them that they need to have a balanced lunch, and take them through where all of the ingredients are in the pantry &mdash but they can master it if you do these things:

Be consistent. This is more of a guideline for you than your child. " With any rule, boundary, or limit that you create in your family, it only works if you enforce it consistently," he says. "If you make your child's lunch when you're running late, then your child has an incentive to run late."

Introduce order. "The importance of an order is to realize that everything has steps," he says. "There's a beginning, a middle, and an end to every process. Once we understand that, then we can take any task &mdash like making lunch &mdash and break it down into steps." Packing a brown bag doesn't seem as daunting when the process is laid out clearly.

"You don't have to expect perfection right away," he adds. As they get older, you can put a greater emphasis on making sure they follow through to the end of the task &mdash something like making sure they put away all the mess after the lunch is made. Third graders aren't the best at that, Dr. Korb notes, but you'll be setting the stage for them to recognize when they are fully, truly finished when they get bigger.

Give everything a place. You'll all save a little bit of time each morning if you know exactly where the bread is, exactly where the drinks are, and exactly where the snacks are every morning. Those saved seconds add up over time. And once your child gets used to the satisfying feeling of knowing where everything in the kitchen is, you can apply that skill to backpacks, shoes, homework, and important papers that need to be signed.

Practice forward-thinking. This is all the planning and estimating that goes into making lunch. "It's things like, 'Gosh, I'm going to be running a lot today at school. I should probably pack two drinks instead of one,'" Dr. Korb says. It gets kids thinking about the bigger picture. "Even little things, like when a child puts healthy foods in their lunch, they're using their planning skills," he says. "Eating healthy is not immediately rewarding. It's long-term rewarding. We should acknowledge that."

The LunchMaster

The Big Picture: The LunchMaster’s goal is to provide healthy, from-scratch meals that’ll give students the energy to learn with more success every day. They also strive to strengthen the community, whether that means working with local farmers or meeting specific needs of parents and schools.

Where: San Francisco Bay Area and California Central Valley

What’s on the menu : California roll, carne asada street tacos, Italian market salad.

What makes it unique: Parents can choose up to eight menu options (there are hot and cold entrees, fresh fruit and veggie sides), including a gluten-free or vegetarian meal. Each choice has been designed by a Registered Dietitian, is freshly made with local ingredients and delivered to your kids’ school every day.

How it works: Get your school to register with The Lunchmaster and then you’ll enter your school code either online or using the company’s app. All Meals adhere to strict regulations, including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

Average cost : One entree, fresh fruit, fresh vegetable, snack, and choice of cold beverage costs less than $6.

National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the Nation's second largest food and nutrition assistance program. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, it operated in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools (grades PK-12) and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.4 million children daily at a total cost of $14.1 billion. Average participation was less than 1 percent below that of the previous FY and about 8 percent lower than in FY 2011, when average participation peaked at 31.8 million children.

Any student in a participating school can get an NSLP lunch regardless of the student's household income. Eligible students can receive free or reduced-price lunches:

  • Free lunches are available to children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty.
  • Reduced-price lunches are available to children in households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of poverty.

In FY 2019, school cafeterias served nearly 5 billion lunches, with nearly three-quarters of the lunches free or at a reduced price. ERS-sponsored research found that children from food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to eat school meals and received more of their food and nutrient intake from school meals than did other children (see Children's Food Security and Intakes from School Meals: Final Report).

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the NSLP and reimburses participating schools' food service departments for the meals served to students. Meals are required to meet nutrition standards as part of the changes required by Congressional reauthorization of the program in 2010, NSLP nutrition standards were updated to more closely match the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Within their cost constraints, school food service programs face continuing challenges to provide healthy and appealing meals that encourage student participation. This is especially true in smaller districts and certain regions that face higher food costs. See the reports:

In response to concerns about the role of the school meal environment in children's diets and other issues, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 established updated nutrition standards for school meals and for non-USDA foods (often called "competitive foods") sold at schools participating in USDA's school meal programs. The legislation authorized an additional 6-cent payment for each meal when schools demonstrated that they were serving meals that met the new standards the legislation also established new regulations for meal prices charged to students not certified for free or reduced-price meals. The Act also created the Community Eligibility Provision, an option that allows high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students. See the report:

