hands making school lunches

It’s August, the summer fun is ending, the days are getting shorter and those “back-to-school” savings ads are the wonderful reminder for parents that school is starting soon. While your schedule may be full between shopping for school supplies and squeezing in those last-minute to-do’s, our resident chef is here to help make one thing easier — finding healthy foods for your kids. Cory Gheen, MS, RD, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics and chef at Loma Linda University Health School of Allied Health Professions, offers these simple tips to make fun and nutritious meals your kids will enjoy.​ 

1. Planning is key. One of the biggest factors in eating healthy is making time for it. Sometimes preplanning can feel almost impossible on the busiest of days, but Gheen notes there are ways to save time, such as packing lunches from the leftovers as you clean up from dinner the night before. Another option is buying snacks in bulk and separating into bags when you get back from the store, or having your kids help pack their lunches with you. And remember, lunches don’t need to be grandious culinary adventures, simple and straightforward is fine for most kids!​

2. Encourage hydration. Be it the old “I’m not thirsty,”  line or temptations of sugary drinks and sweet juices, getting your child to drink the recommended 6-8 glasses of water minimum is no easy feat. Gheen has a few recommendations to help.

  • Drinking water should be fun! Have your child pick out a water bottle they like with a design, or that they can decorate with stickers, and have them be responsible to keep it with them at all times like another one of their toys.  
  • Try flavoring the water. Often kids don’t want to drink water because it lacks flavor. Feel free to cut their favorite juice with water 50/50. This cuts down the sugar, lets them enjoy their favorite juice and ensures they drink water. 
  • Avoid chilled water. While adults on a hot day enjoy the freshness of iced water, your child might find it too cold or painful on their teeth. Gheen recommends giving your child room temperature water when possible.
  • On the flip, side what if they like ice? If your child is one of the few who enjoys chewing on ice chips, let them! It’s another good way to ensure they get the water they need in a way they enjoy.

3. Start their day right. We know mornings can be chaotic already with the hustle of getting yourself and your kids ready for the day, let alone making something nutritious for breakfast. Here are a few of Gheen’s favorites that can be prepared the night before, cooked while you’re getting ready, or are easy to box up to enjoy in the car.

  • Broccoli quiche
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Yogurt with fresh fruit and a piece of toast or wholesome smoothie with peanut butter toast. 
  • Crockpot oatmeal with spices and fresh fruit. 
  • Cereal enthusiast? While these are ever popular breakfast go-to’s, they can harbor an astounding amount of added sugars. Be sure to read the label to make sure your cereal is made with whole grains, is high in fiber, and is low in added sugars like frosting and marshmallows. If a certain sweetened cereal is a family favorite, consider reducing the amount of sugar consumed by mixing the sweetened cereal 50% with the unsweetened version of the same cereal. 

4. Lunch should be fun, portable and recognizable. Gheen says the food that goes into lunches should not need a plate.  “Lunch for kids is the time they want to hang with their friends, so the food should be something they are familiar with and can eat with their fingers.” 

Gheen adds that the key to successful lunch is keeping the fun in it, whether it’s cutting PB&J’s into shapes with cookie cutters, rolling up sandwiches or deconstructing the sandwich into bite size pieces that can be mixed-and-matched — all are finger-friendly and will help you stick to the small portions that your child needs. “Playing with shapes creates new interest in foods. For instance, I rarely include whole fruit in lunches because it’s harder for kids to eat; but if an apple is always presented in slices, try a cube or balls with a melon baller to get kids attention.”​

Gheen says the second important thing to include in lunches is something tradeable. “This could be something like a homemade Rice Krispy treat, pudding cups or a cookie. Kids love being able to show off and trade food.”​

5. Kids should snack. Gheen says snacking is 100% appropriate for youngsters. “Since children are growing, what their body needs to develop is different than adults. Children can eat frequently and eat foods with more natural carbohydrates, saturated fats and cholesterol because their bodies need those nutrients. The trick is making sure what they eat is nutritive and fun."

What does that look like? Gheen recommends crunchy snacks such as bite-sized dried fruits, nuts, puffed grain snacks, whole grain crackers, etc. You can make a bag of fruits and nuts fun by including a few chocolate chips for your kids to find. Fruit smoothies are another great snack option. Combine a cup of frozen fruit chunks, a handful of nuts and Greek-style yogurt to create a scrumptious snack any kid will love. Purchase refillable pouches and these smoothies can easily be on the go. ​


With these five points in mind, creating nutrious meals for kids' lunches will be a snap. Gheen’s key takeaway? “Remember what you loved as a kid. Always find the least processed and most wholesome version. Most importantly, keep your child’s food fun, small and easy to eat.”​

To learn more nutrition tips or try out quick, wholesome meals, check out Chef Cory Gheen’s recipes on the Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions' online cooking show “Live It: In the Kitchen.”