Healthy school lunches give your teen energy for the day and provide the nutrients needed to build muscle, organs and strong bones, according the John Muir Health Centers. Nutritious lunches must meet individual teen health needs, but the food should also offer variety to keep the daily meal interesting. This means buying or packing a range of healthy, but different, foods and a few nutritional snacks for noshing on the run.
The General Menu
Healthy teen meals, according to the Weight-control Information Network, feature fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats, fish, beans, nuts, eggs, poultry and whole-grains. Whole grain lunch options include whole-wheat breads, wild rice and wheat pastas. Teens also need fat-free or low-fat dairy for lunch every day, including milk and yogurt. Avoid items with saturated and trans fats, limit salt and keep foods with added sugars from your teen's lunch menu. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases also recommends restricting teen lunches to foods with no or low cholesterol.
Teens need foods with iron for development, growth and blood health, and lunches featuring beans, whole grains and fish supply these needs. Teens also need calcium, vitamins A, K and C and zinc for development and a healthy immune system, according to Nemours TeensHealth. Fruit, vegetables and low- or non-fat dairy lunch items provide the daily requirements for this development. Teenagers also need small amounts of fats and oils, and fish, nuts, salad dressings and cooking oils generally supply these daily necessities. The USDA recommends that teens receive protein from lunches that include beans, seeds, nuts, meat, peas, eggs, processed soy products and poultry.
Ideal lunch portions depend on the height and weight of the teen diner, but most teenagers need a cup of fruit and veggies during lunch and a cup of calcium-rich food such as low-fat or fat-free yogurt, soy or cheese. Teen lunches should also supply protein such as a choice of two eggs, two ounces of lean meat, fish or poultry, two tablespoons of peanut butter or an once of nuts. Whole-grain pasta, brown rice and whole-grain breakfast cereals in servings between one and two cups give the necessary nutrients and help teens feel full during the school day. The USDA also recommends teens eat between five and six teaspoons of oils each day.
Variations and Interest
Interesting lunches feature foods your teen enjoys. A variety and mix of healthy foods prepared in interesting ways makes lunch an adventure for your teen. Fish tacos, cold and warm soups, peanut butter on whole-grain tortillas and a variety of vegetables mixed into salad greens offer healthy noontime lunch ingredients without major preparation.
Many schools allow only a 30-minute lunch break and that includes waiting in line to buy food, dining time and minutes to clean up. Small nutritional snacks allow your teen time to eat while walking to the lunchroom or heading to class at the end of the lunch break. These snacks help make sure your child receives the necessary nutrients for the day. The National Diabetes Education Program recommends rice cakes, berries, almonds, whole-grain cereal, pretzels and air-popped popcorn as small snacks to eat on the go during the school day.
- KidsHealth: School Lunches
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: State Laws Governing School Meals and Disparities in Fruit/Vegetable Intake
- Akron Children's Hospital: Healthy School Lunch Planner
- USDA Food and Nutrition Service: School Lunches Get a Makeover
- Newfoundland Labrador Canada Department of Health and Community Services: Supporting School Food Guidelines -- Information for Parents and Caregivers
- KidsHealth: Healthy School Lunch Choices
- TeensHealth: What Is a Healthy Lunch -- Can I Bring From Home?
- NIDDK Weight-control Information Network: A Guide for Teenagers! Take Charge of Your Health
- University of Florida Family, Youth and Community Sciences: Using My Plate in Your Life -- Teens
- National Diabetes Education Program: Ten Snacks for Teens
- TeensHealth: 5 Reasons To Pack Your Lunch
- TeensHealth: Vitamins and Minerals
- U.S. Department of Agriculture ChooseMyPlate.gov: Oils -- How Much Is My Allowance for Oils?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture ChooseMyPlate.gov: Protein Foods -- What Foods Are in the Protein Food Group?
- John Muir Health: Nutrition for Teens
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