USDA MyPlate: A Guide for Healthy Lunch Boxes

By Alejandra Santoyo UTSA Dietetic Intern

Revised by Celina Paras MSc, RDN, LD

School is back in session! Which means it’s time to go back to our daily routines of waking up early, preparing a healthy breakfast and lunch for the kids, while somehow still being able to catch the school bus on time. Back to school season can get hectic but by planning ahead, you can gain some precious time back to your morning routine. Check out our timesaving tips on creating healthy and balanced lunch boxes for your family.

USDA MyPlate

MyPlate is a useful tool developed by the USDA that provides a framework for what your plate should look like at each meal. Using MyPlate as a guide can help make sure you are incorporating all food groups into your child’s lunchbox. Make sure to fill your child’s lunch box with a serving of each of the following:

  • Lean proteins such as chicken, deli meats, ground beef, or beans.
  • Whole grains such as whole wheat bread, crackers, pasta, or brown rice.
  • A small, fresh piece of fruit, a serving of fruit juice, or a snack container of fruit.
  • Colorful vegetables cut up into bite-sized pieces.
  • A serving of low-fat dairy, such as reduced fat-cheese, low-fat milk or yogurt.
  • A serving of healthy fats, such as mixed nuts, guacamole, hummus, or nut butter.

Here are some lunch box ideas that include each of the MyPlate food groups:

  • Deli ham or turkey slices with cheddar cheese cubes, whole grain crackers, sliced cherry tomatoes, apple slices, and low-fat yogurt
  • A peanut butter and banana sandwich served on whole grain bread with celery sticks, fresh strawberries, and low-fat milk
  • Whole wheat pasta with turkey meatballs topped with marinara sauce and parmesan cheese with a side of carrot sticks, green grapes, and low-fat milk
  • Cheddar cheese quesadillas on whole wheat tortilla with a side of bell pepper sticks, guacamole, mixed berries, and low-fat string cheese  

Helpful Tips

Make packing lunch even easier by meal planning. Choose one day a week (we recommend a Sunday) where you can wash, cut, and portion out the ingredients for that week’s lunches. If you’re in a major time crunch, instead you can check out your local grocery store and purchase pre-washed, pre-cut fruits and vegetables, pre-portioned packs of peanut butter, guacamole, nuts, and string cheese, yogurt, and pre-cooked proteins. There are tons of pre-packaged options at designed to make your life both easy and delicious!

Once packed, store your child’s lunch box in the fridge with the lid open so cold air can circulate through the lunch box. Use an insulated lunch box and two freezer packs to make sure all perishable food items stay cold and to avoid the possibility of foodborne illness. If packing a hot soup or stew, fill an insulated container with boiling water for a few minutes, drain water, and fill with the hot food item. Keep the container closed until lunch time to maintain hot temperature.

Ask for a Helping Hand

Allowing children to take an active role in preparing their lunch increases the likelihood that they will consume what you’ve packed for them. Give your child the liberty to choose the some of the components of his or her lunch box. Plan ahead for the week with your child to make sure all desired foods are readily available at home.