Nutrition Tips for Back to School

As students go back to school all over the country, parents or caregivers everywhere may be thinking about back-to-school nutrition! Here are some tips to stay healthy and prepared during the busy school year:

Balanced Breakfast:

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”; this phrase has been commonly used in society to stress the significance of breakfast time for years. While proper and balanced nutrition is important throughout the day, studies have found that breakfast is indeed associated with better health outcomes.

One study found that eating breakfast was associated with positive outcomes for diet quality, micronutrient intake, weight status, and lifestyle factors. Furthermore, breakfast has been suggested to positively affect learning in children in terms of behavior, cognitive, and school performance1.

One systematic review found that eating breakfast studies showed positive and conclusive effects on cognitive performance, academic achievement, quality of life, well-being and on morbidity risk factors2.

However, one research study did find that eating breakfast in general was not enough. Students who ate breakfast that was poor or very poor in nutrition had lower quality of life and higher levels of stress and depression than students that skipped breakfast. These findings indicate the importance of eating a good quality breakfast, rather than just having or not having breakfast3

Lastly, one study found that in primary school, students who eat breakfast every day in a week scored 31.322 points higher in academic performance than those who did not4. In middle school, students who ate breakfast on time every day had significantly better academic performance (31.335 points higher) than those who did not eat breakfast every day4. This indicates that eating breakfast every day has a significant effect on the cognitive development of students4.

Breakfast essentials: It is important to balance your child’s breakfast with a protein and carbohydrate for long lasting fullness and energy. For healthy breakfasts, stock these grocery items in your home:

  • Eggs for omelettes, hard boiled eggs, sous-vide eggs, or egg muffins
  • Fruit (berries, melon, pineapple, kiwi) the more variety the better!
  • Low-fat milk, whole grain cereal. Try finding a cereal with protein (Kashi, Special K). Using dairy milk or soy milk will also add protein to breakfast time.
  • Low-fat Greek yogurt. Try finding low sugar options and place fruit on top for added sweetness.
  • Whole grain breads for toast with peanut butter or no sugar added jams

Lunch Time Tips:

As students go back to school, many parents are left with the decision to either pack their child a lunch or to give them money to buy their lunch at school. Both are viable to ensure your child is getting the nutrition they need.

While packing a lunch can give you more control on the nutrition your child receives, one study showed that lunches packed from home compared unfavorably to National School Lunch Program Guidelines5. Therefore, indicating the importance for parents to seek resources on how to create a balanced lunch when packing.

Here are some tips to get you started!

  • Pack lunches the night before: Mornings before your child goes off to school can often be hectic. Many parents may not have time to cook or create a balanced lunch in the morning. Packing lunches at night allows enough time to construct a healthy meal. Also, packing lunches the night before, allows more time to make a balanced breakfast in the morning!
  • Prep veggies on Sunday night: Prepping vegetables and placing them in individual Ziplock bags or tubber ware can make the nightly process of packing a lunch that much easier. Kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they are already cut up and easy to eat!
    • Vegetable options include: sliced bell pepper, carrot sticks, celery sticks, broccoli, sliced cherry tomatoes, and sliced cucumber.
  • Create a lunch menu: Write down a full list of fruit, vegetables, and main dishes that your child likes. After creating this list, you can use this each week to pick what “lunch of the week” you would like to serve! This will also make grocery shopping for lunch supplies more convenient.
  • Balanced Meals: Try to include a whole grain (e.g., whole-grain bread, pita, tortilla, or crackers), a calcium food (spinach, yogurt, kiwi, chia seeds), a protein (e.g., lean lunch meat, tuna, peanut butter, or beans), and fruits and vegetables (canned, fresh or frozen).
    • Confirming that these components are part of your child’s lunch will ensure adequate energy, fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals throughout their day.
  • Calorie Guidelines: While it is not necessary to count or track your child’s calories, knowing how many calories should go into their lunch may provide a good starting point to creating a lunch.
    • Kindergarten through fifth grade consume no more than 550–650 calories during lunch; students in sixth through eighth grades consume no more than 600–700 calories; and students in ninth through twelfth grades consume no more than 750–850 calories6.
  • Add variety: Choosing a wide variety of foods with different colors allows your child to eat a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Also, adding variety to meals will keep your child engaged in lunch time.
    • Try wraps, cracker sandwiches, little salads or bread-free sandwiches consisting of slices of lunch meat wrapped around cheese sticks for main entrees.
    • For fruit options try: fruit salad, no sugar added fruit cups, raisins, seasonal applesauce, sliced grapes, sliced apple and peanut butter.
    • Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches and cucumber slices into fun shapes!

Snack time:

When kids come home from school after a long day of learning, often they are hungry for a snack! This is a good opportunity to fuel their minds and body with nutrition.

A balanced snack includes both a carbohydrate source and a protein source. The carbohydrate source, like whole grain breads or fruits, provides quick energy to refuel. Adding a protein source helps to maintain fullness and provides long-term energy. Keeping snacks under 200 calories can help to prevent excess calories and fullness between balanced mealtimes.

Try creating a snack zone in the pantry and fridge with available healthy snack options. This way your kid knows what foods are available to eat for a balanced snack.

Tasty Healthy Snack Ideas

  • Plain full-fat Greek yogurt + blueberries or cut strawberries
  • Celery + Peanut butter
  • Apples + Peanut butter (or any other nut butter)
  • Almonds + Cheese
  • Cottage cheese + Pineapple
  • Hummus + bell pepper or hummus + whole grain or carrot sticks + hummus
  • Hardboiled eggs + whole wheat crackers
  • Turkey roll-up with avocado
  • Tuna Salad with celery + Crackers
  • Protein bites – made with oats, peanut butter, and honey

Main Takeaways

While the back-to-school season can be busy and overwhelming, having nutritious foods at home and in packed lunches can set up your favorite student for success! The key to having nutrient dense meals is gathering resources and preparing. Having nutritious meals on hand increases the likelihood of choosing healthier options for both snacks and meals.


  1. Adolphus K, Lawton CL, Dye L. The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013;7:425. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00425
  2. Lundqvist M, Vogel NE, Levin L-Å. Effects of eating breakfast on children and adolescents: A systematic review of potentially relevant outcomes in economic evaluations. Food Nutr Res. 2019;63. doi:10.29219/fnr.v63.1618
  3. Ferrer-Cascales R, Sánchez-SanSegundo M, Ruiz-Robledillo N, Albaladejo-Blázquez N, Laguna-Pérez A, Zaragoza-Martí A. Eat or Skip Breakfast? The Important Role of Breakfast Quality for Health-Related Quality of Life, Stress and Depression in Spanish Adolescents. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(8):E1781. doi:10.3390/ijerph15081781
  4. Yao J, Liu Y, Zhou S. Effect of Eating Breakfast on Cognitive Development of Elementary and Middle School Students: An Empirical Study Using Large-Scale Provincial Survey Data. Med Sci Monit Int Med J Exp Clin Res. 2019;25:8843-8853. doi:10.12659/MSM.920459
  5. Caruso ML, Cullen KW. Quality and Cost of Student Lunches Brought From Home. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(1):86-90. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.2220
  6. Healthy, Stress-free Packed Lunches for School Start With Planning and Preparation | Chow Line. Accessed August 31, 2021.


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