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Back-to-School Nutrition Tips to Nourish Growing Bodies & Minds

With changing routines and managing extracurriculars, back-to-school can be a busy time. However, nutrition doesn’t have to fall by the wayside! A little planning and meal preparation can go a long way.

Back-to-School Nutrition Tips to Nourish Growing Bodies & Minds

Back-to-school time can be stressful for many individuals and families. The amount of obligations tend to increase, making schedules more complicated. 

Luckily, many nutritious meals and healthy snacks can be prepared in minutes! Keep reading to discover the best back-to-school nutrition tips, including tips for balanced breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. 

Importance of Back-to-School Nutrition

It’s not uncommon for children to spend most of their waking hours in school. In fact, studies estimate that nearly 20% of a child's day is spent in school, an activity only exceeded by hours spent sleeping. Depending on a child’s age, many hours are also spent doing homework, reading, and other educational activities. 

Since so much of a child’s time is spent participating in school or related activities, it follows that nutrition during this period is also key. Children can consume as many as half of their calories during the school day, so optimizing nutrition during breakfast and lunch is imperative. Since childhood and early adulthood are important periods of development, thoughtful meal planning during school years can have a positive impact. 

 Adequate nutrition can help to improve a student’s learning experience, from concentration in school tasks to coordination in athletic endeavors. Improved cognition, sharper focus, and an increased likelihood of meeting milestones are just a few of the other benefits linked to nutritious meals.

Whether a child is in kindergarten or college, research suggests that healthy eating is also linked to: 

•Academic achievement and performance
•Higher grades 
•Increased attendance and reduced absenteeism 

Begin with a Balanced Breakfast

Studies show that students with higher grades eat breakfast each day of the week instead of skipping their morning meal. Eating breakfast regularly—either at home or from school programs—has also been associated: 

•Higher test scores 
•Improved memory 
•Improved mood and behavior 
•Increased alertness and energy levels 
•Maintaining a healthy weight

A common barrier for many parents and students who skip breakfast is a busy morning routine. Waking up just 15 or 20 minutes earlier than you usually do can ensure you have enough time to eat and enjoy a nutritious breakfast. 

If a balanced breakfast feels unattainable financially, a school breakfast program may be available at your child’s institution. You may be eligible for free meals or meals at a reduced price. School breakfasts that are part of these programs must meet national dietary guidelines, so you can rest assured that your child is getting the nutrients they need at the start of the day. 

Searching for easy and healthy breakfast for rushed mornings this school year? Try incorporating these options into your morning meal: 

Beverages: water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, fat-free or low-fat milk, or smoothie 

Entrees: whole grain cereal with banana slices, homemade “Egg McMuffin” (made with whole wheat English muffin), parfait with fresh fruits and whole-grain granola, instant oatmeal with nuts and berries, overnight oats, breakfast burrito with whole-grain tortilla

On the side: fruit or fruit medley, eggs (scrambled, hard-boiled, or fried), whole wheat toast with nut butter, low-fat or fat-free yogurt 


Lunch is more than just a midday meal. It’s crucial for keeping kids feeling full and beating the mid-afternoon slump. Plus, it can help keep students attentive and athletes active, especially for those with after-school extracurriculars. Providing plenty of protein, fiber, and healthy fats can help kids to feel full until the end of the school day. 

Instead of leaving lunch-packing until the morning rush, try packing them the night before. Don’t forget food safety either! Keep cold foods cold with an ice pack and hot foods hot with a thermos. 

Feeling uninspired? Lunch boxes with compartments—like bento boxes—can help you quickly and easily create a well-balanced midday meal with the following components: 

Beverages: water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, or fat-free or low-fat milk 

Entrees: tuna salad sandwich (on whole grain bread), chickpea pasta salad, a classic PB&J (on whole wheat bread) 

On the side: fresh fruit salad or vegetable medley, no sugar added applesauce, hard-boiled egg, whole wheat crackers and hummus, cheese cubes or sticks, celery sticks and carrots with homemade ranch

Both packed lunches and school lunches can be nourishing and nutritious. Interestingly, school breakfast programs were modeled after school lunch programs. Both use a similar framework for providing growing children and teens with the nutrients they need. 