USDA also encourages school districts to use locally-produced foods in school meals and to use "farm-to-school" activities to spark students' interest in trying new foods. More than 4 in 10 U.S school districts reported participating in farm-to-school activities, which includes serving local foods, in the 2013-14 or 2014-15 school years. A recent ERS study found that school districts with enrollment above 5,000 students, urban districts, and districts located in counties with a higher density of farmers' markets were more likely to serve local foods daily. Higher-income districts, those districts with higher levels of college attendance, and districts in States with more legislated policies supporting farm-to-school programs were also more likely to serve local foods daily. See the report:

Kid School Lunch Ideas They’ll Beg For

With 100 different lunch ideas, there is plenty of variety here to keep everyone happy and interested in lunch for a very long time!

Bonus: even if your child has food restrictions, you’re sure to find several lunch ideas here that they will love!

Simple Bento Box Lunch Ideas | Vicky Barone

This lunch of hardboiled eggs, zucchini muffins, string cheese, blueberries and goldfish is the perfect combination of healthy and fun.

Healthy Lunch Ideas | Kids Activities

A Waffle Taco Bar is something you don’t see every day! Include ground turkey, cheese, tomatoes, and any other favorite taco toppings. Yum!

Taco Pop Tarts | Disney Family

Here’s a savory twist on a favorite childhood treat: Taco Pop Tarts. Anything tastes amazing in Pop Tart form, and they’re perfect for the lunchbox!

Dinosaur Bento Lunches | Glue Sticks & Gumdrops

Making food look fun goes a long way to making it interesting enough to eat. Jurassic Park fans will love this roaring fun Dinosaur Bento Lunch.

Free Lunch Checklist

Never wonder what you are going to feed your kids ever again! This lunch ideas checklist is perfect!

BONUS: it has NO sandwiches on it!!

Go Nut-Free | Super Healthy Kids

Toast pizza, carrot and cucumber butterflies, hummus, and berries will make your kid grin from ear to ear – and the envy of the lunch table.

Use Leftovers | Bento Box

Leftovers for lunch? That’s my favorite! Chicken wings, carrots, and strawberries sound like a winner.

Make it With Nutella

Do you love Nutella as much as we do? Try Nutella and Banana Sushi – it will disappear quickly.

Fun Twist on a Classic | Belly Full

Corn dog muffins with cheese wands and clementines give your kiddo a bit of comfort food and healthy food.

Homemade Spaghettios | Fake Ginger

Hate the thought of sending canned Spaghettios to school? Your kids will love this homemade version.

Super Hero Themed Kids Lunch Idea | Kids Activities

Make your kiddo feel like a superhero! This superhero lunch is easy to recreate with a star-shaped cookie cutter and a spoon cape (aka napkin).

Chicken Sliders | Natasha’s Kitchen

Here’s a chicken slider, a salad with ranch dressing, trail mix and a banana for a balanced, filling lunch. Yum!

Chicken Parmesan Meatballs | Real Food By Dad

Make a big batch of Chicken Parmesan Meatballs. Not only will the kids love them for lunch, but they make great lunches for moms and dads, too!

Leftover Breakfast for Lunch | What Lisa Cooks

Leftover breakfasts make terrific lunches. Cereal, muffins, fruit, hardboiled eggs… anything goes, really!

Turkey Bacon Ranch Wraps | Like Mother Like Daughter

Make sandwiches a little more interesting by turning them into wraps like this Turkey Bacon Ranch Wrap.

Change Up PB&J | Cooking Classy

PB&J Sushi will make for a fun lunchtime! Turn a classic into something more visually appealing.

4 Cheese Pepperoni Pizza Bites | Glue Sticks & Gumdrops

Nothing will make your kid happier than these small hand-sized pizza bites paired with fresh fruits and veggies.

Ham and Cheese Pinwheels | The Girl Who Ate Everything

Make a batch of ham and cheese pinwheels. They’re yummy for breakfast…or lunch.

Baked Ravioli | Laura Fuentes

Make baked ravioli for dinner, and then put some in kiddo’s lunchbox the next day. Two meals, just one prep!

Polka Dot Pizza Dippers | The Good Stuff

How much will your kids love these? Make them with biscuit dough and pepperoni slices, and serve them with some marinara sauce on the side.

Mac and Cheese Cups | Tablespoon

Mac and Cheese cups are easy to make. Press refrigerated dough into a muffin tin, add your favorite mac and cheese, and bake.

