No Cooking Required: Healthy School Lunch and After-School Snack Ideas

By: Marie Williams

Sending kids back to school requires preparation and planning, but on those busy mornings when you’re running late, it can be tempting to send the kids off with packaged, processed, less-than-healthy lunch options. Start planning and shopping for healthy lunches and after-school snacks now, not after your snooze alarm sounds! Read More >

I admit it. I have knowingly given my daughter less than healthy snacks on occasion; and unfortunately, there are far too many out there to choose from – salty or sweet treats in colorful packaging that make pleasant crackling noises as you munch them, or those that come in vacuum-sealed canisters that seem to breathe a satisfied sigh when you pop open the lid. But if you have made a commitment not to entertain your child with food, but rather, use it to fuel her healthy development, here are a few tips and time-saving snack ideas I can stand behind (from trial, and plenty of error).


  • Chose snacks that are easily modified, depending on your child’s taste. (See my suggestions below.)
  • Weigh your choices heavily in the direction of fresh fruit, vegetables, and foods that are not heavily processed. *This will reduce the hassle of trying to decipher lengthy, complex nutritional information labels.

  • Consider: How much is too much? *A 2001 study in the Journal of Pediatrics found that not only the types, but also the frequency of snacks children now consume contributes to the growing national trend toward childhood obesity.

School-age children should consume between 1600 – 2500 calories a day, but bear in mind that all calories are not created equal.


1. Yogurt. This is a perennial favorite for kids and can substitute for other, less healthful dairy choices. But buyer beware! For almost a year, I served my daughter yogurt that came in a cute mini-sized tub, decorated with one of her favorite characters from television. Then, while watching a segment on the evening news, I learned that my particular “healthy option” had more than twice the recommended daily intake of sugar. The solution? Buy plain yogurt and add the fresh fruit of your choice when serving. And as I learned the hard way, better to read the nutritional information than to depend on the brand name to tell you whether your choice is, in fact, a healthy one. As a rule, you should aim for no more than 5 grams of sugar per 1-ounce serving.

2. Hummus. If you’re not familiar with this exotic-sounding food, hummus is a paste made from chickpeas, olive oil, lemon and sometimes sesame seeds and garlic. It is a good source of folic acid and protein, and if it contains garlic, antioxidants as well. I substituted cheesy dips with hummus in my own diet and found that my three-year old will happily gobble it up with toasted whole grain pita chips. Throw in celery and carrot sticks along with the pita chips, arranged nicely on a brightly-colored dish, and you have a good shot at those being eaten as well.

3. Baked sweet potato chips. It’s hard to deny the allure of crunchy snacks for children and adults alike. The problem is that most tend to have way too much sodium and a significant dollop of saturated fat as well. Baked sweet potato chips satisfy the need for crunch, and if lightly salted, have a pleasant salty-sweet flavor that will have your kid turning down traditional chip options in no time. While white potatoes are of negligible nutritional value, sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamins A, C, and B6. So, even if this change is scarcely noticed by your child, it will make a difference to their nutrition.

4. Fresh fruit and vegetable smoothies. Particularly in the summertime, it’s easy to drink way too many empty calories in sodas or fruit flavored drinks, and we parents are loath to deny our children hydration of any kind, especially if they spend hours outside in the sun. Smoothies are a great choice because they are filling enough to double as a snack or lunch, can provide much of the fiber missing from processed fruit juices, and are a convenient camouflage for many of the veggies your child may balk at eating whole. I give my daughter smoothies that contain at least one fruit I know she likes with another she is less enthusiastic about, crushed ice, a tablespoon of honey, a splash of lemon juice, and one hidden element, which may be ginger, or even vegetable juice. She never knows the difference. Smoothies are however, high in calories and are not appropriate as a beverage accompanying a full meal. For pure hydration, water is always best.

5. Cheese. One piece of low-fat, low-moisture string cheese contains no sugars, provides 20 percent RDI (recommended daily intake) of calcium, and is filling enough to serve as an in-between meal snack. To make it more appealing to my finicky three-year-old, I sometimes slice it into small, dime-sized discs and melt them on a slice of oat grain bread. Altogether, this snack is less than 200 calories, 5 grams of fat, and provides her with healthy carbohydrates.

6. Wraps. Like smoothies, wraps present an opportunity for you to feed your child some of the healthier foods that she would refuse under normal circumstances. A whole grain tortilla with low-fat cheese and deli-style turkey can be supplemented with minced tomato or pico de gallo (store-bought salsas often have added salt) and shredded lettuce. Even without the mayo, my daughter eats this snack without hesitation.

Finally, because kids of all ages are more apt to eat a meal if they help prepare it, consider one of the following short, medium and longer term activities:

• For Today: Make a Pizza! Problem: One the most loved but maligned of all American foods is pizza. If it’s bought from a fast food outlet or the frozen foods section of the grocery store, it is likely to be loaded with fat and sodium. Remedy: Make your own! Choose fresh, healthful ingredients like whole grain crusts and low-fat cheese. Kids of all ages will enjoy helping you layer the sauce, cheese, and toppings. They’ll also learn how easy it is to make positive choices about what to put into their bodies.

• For Six Months from Today: Freeze Fruit! Slice your child’s favorite fruit and use skewers to spear and freeze them as frozen fruit kebabs. Bananas can be peeled and frozen whole, as can grapes and strawberries. Particularly in the summer time, almost everything tastes better frozen.

• For Next Year: Grow It! Cherry tomatoes take between 45 and 60 days to grow, and will thrive just as easily on a well-lit window sill as in a sunny garden. Herbs like basil can take up to three months. No matter the age of your child, they will be exponentially more enthusiastic about including vegetables in a meal if they helped grow them. Bonus: they’ll also learn that the term “whole foods” doesn’t only refer to a grocery store chain.


1. United States Department of Agriculture. Choose my Plate.

2. Center for Science in the Public Interest.

3. Leadership for Healthy Communities: “Grow a Windowsill Herb Garden.”

4. Image via Lindaaslund on Flick’r.

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I, too, was surprised to find how much sugar many top-brand yogurts contained, often in the form of the dreaded high fructose corn syrup. Love the shopping list!

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