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These Healthy School Lunch Ideas Are Good for Kids—and the Planet

Small changes to school lunches can turn kids on to the joys of healthy food while making a positive impact on the environment.

3 min read

Nearly 100,000 schools or learning institutions serve lunch to 29.6 million students each day, according to the School Nutrition Association(Opens in a new window). Unfortunately, many of these meals fall short of government nutrition standards. Foods such as pizza, chicken nuggets and pasta lack nutritional value and solidify the notion that unprocessed fare like vegetables and fruits are for adults. 
 
The result? School meals aren’t as fresh or healthy as they could be. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association(Opens in a new window), 67% of kids’ calories come from processed foods and other research shows most kids consume enough sugary drinks annually to fill a 30-gallon bathtub(Opens in a new window). It’s no surprise then, that childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing: per the American Academy of Pediatrics(Opens in a new window), 14.4 million children between the ages of 10 and 17 are overweight.
 
“Kids today are up against a lot,” says Nora LaTorre, CEO of Eat Real(Opens in a new window), a California-based non-profit that helps school food leaders transition their menus to real, nutritious and delicious local ingredients. “They’re inundated with the availability of ultra-processed food and disconnected from the food system.”

fruit and healthy school meals being handed out

Improving Kids’ Food Options

It doesn’t have to be this way. Eat Real, an OXO partner via our 1% for the Planet initiative, offers a certification program that provides school food leaders with the framework and support they need to transition their menus, including connecting them with local farmers and producers to source healthier ingredients, like strawberries from the Mississippi delta. 
 
The menus that come out of the program are mouth-watering. Some surprise hits include cauliflower tikka masala and Korean barbecue tacos. “Kids light up over these options,” LaTorre says. “And parents seeking lunch ideas are asking for the recipes so that they can cook them at home, too. That’s what progress looks like.”

Eat Real also works with educators to teach kids about meal planning, gardening, and knife skills so they can pursue healthy options outside of school. Their free newsletter(Opens in a new window) offers parents useful nutritional information and recipes for sustainable food choices, so real food makes it to the plate at home, too. “Kids are showing us that they want it and like it,” says LaTorre. “Families deserve it—and it’s a way to heal our planet.”

women in front of healthy vegetables at a school

Interested in trying some of the kid-approved school lunches from Eat Real-certified districts? Check out these simple recipes.

Mediterranean Hummus Wrap With Feta

Recipe adapted from: Morgan Hill Unified School District, Morgan Hill, CA

Directions:

1.
Toss together veggies with dressing in a large mixing bowl.
2.
Warm tortillas on the stove.
3.
Lay each tortilla flat, spread with equal amounts hummus and scoop veggie mixture onto the middle of the tortilla. Sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese.
4.
Wrap tortillas and serve.

 

healthy burger with a salad and fruit

 

Recipe adapted from: Walnut Creek Unified School District, Walnut Creek, CA

Directions:

1.
Drain pineapple chunks.
2.
Shred cabbage and carrots.
3.
Mix cabbage, carrots and pineapple chunks together.
4.
In a separate bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients for the dressing.
5.
Toss cabbage, carrot and pineapples with the dressing.
healthy meal in bowl with rice

Black Bean Sweet Potato Chimichurri Bowl

Recipe adapted from: San Luis Coastal Unified School District, San Luis Obispo, CA

Directions:

1.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2.
Place diced sweet potatoes, peppers and onion in a bowl. Add oil and black pepper and toss to combine.
3.
Line a baking pan with parchment paper and spread veggie mixture onto the pan.
4.
Bake for 20 minutes or until sweet potatoes are crisp and cooked through.
5.
While veggies are cooking, combine black beans, water cumin and garlic powder in a saucepan. Simmer on low until ready to serve.
6.
For the sauce, combine all sauce ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add additional oil as needed. Heat in a small saucepan over medium heat and keep warm until ready to serve.
7.
For each meal, portion 1 cup cilantro lime rice into a single-serving bowl and top with ½ cup beans and ½ cup sweet potato/onion mixture. Spoon on 2 oz of chimichurri sauce and serve.

 

For more delicious dishes kids will love at home or at school, try these packable, on-the-go lunches.

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