7 Tips for Packing a Balanced Lunch for Your Tween

Enjoying a sandwich during recess
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You send your child off to school to get an education, and nutrient-packed lunches they enjoy can help them succeed. Middle school can be an especially demanding time for students. In addition to all the rigors of academia, many tweens are going through the increased energy demands of puberty, navigating more decisions on their own, experiencing emotional ups and downs, and going through a slew of other changes.

But a packed lunch–especially one that is balanced–can give your child the fuel they need to power through the day as well as help them create habits that can last them into high school, college, and beyond. A lunch packed with nutritional balance in mind can help provide steady energy for the rest of the afternoon. These seven tips will teach you how to pack a balanced lunch that your tween will actually want to eat.

The Makings of a Balanced Lunch

  1. Keep the temperature in mind. Any lunch you pack will have to maintain the proper temperature so that food poisoning doesn't become a risk. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Take advantage of any sales to stock up on ice packs and at least two thermoses. Make sure your tween understands that these items should return home after use so they don't accidentally end up in the cafeteria trash can.
  2. Flavor their water. Getting tweens into the habit of relying on water as their go-to beverage most of the time can help solidify this habit moving forward. Adding things like sliced fruit and/or herbs can be a fun way to add flavor to water. Fresh min and cucumber, orange and apple, or lemon and lime are all fun options.
  3. Think fruit. A piece of fruit in your child's lunch is a great way to add color, flavor, and texture along with nutrition. Grapes, berries, apples, oranges, and bananas pack well in a lunch tote. For optimal flavor, choose fruits that are in season. Also, ask your tween how they prefer to eat fruit (and maybe even engage their help). For example, they might love apple slices with a yogurt-cinnamon-maple syrup dipping sauce.
  4. Include veggies. If your tween is still exploring vegetables, start with the ones they're most comfortable with. As you experiment, engage their input. They may enjoy helping with the preparation and they also may offer up some ways they do or do not like specific veggies. Consider packing vegetables that can be dipped in ranch dressing, like carrots, celery, radishes, cucumber, cauliflower, and broccoli, or celery and carrots and a container of nut butter. You could also pack a salad complete with plenty of veggies, diced turkey, and a favorite dressing, or incorporate vegetables into a favorite dish like a pasta salad full of veggies, cheese, and diced meat.
  5. Don't neglect your leftovers. Last night's dinner could be today's lunch. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, soup, homemade chili or any other meal that packs well is sure to keep your child nourished until dinnertime.
  6. Don't forget about calcium. Growing tweens need calcium to build up their bones. If your child is a milk drinker, send along a cold carton of milk. For tweens who don't like milk or are lactose intolerant, consider a calcium-enriched substitute or lactose-free milk. Fortified rice milk, almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk can provide your child with the essential nutrition they need. And if your child isn't a milk drinker, yogurt and cheese slices/sicks are other great options.
  7. Offer dessert as part of lunch. Offering up dessert as part of a tween's lunch helps to level the playing field when it comes to foods—they are all morally equal. With so much diet-culture messaging, especially during this age, it's important to build food trust for tweens. Allow them to practice eating what they enjoy as well as find a way of eating what makes them feel their best all while encouraging a healthful relationship with food and eating.

By Jennifer O'Donnell
Jennifer O'Donnell holds a BA in English and has training in specific areas regarding tweens, covering parenting for over 8 years.