Chicken Pot Pie Cupcakes | Tablespoon

Comfort food in the lunchbox IS possible. Just make these chicken pot pie cupcakes and see for yourself.

Apple and Cheddar Quesadillas | Glue Sticks & Gumdrops

Pair cheddar with crunchy apples in Apple and Cheddar Quesadillas. Kids love them! Serve alongside fresh veggies and dip.

Cream Cheese and Ham Pinwheels | Following In My Shoes

Cream cheese and ham pinwheels are delicious and EASY. Great for school lunches and party appetizers, too.

Mini Taco Hand Pies | Lemons For Lulu

How about some mini taco hand pies to put a smile on your kids’ faces at lunchtime?

Crescent Roll Hot Dogs | Crazy Adventures in Parenting

Kids will go gaga for crescent roll hot dogs and smiley face fries.

Pumpkin Pancakes | Momables

Send leftovers from Sunday’s breakfast for lunch on Monday. Here are some yummy pumpkin pancakes served with fresh fruit, whipped cream and syrup and some sausage links, too.

Healthy Taco Salad | Sugar Free Mom

Send a healthy taco salad in the lunchbox. Include some tortilla chips or corn chips on the side if those are a must for your kiddo.

Easy Lunch Ideas for Kids | Lauren’s Latest

If you can get your little one to eat it, cottage cheese is a healthy lunch option. Pair it with peanut butter crackers, baby carrots, and some fruit.

More Bento Lunch Ideas | Living Locurto

Tweens are a little more difficult to pack for, aren’t they? Bet they’ll love this hot dog lunch with Oreos, Cheez-its, and fruit.

Apple Cheese Wraps | Weelicious

Make yummy wraps out of deli ham (or turkey), cheese, and apple slices. Delicious combination!

Peanut Butter and Apple Waffle Sandwiches | Little Inspiration

Peanut butter and apple waffle sandwiches are sure to be tasty. Check out her fruit-infused water idea, too!

Grilled Cheese Roll-Ups | Cincy Shopper

Nothing is more comforting than a hot lunch on a chilly day. Kids will love these grilled cheese roll-ups with a thermos full of tomato soup.

Baked Pancake Muffins | Family Fresh Meals

Easy Baked Pancake Muffins are not only a great go-to for breakfast, but they make fantastic lunches, too.

Turkey and Cheese Roll | Lauren’s Latest

Rolls are perfect for making sandwiches easier for little hands. This turkey and cheese roll served with goldfish crackers, green pepper slices, and fruit is a winner.

Chicken Noodle Soup | Love Grows Wild

Winter days definitely call for some Quick and Easy Chicken Noodle Soup to warm up.

Mini Burritos | The Girl Who Ate Everything

Make mini burritos with leftover meats, beans, and cheeses. Easy and delicious!

Mini Biscuit Pizzas | Normal Cooking

Mini biscuit pizzas will definitely be a hit with tweens and teens.

Sandwich Kabobs | I Wash You Dry

Put their favorite sandwich fixings on a skewer to make sandwich kabobs. Don’t forget the veggies!

Spaghetti Pie Muffins | Where Your Treasure Is

Spaghetti pie muffins: You don’t need a specific recipe… just bake whatever you make into muffin tins and add some cheese on top. Yum!

Taco Wraps | Living Lou

Taco wraps, mini muffins and fruit will satisfy even the hungriest tummies.

Mini Salad Pita Pockets | Lauren’s Latest

Sneak in a healthy salad with these mini salad pita pockets.

Croissant Sandwiches | Betty Crocker

Croissant sandwiches are just as easy as regular sandwiches, but it makes them a little more special when you use croissants instead.

DIY Protein Bistro Box | Momables

An egg, cheese, and peanut butter pack lots of protein into this lunch, and the fruits add a little some sweet to the mix. Pair with a yummy multi-grain roll.

Pizza Rolls | Simple As That

Pizza rolls (or pizza pinwheels) pair well with just about any fruits or veggies you want to add to the lunchbox.

Pasta Salad | Hip Foodie Mom

I know when I tire of sandwiches and wraps, something like this simple pasta salad would really make my day.

BLT Pinwheels | Scattered Thoughts of a Crafty Mom

BLT pinwheels are a fun spin on a classic sandwich. Hearty, healthy and filling.

