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Fueling Young Minds With Healthy Sack Lunches

NHA Communications Team  |  September 07, 2023
It’s the time of day when students catch up with their friends and fuel up for an afternoon of learning. We’re talking about lunchtime! Some scholars look forward to what’s served in the cafeteria each day, while others prefer to bring their lunch from home.

Tara Nichols is an Executive Chef with Southwest Foodservice Excellence, in partnership with National Heritage Academies (NHA) school lunch programs. She wants to make sure students who bring a sack lunch have a balanced and nutritious meal to help them stay energized and focused throughout the day. 

"In our regular school lunch program, we follow a meal pattern that incorporates five components: protein, dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables,” she said. “The more of these elements we can include, the better."

She went on to explain how these food groups provide essential nutrients to feed growing minds and bodies. "Whole grains, lean meats like boiled eggs and grilled chicken, and plenty of fruits and vegetables are fantastic options. They offer sustained energy and essential vitamins."

For picky eaters, Nichols shared several recommendations for parents.

"Getting them involved is key,” she said. “Take them grocery shopping and let them choose fruits and veggies. You can even use cookie cutters to create fun shapes."

She said there are also easy ways to dress up vegetables they don’t like. “I stay away from ranch and sugary dips as much as I can, but things like hummus or Greek yogurt are healthy dip options kids really do enjoy.” She said older children can be part of the process by helping wash and cut up the fruits and vegetables. Nichols added, “It’s a great way to get students involved and help with food prep for the week.”

Instead of processed snacks and sugary treats, Nichols advocates for healthier choices to help kids stay energized. “Popcorn, preferably low-sodium, and dark chocolate are great options. Trail mixes and dried fruits satisfy sugar cravings without the crash. Most things are going to have natural sugar in them and that's OK. Stay away from those with added sugar.”

When it comes to food safety, Nichols shared this recommendation for parents, "You have about a four-hour window between packing and consumption. To maintain the cold chain, use ice blocks or gel packs in the lunchbox. While it won't keep everything cold all day, it’s enough time to avoid any risks."

Hydration is crucial, too. Nichols suggests refillable water bottles and flavoring options. "Water bottle stations in schools are helpful. You can also use flavor packets to make water more appealing."

Nichols’ final piece of advice for parents is to be patient. “Don’t take away all of the good stuff at once. Make gradual changes to lunch choices, involve kids in the process, and give them time to adapt. If they don't like something keep trying, tastes change over time."

If you’re looking to take your next sack lunch up a few notches, here are some creative and nutritious options.

Thanks, Tara for helping give students a healthy start to the school year!

About National Heritage Academies:
National Heritage Academies (NHA) is a network of 100 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit

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