Families in financial need may be able to have the cost of a school lunch reduced or completely covered altogether.

Pack a Snack

A healthy snack is crucial to keeping the energy up between meals. Many school staff members are beginning to see the value of snacks, too, with an increasing number of teachers and school policymakers allowing for snacks in the classroom when safe and possible for students. 

From well-balanced bites during passing periods to fueling after-school snacks for extracurricular activities (like sports), there are many healthy options available. Here are some options packed with protein, healthy fats, and fiber to keep kids (and even parents) feeling full: 

•Apples and peanut butter
•Cheese and whole-grain crackers 
•Energy bites 
•Granola bar 
•Hummus and veggies 
•Trail mixes
•Unsweetened dried fruit 

Snacks with sugar (such as snack cakes or chips) may seem tempting but aren’t very nutritious. Plus, they’ll only provide a temporary burst of energy instead of the energy-sustaining students over a few hours. 

In general, look for snacks with low amounts of: 

•Added salt (sodium) 
•Added sugar (as very few grams of sugar as possible)
•Saturated fat

Hydration Needs & Tips

In addition to a balanced breakfast and lunch, providing plenty of hydrating fluids throughout the day can help your child feel energized and focused. It may be most natural for students to consume a bottle of water with each meal to make progress toward their hydration goals. 

Don’t forget that other nourishing liquids, such as no sugar added 100% juice, low-fat milk, or bone broth also count towards hydration levels. As with snacks, you’ll want to steer clear of sugar when possible (such as in sugary beverages). 

Student Mealtime Involvement

If you’re feeling overwhelmed already, remember you’re not alone! Involving friends, family, and teachers on this journey can create a team that will ensure your child’s nutrition needs are being met. 

Invite the whole family to get invested in the process. Take kids along grocery shopping and teach them how to look for healthy choices. If you’re a mom, ask your other family members to prepare dinner with you in age-appropriate ways. 

Especially for students with allergies, children must be involved in the preparation process. For example, if your child is lactose intolerant, take them shopping with you and teach them how to identify nutrient-rich dairy alternatives safely. 

Other Back-to-School Nutrition Tips

Looking for other tips and tricks to support school-day nutrition? Try the following habits and practices to make mealtimes easier. 

Look for Ways to Save

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. Keep an eye on ads, promotions, and coupons, especially around the beginning of the school year. Another way to lower your grocery bill is to seek fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are in season. 

Although shopping in bulk can be appealing, compare serving sizes and prices to buy the smallest amount that will meet your needs. You can also consider buying generic brands instead of name brands as long as they meet your nutrition needs. 

As mentioned above, your child may also be eligible for school nutrition assistance programs. It may be easier than you think to apply for free or reduced-price school meals

Cook in Batches 

Preparing meals and ingredients on days that aren’t as busy, such as weekends, may make sense for your family and decrease school day stress. For example, cooking a big batch of instant pot brown rice once a week can create a high-quality carbohydrate option suitable for everything from breakfast porridges to lunchtime sides to dinner stir-fries. 

While it may require some out-of-the-box meal planning initially, try and select food items that can be used all week long across multiple meals. 

Eat Dinner as a Family 

Even though dinner isn’t mentioned much here, it’s another important meal. It’s a great opportunity to teach manners, and studies have shown that family meals are associated with better overall diet quality. 

With busy weekdays, family dinners are opportunities for both connection and nourishment. 

Try Mindful Eating 

If your schedule is already incredibly busy, planning meals and snacks for everyone in the family can feel like a chore. Instead, extend those you are responsible for feeding an invitation to learn about mindful eating practices

These habits can help even little ones identify body cues—like when they are feeling hungry and when they are feeling full.

The Bottom Line on Back-to-School Nutrition

Instead of making morning and midday meals an afterthought, carefully plan your child’s meals. Nourishing foods, especially those with healthy fats, fiber, and protein, can help keep your kids fueled and ready-to-learn—even into the afternoon during extracurriculars. 

If you’re short on time or money, consider methods like batch cooking, couponing, or discounted school meal programs. 


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