Lunchbox Mac and Cheese Muffins | I Should Be Mopping the Floor

Ham and mac and cheese muffins are filling and tasty! Oh, and they’re super easy to pack.

Sweet Fruit Wraps | Super Healthy Kids

Sweet fruit wraps can be the main course or a tasty little dessert. They’re healthy and yummy!

Ham and Cheese Lunch Bites | Momables

Ham and cheese bites made with ham slices, eggs and cheese are super easy, too. Perfect for lunch or a breakfast on-the-go.

Sandwich Kabobs | It Is A Keeper

Skip the bread and go right for the good stuff with these sandwich kabobs made of meats, cheeses and tomatoes.

Kids Lunch Ideas That Aren’t Sandwiches | The Kitchn

Even I’d love this lunch of cheese quesadillas, pineapple, avocado, tortilla chips, and jicama sticks.

Savory Waffle Sticks | Paging Fun Mums

These savory waffle sticks are amazing dipped in a yummy marinara sauce!

Ham, Cheese & Spinach Muffins | Learn With Play At Home

Ham, cheese, and spinach muffins are a lunch you can feel good about. Serve with pretzels or trail mix and fresh fruit.

Rainbow Veggie Pinwheels | Dinner at the Zoo

These rainbow veggie pinwheels are gorgeous and chock full of good-for-you stuff like spinach, bell peppers and carrots.

Lunch Ideas For Kids Who Are Picky Eaters | Growing Up Gabel

Deli meat, strawberries, carrots, and peanut butter crackers are just the ticket for my little guy. He doesn’t much care for bread.

What Nutritionists Pack For Kids Lunches | Real Simple

Want to know what nutritionists pack in their kids’ lunchboxes? These ideas are great!

Mini Pancake Kabobs | I Heart Naptime

Mini pancake kabobs work for lunch, snack or breakfast and will satisfy your kiddo’s sweet tooth!

Deli Wraps | A Night Owl

Keep it simple with deli wraps served with fresh fruit and a pickle on the side.

Bacon Cheddar Egg Salad Sandwiches | Tastes of Lizzy T

Here’s a yummy twist on a classic: bacon cheddar egg salad sandwiches.

More Non-Sandwich Lunch Ideas for Kids | I Should be Mopping the Floor

Oatmeal peanut butter bites, lots of fruit, a boiled egg, and yogurt make up this breakfast for lunch idea.

DIY Pizza Lunchables | Momables

These pizza lunchables are made with whole wheat bread rounds and nitrate-free pepperoni, so you can feel good about this kid-friendly meal.

Cinnamon French Toast Bites | Recipes Tin Eats

Who wouldn’t love cinnamon french toast bites for lunch? I know I would!

Easy Vegetable Pizza | A Spark of Creativity

Veggie pizzas are yummy and filling! Just look at all that color.

Stress-Free Lunch Ideas | Mom to Mom Nutrition

Does your child hate veggies? Sneak them into something he loves, like peas with mac and cheese.

PB&J Sushi | Totally The Bomb

Make PB&J sushi by flattening out your bread with a rolling pin first. It disappears quickly because it’s impossible to resist.

Crock Pot Pork Sliders | Living Chic Mom

Crockpot pulled pork sliders are easy for mom and yummy for the kids!

Lunch on a Stick | How Does She

Everything’s better on a stick. Try making kabobs out of just about anything like fruit and string cheese, meats and veggies, etc.

Cute Owl Sandwich | Kids Activities

This cute little owl sandwich is sure to be a hit with preschoolers or kindergartners.

Roll it Up | Wendolonia

Wrap meats and cheeses into neat and tidy rolls, and serve with Cheerios, healthy crackers, yogurt, and fruit.

Gluten-Free Lunch Ideas for Kids | Spaceships and Laser Beams

Here’s another sandwich on a stick idea using meats, cheeses and cucumber slices. Tasty!

Chicken Quesadillas | Stuffed Suitcase

You can’t go wrong with Chicken Quesadillas, of course.

Deli Box Idea | HuffPost

Another deli box idea: crackers, meats, cheese and fresh fruits and veggies.

Gluten-Free Sandwich on a Stick | Ingredients, Inc

Try gluten-free sandwiches on a stick if you need to watch your child’s gluten intake.

