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Healthier Lunchbox Options

happy little girl eating an apple from her lunch box

The American Cancer Society’s Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity recommends getting to and staying at a healthy weight, staying active throughout life, and following a healthy eating pattern. These efforts can greatly reduce a person's lifetime risk of developing or dying from cancer. These same behaviors are also linked with a lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

Throughout the United States, a new school year has either started or soon will start. You might be packing lunches as your kids head back to in-person classes. Or, due to local or state decisions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you might be planning and making lunch at your kitchen counter between online their class times. Either way, the new school year is the perfect time to work toward a healthy eating pattern by trying some healthier options in for their lunchtime meal – and yours, too.

Smarten up your sandwiches:

Keep the quick convenience of a sandwich and boost nutrition with a few easy changes.

  • Choose whole-grain or pita bread.
  • Choose low-fat versions of cheeses.
  • Top with mustard, relish, ketchup, or low-fat mayonnaise.
  • Add flavor and vitamins with roasted sweet peppers, lettuce, tomato, jalapeños, and olives.
  • Make a healthier PB&J using peanut or almond butter on whole-grain bread with banana slices or raisins.

Brighten up your salads:

Keep nutritious, fresh ingredients stocked to easily build a flavorful, healthy salad.

  • Choose a variety of fresh, colorful vegetables at their peak flavor, like dark green kale, red bell peppers, orange carrots, and red onions.
  • Experiment with parsley, garlic, oregano, basil, chives, rosemary, thyme, and other herbs; sprinkle them on your salad or add them to a simple vinaigrette made with olive oil.
  • Add variety to your salad with high-fiber, lower-calorie items like beans, raw vegetables, and fresh and dried fruit.
  • Skip fatty toppings like bacon, nuts, seeds, and dressing. If you do indulge, use only a little.

Rethink drinks and snacks:

Healthy snacks and drinks don't have to be boring. Look for these delicious options to help keep you and your kids satisfied.

  • Pack water, 100% juice, or plain low-fat or skim milk to drink. Flavored milks and juice drinks add sugar and calories.
  • Choose snacks that contain proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. For example, whole-wheat crackers with peanut butter or hummus.
  • Up your servings of vegetables and fruits with whole fruit or fruit slices, pepper strips, celery and carrot sticks, unsweetened apple sauce, or edamame (soy beans in the pod).
  • Try individual serving-size packages of low-fat, low-sugar yogurt (look for no more than 20 grams of sugar per 6 ounces; about 12 grams of that is naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products).
  • Satisfy those salty, crunchy cravings with a single-serving portion of tortilla chips and salsa, or trail mix made with cereals, nuts, pretzels, dried fruit, and raisins.

Think outside the (lunch) box:

Change up the lunch routine with these ideas and more.

  • Heat leftovers and pack in a thermos. Ideas include chili, spaghetti, stir-fry, soup, chicken, etc.
  • Fill a small container with high-fiber, low-sugar cereal. (Look for cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving). The kids can eat it with milk from school.
  • Smear whole-wheat tortillas with low-fat refried beans or black beans and rice.
  • Serve a pumpkin muffin or slice of zucchini bread with rolled-up slices of lean turkey and low-fat cheese cubes.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Get more healthy eating ideas, including how to stock a healthy kitchen, snacking tips, and delicious recipes.