How to meal plan for the school year
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Just as you settled into your summer routine fairly quickly, you can ease back into your school schedule with some time and practice. Here are seven tips to help you start off on the right foot.
1. Plan ahead. As anyone who has been left scrambling to put together a suitable lunchbox meal at 7:30 on a weekday morning can attest, it’s not the most enjoyable activity. That’s why it pays to plan ahead.
While sketching out a full week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners is the pinnacle of meal-planning success, just planning out your kids’ lunches and snacks can go a long way toward easing weekday stress. So the weekend before school starts, make a list of all five lunches your kids will eat for the week, plus any snacks they may need — and don’t be afraid to get creative! Lunchbox meals don’t need to consist of peanut butter sandwiches day in and out — from cottage cheese and fruit to meatballs and marinara (yes, it can be done!), there are plenty of options to keep your kids eating a healthy, varied diet. (See “Healthy School Lunch Ideas,” below, for more inspiration.)
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2. Keep nutritional guidelines in mind. When planning healthy school lunches for your little ones, pay attention to these nutritional guidelines from the Mayo Clinic (which also happen to be good for you, too!):1
- Include protein sources such as beans, eggs, lean meat and poultry, peas, seafood, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
- When choosing fruit, choose a selection of fresh, canned (try to choose fruit that is canned in water or its own juice, not in a syrup) or frozen fruits rather than dried fruits or fruit juice. If your family enjoys dried fruit, consider that ¼ cup of dried fruit is equivalent to 1 cup of fresh, canned or frozen fruit. (Dried fruits are more calorie-dense than other forms.)
- When choosing vegetables, go for variety. Eat the rainbow! Encourage your family to eat a selection of dark green, red and orange vegetables, as well as beans, peas and non-starchy vegetables. As with fruit, you may opt for fresh, frozen or canned, although you may want to watch the sodium content when eating canned veggies.
- Choose whole grains over processed ones. Limit refined grains such as white bread, pasta and rice; choose whole grains such as brown or wild rice, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa and whole-grain bread instead.
- When choosing dairy products, opt for fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese or fortified soy beverages.
- Limit added sugar, such as brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup and honey. Note that naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit and milk, are not considered added sugars.
- Limit saturated and trans fats. These include fats that come from animal sources, such as full-fat dairy products, red meat and dark meat poultry, and foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil. Healthier fats include those from olives, nuts, avocados and seafood.
3. Shop before the school week starts. If you can get the majority of your shopping done over the weekend, it will save you tons of time — and stress — during the week. (And it can give you the opportunity to get back to your own goals!) Be sure to keep plenty of staples on hand to avoid midweek stop-offs at the grocery store after school pickup, sports practice or work.
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4. Stock up on essentials. Lunchboxes or bags, thermoses, reusable water bottles, freezer-safe food storage containers, compartmented food containers, refreezable ice packs: Make sure you’ve got everything you need to make packing school lunches a snap. Also consider getting one or two extra of whatever you’ll need so you’re never left in a pinch.
5. Do some prep work over the weekend. Based on your meal and snack list for the week, do whatever meal-prep work you can ahead of time. For instance:
- Peel and chop any vegetables you’ll be using throughout the week. Ditto for fruit as long as it won’t turn soggy or brown.
- Portion out snacks into individual serving sizes.
- Assemble any lunches you can over the weekend. If something risks getting soggy or otherwise unpalatable, plan on doing it the night before.
- Making pasta salad? Boil the noodles and refrigerate them in single-serving containers. Or prep the entire salad, minus the dressing, and add the dressing the morning of.
- Got smoothies on the menu? Mix up a batch and freeze in single-serving containers (glass jelly jars are the perfect size). Be sure to thaw them in the refrigerator the night before you plan to send them to school.
- Make a batch of whole-grain waffles and freeze them. Whether you use them for a healthy breakfast (smear some non-fat plain yogurt on them with fresh or frozen fruit for a healthy, filling morning meal) or a tasty lunch, these are a great staple to keep on hand. Just remember to thaw them the night before.
6. Do some batch cooking. Making dinners that could double as school lunches? Soups, stews, whole-grain pizza: All of these could easily do double-duty, so plan on cooking a batch or two over the weekend and making extra to freeze for your kids’ lunches.
7. Get your kids involved. If your children are old enough, let them help with some of the prep work and planning. Not only will doing so ease your workload, but research2 has shown that when kids are involved in meal preparation, they tend to not only eat more vegetables, but they also report increased feelings of positivity and control.
Healthy school lunch ideas
While there’s nothing wrong with the school lunchbox staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they can get old — for you and your kids. Try some of these ideas for a healthy twist on the traditional school lunch:
- Pasta salad: Toss cooked, chilled whole-grain rotini with sliced raw carrots, cucumber and celery; cooked, diced chicken breast; and a bit of oil and vinegar or another salad dressing for a refreshing lunch on a hot day. Or dress it in pesto for an extra boost of vegetables.
- Fruit smoothie: Fresh or frozen fruit, non-fat plain yogurt and a bit of coconut or almond milk make for a delicious lunch treat. For extra ease, whip up a batch and freeze in single-serving glass jars.
- Hummus with vegetables: Jarred or homemade hummus is delicious and healthy. Virtually any type of raw vegetable makes for a great sidecar, as does whole-wheat pita bread.
- Turkey meatballs: Yes, you read that right! If you’re whipping up a batch of meatballs and marinara for a healthy weeknight dinner, make some extra to double as lunch for your kids. Heat it up in the morning and toss in a thermos — your kids will thank you come lunchtime!
- Soup: Same goes for soup — heat it up in the morning and pack in a thermos.
- Lunch wraps: Turkey, tuna salad, egg salad: All can be wrapped in a whole-grain tortilla or lettuce leaves with some shredded carrots and diced cucumber for a delicious, refreshing lunch.
- Bento boxes: Invest in a few meal-prep containers with different compartments and fill with a selection of fruit, vegetables, protein and whole grains and let your kids build their own lunches.
- Whole-grain waffle sandwich: Whole-grain waffles make for a healthy, filling lunch. Try spreading them with a small amount of nut butter or diced fresh fruit — delicious!
- Low-fat cottage cheese with chopped vegetables or fruit. Filling and oh-so-yummy!
As bittersweet as it can be to watch the days turn shorter and the school year approach, this transition can also be an opportunity to make a tune-up to eating habits that may have slipped during the more laid-back days of summer. We hope you use these tips to get back on track to healthy eating for your entire family — lunch included!
Too busy to plan, prep and cook? Contact Jenny Craig today to find out how our meal-delivery service can help you reach your weight-loss and health goals without adding more to your to-do list!
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
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