Healthy Homemade Hot Pockets | Don’t Waste the Crumbs

Homemade hot pockets will go over well, and they cost less than 30 cents each to make yourself!

Dinosaur School Lunch | Family Fun Journal

For an easy dinosaur-themed lunch, try this one with dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, olives, broccoli, and cheese for protein. Fun!

Go Lego | Lunchbox Dad

What kid wouldn’t go nuts for this Lego-themed lunch? Amazing!

Pizza Grilled Cheese | Healthy Food

How have I never thought of this combo before? Two classics combined into yummy goodness that’s impossible to resist.

Fiesta Chicken Taco Salad | Happiness is Homemade

This fiesta chicken taco salad would be a winner with teens. Filling, healthy, and super delicious!

Make Bento Box Lunches | Easts Amazing

Pretzels, sweet corn, potatoes, yogurt, and grapes make for an interesting lunch. Love the little fun additions!

Mini Calzones | The Coupon Project

I’d like a few of these mini calzones for myself. Imagine how much the kids will enjoy them!

Apple Pie Energy Bites | The Melrose Family

Apple pie energy bites will help your kids power through the day!

Quinoa Pizza Bites | Jessica in the Kitchen

Get lots of pizza flavor in tiny little bites with quinoa pizza bites. Yummy and good for you, too.

Avocado Chicken Salad | Family Fresh Meals

Avocado chicken salad in a pita pocket is a filling, tasty choice.

Go With a Bagel | She Knows

A bagel with peanut butter (or other nut butter) or cream cheese is a welcome change of pace from sandwiches.

Chicken Caesar Pitas | Betty Crocker

Or how about a skinny chicken Caesar pita instead?

Bento Box | Following in My Shoes

This grown-up Bento is a great choice for teenagers.

Pizzadilla | Budget Bytes

Pizzadillas (pizza quesadillas) are one of my favorite lunches. Kids love them, too.

Vegan Pizza Bites | Vegan in the Freezer

Cauliflower pizza bites are another yummy twist, especially if your kiddo doesn’t care much for quinoa or breads.

Baked Corn Tortilla Cheese Dogs | Simply Gloria

Baked corn tortilla cheese dogs are so quick to make, and they’re a hit with kids of all ages.

Pizza Crackers | The Recipe Rebel

An interesting twist on pizza, and it doesn’t get any easier than this!

Make-Ahead Pasta Salad | Cook the Story

Kid-friendly pasta salad is perfect for those days when your kid can’t eat another wrap or sandwich.

There you go! More than 100 kids school lunch ideas to inspire you to make lunch more than just another meal. These healthy lunch ideas for kids will energize them for the rest of the day.

Use these easy lunch ideas for kids to make lunchtime an experience they look forward to every day because they know their lunch is packed with the foods they love. Which ideas will your kids will like best?

School lunches and food safety

  • Choose an insulated lunch box or one with a freezer pack.
  • Pack a wrapped frozen water bottle or freezer brick next to foods that should be kept cold (for example cheeses, yoghurts, meats and salads).
  • Perishable foods such as dairy products, eggs and sliced meats should be kept cool, and eaten within about four hours of preparation. Don’t pack these foods if just cooked. First cool in the refrigerator overnight.
  • If making lunches ahead of time, keep them in the fridge until leaving for school or freeze them in advance.
  • If you include leftover meals such as meats, pasta and rice dishes, make sure you pack a frozen ice block in the lunch box.
  • Ask children to keep packed lunches in their school bag and to keep their bag out of direct sunlight and away from heat, ideally in a cool, dark place such as a locker.

National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013, Australian Dietary Guidelines, Australian Government. More information here.

This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:

This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:

Two Birds

Economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture hit upon an elegant solution that would serve two purposes: The government would pay farmers for their surplus foods, then donate that food to needy schools to use. In 1933, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, one of the core pieces of legislation of the New Deal, and, for good or ill, paving the way for the school lunch as we know it today. In this photo, needy kids in Taos, NM, are still eating thanks to the surplus-commodities program in 1941.

11 Things Parents Need to Know About School Lunch Programs (Slideshow) - Recipes

The Chef Ann Foundation is dedicated to promoting whole-ingredient, scratch-cooking in schools. This approach enables schools to serve the healthiest, tastiest meals so that kids are well-fed and ready to learn.

