With school back in session, it’s lunch packing season. Now that you have a teenager, you know that the days of love notes and cutting sandwiches into fun shapes for your finicky child are over, but lunch still needs to be enticing enough to eat, and still provide the nutrition your teen needs to stay healthy and learn. 

Even though nutrition is still so important during the teen years (they’re still growing), teenagers tend to take a “Whatever!” attitude about, well, everything you recommend. Anyone who has a 13 year old is all too familiar with the “eye-roll”, but once children reach middle school, what others think of them is one of their biggest worries. The eyes at school may even be on their packed lunch.

Lunch time at school is also a social time, a time where kids see what other students eat, exchange snacks, and become part of the lunch room scene. Give them the resources they need, but the struggle into their hands and let them be in charge of lunch.

If your middle or high-schooler is packing a lunch, consider this:

  • Even though they may not think they still need to drink milk, teenagers still do need calcium. The requirement for 13-18 year olds is 1300 milligrams a day. The easiest way to ensure they get it: 4 servings of milk. One serving is the equivalent of 8ounces fluid milk, 8 ounces yogurt, 1/2 cup ricotta, 2 cups cottage cheese, or 1 1/2 ounces cheese. I always encourage milk as a beverage with meals. You can’t force it on them, but you can remind them that calcium supports strong bones and healthy smiles. I often “get scientific” with my kids (if you don’t keep up with your milk, your bones will break when your my age).
  • Variety is important, but lunch periods are often short. Every school (and kid) is different, but be understanding of the amount of time they may have to sit down and eat it. Sometimes convenience items like an applesauce cup over an apple or a protein bar instead of a meal or sandwich, may be easier for a shorter lunch period.
  • Allow your teen to help plan and shop for lunch items. Encourage healthy choices but involve your teen in the choice. Allow a “junky” food by balancing it with a fruit or vegetable. Encourage fruits and vegetables, but let them decide which ones. Let this struggle go.
  • Some kids may choose monotony during the school year. My sons pretty much packed the same lunch every day during the school year (PBJ sandwich, applesauce/banana/grapes or other fruit, chips or a cookie, and milk). Offer a larger variety during the summer, and at dinner time all year. Simple and easy is okay.

[Of course the easiest way to ensure a balanced lunch is to utilize the school lunch program. School Lunch has come a long way and many schools are offering amazing options. The only reason my sons didn’t buy lunch was the time factor.]

Here are some simple packed lunch meal plans. Teens love nothing more than independence, so let them pack whatever, whenever they want, and drop the worries:

Old Fashioned PBJ

  • Peanut butter and strawberry jelly on whole wheat or white bread (don’t go nuts over white bread if that’s what your kids enjoy)
  • A serving of fruit and/or raw carrots or small salad 
  • 8-16 ounces milk
  • 1 ounce bag of chips or 2 cookies

New Age Hipster

  • Roasted chicken wrap
  • Quinoa salad with cranberries
  • 8-16 ounces Almond Milk
  • Baby carrots with hummus

Salad Lover

  • Chopped baby kale with slivered almonds, sliced strawberries, feta cheese (add tuna or leftover grilled chicken)
  • Whole wheat pita pocket
  • 8 ounces milk

Submarine Sammy

  • Crunchy French roll with baked ham, turkey, provolone cheese, chopped lettuce, tomato
  • 1 ounce chips
  • Bunch of green grapes
  • 8-16 ounces chocolate milk

Lunch packing doesn’t have to be fancy or stressful. Just encourage them not to pack a bag of junk, and no skipping! By keeping the healthy lunch ingredients they want in the house, along with brown bags, sandwich and snack sized zipper bags, and your teen can pack his or her own balanced lunch whenever they want (and there will be something in there, thanks to your behind the scenes grocery shopping). When they ask you about what they should pack for lunch, your new motto can be: “Whatever”.

Feel free to share your teen lunch tips or struggles in the comment section.