Back-to-school Nutrition Tips

Last updated: Sep 01, 2013


According to a recent American Dietetic Association survey, 83 percent of children bring their lunch to school at least once or twice each week.1 In addition, most kids (98 percent) aged 1 year to 18 years eat snacks daily, with snacks providing up to 27 percent of their total daily calories.

With the numbers of overweight and obese children
at an all-time high in the United States,
it's more important than ever
to consider ways to help kids eat foods
that provide the fuel they need for good health
without adding unnecessary calories.

To help ensure that kids have access to healthy, nutritious foods, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released updated school nutrition guidelines, including recommended limits for calories, salt, total fat, saturated fat, trans fats, and sugar in snacks and meals.3

USDA-recommended nutrition guidelines for kids include limiting:

  • Snacks to ≤200 calories
  • Entrées to ≤350 calories
  • Sodium in snacks to ≤230 mg
  • Sodium in entrées to ≤480 mg
  • Total fat to ≤35% of calories
  • Saturated fat to <10% of calories
  • Trans fat to zero grams
  • Sugar to ≤35% of weight from total sugars in foods

Are your child's homemade lunches healthy?

A recent USDA/Agricultural Research Service study at the Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Nutrition Research Center found that home-packed lunches for second graders in a southeast Texas school district were much less likely to include fruit, vegetables, and dairy foods compared with school lunches. In addition, the second graders' home-packed lunches often included snacks that were high in sugar and fat as well as drinks made with sugar instead of 100 percent fruit juice.4

For delicious, healthy, balanced, kid-pleasing home-packed lunches and snacks:

  • Think three
    Include protein, fruit/vegetables, and whole grains in every lunch to balance your child's nutrition
  • Highlight whole grains
    Choose 100% whole grain sandwich slices, pita bread, flatbread, wraps, and crackers to ensure your child is getting necessary fiber and nutrition. If your child dislikes brown bread, purchase white whole-wheat options
  • Leverage low-fat foods
    Include low-fat, whole-grain snacks such as baked potato chips, baked tortilla chips, or baked pita chips instead of high-fat, deep-fried alternatives
  • Discover dairy
    Pack fat-free yogurt or a fruit cup packed in its own juice with no added sugar instead of cookies or snack cakes
  • Mix and match
    Combine fruit and vegetables together such as sliced apples, raw cauliflower and broccoli florets, and sliced carrots with the juice from half an orange to prevent browning. Add dried cranberries, apricots or mango for color, taste, and texture. Mixing fruit in with your child's vegetables adds natural sweetness that can help entice veggie-resistant snackers!
  • Delight with dip
    Dipping raw vegetables such as sliced red, orange, and yellow sweet peppers, fruit slices, or baked pita chips into 2 tablespoons of low-fat salad dressing, hummus, salsa, or plain yogurt makes for a high-fiber, low-calorie snack
  • Skip the sandwich
    Pack your child's bento lunchbox with high-protein, low-fat foods such as water-packed tuna paired with sliced cucumber, peanut butter with sliced banana, celery stalks spreak with peanut butter, low-fat cottage cheese with fresh, sliced peaches, low-fat string cheese, lentil salad, a hard-boiled egg, or turkey slices. For a treat, include a homemade whole grain muffin with a favorite fruit and vegetables
  • Tempt with trail mix
    Engage your kids in creating their own baggies of healthy trail mix for snacks. Use bite-sized whole-grain, low-sugar Cheerios or Chex cereals, dried fruit, and unsalted nuts and seeds for a healthy, high-fiber snack
  • Shun sugar
    Encouraging your child to consume less sugar is one of the best ways you can help him or her cut back on excess calories that can cause weight gain. Swap fresh fruit yogurt or pudding for a quick snack packed with calcium and vitamin D
  • Involve your kids
    Encourage your kids to participate in making healthy choices for and packing their lunches. They're more likely to eat what they have chosen, prepared, and packed!

To keep your child's lunches and snacks imaginative,
use a cookie cutter to create fun-shaped sandwiches,
tie brightly colored ribbon around a baggie of fresh cherries or sliced oranges,
and include a cheerful note of encouragement and love
to help stay connected!



1. Hunterand JG, Cason KL. Clemson Cooperative Extension. Packing lunches for school-age kids. Accessed September 1, 2013.
2. Piernas c, Popkin B. Trends in snacking among US children. Health Aff. 2010;29(3):398-404.
3. United States Department of Agriculture. Smart snacks in school: USDA's "All Food Sold in Schools" standards. www.fns. Accessed September 1, 2013.
4. Johnston CA, Moreno JP, El-Mubasher A, Woehler D. School lunches and lunches brought from home: a comparative analysis. Child Obes. 2012;8(4):364-368.