We’re dedicated to empowering schools nationwide with the tools, training, resources, and funding they need to serve meals. Browse through programs to learn more about our work and apply for a grant.

Since 2009, the Chef Ann Foundation has worked with schools to implement healthy school meal programs. Dive into the organization’s history and learn about our impact on school food reform over the years.

Whether you are a school district administrator, food service director, food service team member, concerned parent, student or committed community advocate, there are many ways to get involved in changing the way we feed our kids.

Want to learn how you can create school food change? Our toolkit lays out how to approach your district and advocate for healthier food in your child’s school.

Learn more about school food with resources, home recipes, and press materials.



The Chef Ann Foundation is dedicated to promoting whole-ingredient, scratch-cooking in schools. This approach enables schools to serve the healthiest, tastiest meals so that kids are well-fed and ready to learn.


We’re dedicated to empowering schools nationwide with the tools, training, resources, and funding they need to serve meals. Browse through programs to learn more about our work and apply for a grant.


Since 2009, the Chef Ann Foundation has worked with schools to implement healthy school meal programs. Dive into the organization’s history and learn about our impact on school food reform over the years.


Whether you are a school district administrator, food service director, food service team member, concerned parent, student or committed community advocate, there are many ways to get involved in changing the way we feed our kids.


Want to learn how you can create school food change? Our toolkit lays out how to approach your district and advocate for healthier food in your child’s school.


Learn more about school food with resources, home recipes, and press materials.

At the Chef Ann Foundation, we know how important fresh, healthy school lunches are. We also hear from parents across the country who want to do their best to serve healthy meals at home. Our home recipe series is inspired by these parents who want to do their best, have little time and small budgets. This series focuses on cooking with whole ingredients, reducing processed food, and encouraging families to read nutrition labels. Our recipes use typical home cooking skills and standard ingredients, nothing too fancy here!

Two Week School Lunch Plan


Homemade Healthy Lunchable // Apple Slices // Celery Sticks // Yogurt Peanut Butter Dip

Classic Homemade Spaghetti – O’s // Apple Slices // Celery Sticks // Homemade Pudding Cups

Homemade Uncrustables // Yogurt Peanut Butter Dip // Banana // Celery Sticks


Healthy Homemade Hot Pockets // Banana // Carrot Sticks // Homemade Pudding Cups

Homemade Lunch Meat Sandwich // Apple Slices // Carrot Sticks // Homemade Cheez-it Crackers

Homemade Healthy Lunchable // Orange Slices // Celery Sticks // Yogurt Peanut Butter Dip

Homemade Uncrustables // Orange Slices // Carrot Sticks // Homemade Pudding Cups

Homemade Lunch Meat Sandwich // Yogurt Peanut Butter Dip // Banana // Celery Sticks

Two Week School Lunches

Bonus Meal Ideas

  • Use extra of any of the fruits to add to oatmeal in the mornings for breakfast. Or add to extra Greek Yogurt for parfaits.
  • Extra heavy cream and milk can be used for Alfredo Sauce for an easy dinner.
  • Double the Spaghetti-o’s and have some for dinner. Or make extra pizza dough and sauce and have pizza for dinner when you make homemade hot pockets.
  • Use extra bread slices for French toast in the morning or pair with a dinner salad and call it a meal.


  • My kids have used PlanetBox LAUNCH boxes for two years now and love them! (Here are all the best lunch boxes we’ve used.)
  • I added thermoses this year, too. Here’s what I bought for the Girl and for the Boy. Perfect for Homemade Spaghetti-o’s and soups!
  • Although we don’t currently use them, I’m still a big fan of these re-usable bags, and these silicone molds for yogurt (which double as popsicle molds in the summer!).

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Why School Meals Matter

School foods in the U.S. have come a long way. In 2010 they received a complete makeover when The First Lady Michelle Obama spearheaded a school meals initiative, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which was signed into law in December of that year. The act targeted childhood obesity by funding child nutrition programs and setting new nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. The standards, which went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, increased the availability of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, while increasing the portion sizes of fruits and vegetables offered and making their selection (either a fruit or a vegetable) a requirement. The standards also set grade-specific limits on total calories and sodium contents of the meals, and removed trans fats.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Weight statistics for children are approaching that of adults: 1 in 3 children is now overweight or obese. Studies have also shown a rising prevalence of type 1 and 2 diabetes in adolescents ages 10 through 19 years, with increasing obesity cited as a key contributor. [1]

On a positive note, the CDC showed a significant 40% decline in obesity rates from 2003 to 2012 in younger children ages 2 to 5 years. [2] Another CDC report revealed a decline in obesity rates among low-income children ages 2 to 4 years participating in federal nutrition programs. [3] Authors from both studies discussed the likely impact of early education programs focusing on improved nutrition and exercise standards, as guided by the HHFKA.

Despite some anecdotal reports in the media that fruits and vegetables from these new updated school meals were ending up in the trash, two studies discovered the opposite. In 2014, Cohen at al. found that children were eating more of their entrees and selecting and eating more fruit. [4] In 2015, Schwartz et al. followed more than 500 children in urban schools in grades 5 through 7, comparing before and after pictures and weights of their school lunches. [5] They found that after two years there was a 19% increase in vegetable intake. Though the amount of fruit eaten did not change, 12% more children were selecting fruits as part of their lunch tray. The authors noted that a greater variety of fruits had been made available, which may have encouraged the children to choose fruit.

Healthier choices throughout the school day

To further promote healthy eating habits throughout the school day, the USDA released the Smart Snacks in School guidelines that were enforced in September 2014, using science-based nutrition standards required by the HHFKA. They apply to any snack foods and drinks sold to children at school, such as from school stores, vending machines, and in some cases (as determined by the state), fundraisers.

According to standards that went into effect in 2016, a Smart Snack must be one of the following:

  • A grain product that contains 50 percent or more whole grains by weight (i.e., lists a whole grain as the first ingredient)
  • Have as the first ingredient a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, or a protein food
  • A combination food that contains at least ¼ cup of fruit and/or vegetable

The snack must also meet specific nutrient standards for calories, sodium, sugar, and fats per serving.

When it comes to drinks, allowed beverages include the following:

  • Plain water (with or without carbonation)
  • Unflavored low fat milk
  • Unflavored or flavored fat-free milk and milk alternatives
  • 100% fruit or vegetable juice
  • Calorie-free, flavored water (with or without carbonation)
  • Flavored and/or carbonated beverages that contain less than 5 calories per 8 fluid ounces or ≤10 calories per 20 fluid ounces.

Further modifications beyond these school food standards might include eliminating flavored, sweetened milks and offering only plain milk limiting fruit juice providing entrees of poultry, fish, and beans more often than red meat and processed meats and replacing solid fats with healthful oils such as canola, sunflower, and olive oil when preparing food, salad dressings and sauces.

Parent Tip: How do I know my child is eating their school lunch?

  • An important step is to involve your child with meal decisions and maintain an encouraging and non-judgmental attitude to foster open dialogue.
  • Most schools provide monthly calendars of their school lunch offerings that include the main meal and alternatives. Discuss each of the choices with your child and highlight the specific foods in the meal they like, dislike, or aren’t sure of. After school, ask what foods they ate and didn’t eat and why. This can help to plan their future meals and snacks.
  • Pack nutritious snacks of string cheese, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, whole or chopped fruit, and cut up vegetables that your child enjoys in case they don’t finish the school lunch offering one day. As children respond positively to variety [5], periodically change up the types of fruits and vegetables in their snack bag. Create a healthy food chart based off of The Nutrition Source’s Kid’s Healthy Eating Plate, with spaces for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins. Decide with your kids on a weekly goal for these items. Allow your kids to check off which foods they ate at school and provide small rewards, like stickers, at the end of week if they meet their goals.
  • If your child does not consume foods offered at school, here are some tips and inspiration for preparing healthy lunchboxes and snack ideas.
  1. Dabelea, D., et al. Prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Among Children and Adolescents From 2001 to 2009. JAMA, 2014. 311(17): p. 1778-86.
  2. Ogden, C.L., et al. Prevalence of Childhood and Adult Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA, 2014311(8):806-14.
  3. Vital Signs: Obesity Among Low-Income, Preschool-Aged Children—United States, 2008–2011. MMWR, 201362(31)629-34.
  4. Cohen, J., et al. Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste. Am J Prev Med,201446(4):388-94.
  5. Schwartz Marlene B., et al. New School Meal Regulations Increase Fruit Consumption and Do Not Increase Total Plate Waste. Childhood Obesity, 201511(3): 242-7.