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Color Your Lunch & Dinner: Ideas, Tips & Resources


Last post, I discussed how to Color Your Breakfast in celebration of March's National Nutrition Month theme, "Eat With Color."  This post will feature the other two meals of the day - lunch and dinner.


Lunch happens in a variety of places for most people – it could be at home, but many times it is in the school cafeteria, at your desk at work, at a restaurant with co-workers or clients or even in your car from one appointment to the next. Lunch is one of those meals that need to be easily navigated so you can get it done quick and onto your next task for the day. Here are some suggestions to make your lunches colorful regardless of where you are.

School Cafeteria

I am a big fan of empowering your child to make their own choices at lunch, which is a good training ground for the real world when they are older. Depending on where you are on what I call the Three E’s of Optimal Child Nutrition, this can be more difficult or easy. Print off the school menus each week and spend some time doing meal scenarios with your child. Most school districts are trying to improve the quality of their offerings and most have to comply to USDA nutritional standards if they participate in the Free and Reduced Breakfast and Lunch Programs. There are always at least 2 produce colors served with each meal – it’s a matter of selecting them. Encourage your children to participate in this fun Color Challenge so they can be even smarter and stronger!

If you choose to have your child to bring a lunch from home, I still encourage you to bring your child into the choice selection. Please note that I am not suggesting that you simply ask your child what they want – that is what we call short order cooking (or bagging in this scenario!). It should be an effort that you and your child do together. Provide your child two acceptable choices to choose from when it comes to food and you will be more successful with acceptance. Provide one item that they choose on their very own so they don’t feel too controlled. Be sure to review my blog post entitled School Lunch vs. Brown Bag: Obvious Choice? You will find many food suggestions there and also some below at the ideas below packed up for the kids.

Whenever possible, have your children be

part of the food production process!

Lunch At Or From Home

Lunches from home can be easy, quick and healthy. Here are some ideas from the Nutrient-Rich Foods Coalition that are even broken down by *calorie amounts:

200-300 Calories

Tuna on Toast: Mix 3 ounces water-packed tuna with 1-1/2 tablespoons light mayonnaise. Spread on 2 slices toasted whole wheat bread and top with romaine lettuce and 2 slices tomato. Serve with a small orange.

Pita and Peanut Butter Surprise: Spread 1 tablespoon peanut butter inside a 4-inch whole wheat pita pocket and stuff with 1/2 cup sliced strawberries. Serve with 1 cup fat-free milk.

300-400 Calories

The Comfort Zone: Spread 2 slices whole wheat bread with 1-1/2 teaspoons butter. Make a sandwich with 2 ounces sliced reduced-fat cheese, such as smoked mozzarella, and grill. Serve with 1 cup tomato basil soup.

Dressed-Up Leftovers: Slice 3 ounces leftover grilled or roasted sirloin steak. Mix with 1 cup romaine lettuce, 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes and 2 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons low-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

400-500 Calories

Decision-Free Favorite: Place 3 ounces lean ham and 2 ounces low-fat Swiss cheese on a whole grain bun. Top with 2 tablespoons stone-ground mustard and romaine lettuce. Accompany with a small sliced apple.

Bistro Bite: Layer 3 ounces sliced lean roast beef on a sourdough roll and top with spicy arugula leaves and 2 tablespoons mashed avocado. Serve with 1 ounce sweet potato chips (about 10 chips).

Restaurant or Catered Meals

Restaurants and corporate sponsored catered meals have a tend to make many of my adult patients nervous. No need to fear! The first thing you want to do is look for color. On restaurant menus, you can search down vegetable side dishes made with minimal fats like oils and butters. Salads are wonderful choices as long as you are careful with the dressing amount. Choose at least 2 produce colors! My two favorite resources for healthy eating while dining out is the American Heart Association’s page that lists tips by cuisine and a fairly new site called Healthy Dining Finder where you can plug in the zip code you are at and it lists restaurants that fall within their healthy criteria. Save both those sites as your favorite!

Catered meals can be a bit more complicated. Before I went into dietetics, I was in corporate marketing and I saw the catered meals firsthand. And yes, there are certainly meals that do not have one produce item like the traditional barbecue (that may have coleslaw) with high fat meats and sides. But often times you get the sandwich and chips meal boxes. If you don’t have low-fat and colorful choices, I do not suggest that you skip the meal. Instead, keep the lunch well-portioned so you don’t break the bank on calories.


Dinners can be a struggle for many families, especially those with children going to this activity and that after school. In my home, we all get there and my young children are like little chicks with their mouths open looking at me! They are already ready to eat. That is why dinners need to be quick, easy, but also healthy and tasty. That can be a tall order.

Here are some ideas by *calorie level, once again, by the Nutrient-Rich Foods Coalition. Check out their website for more ways to eat nutrient rich.

300-400 Calories

Good-for-You Grill: Marinate 3 ounces salmon in orange juice. Grill with 1/2 cup baby red potatoes, 1/2 cup onions and 6 asparagus spears tossed with 1 teaspoon olive oil. Serve with a crusty whole grain roll.

Palate-Pleasing Primavera: Sauté 2 teaspoons garlic in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss in 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes, 1/2 cup broccoli, 1/2 cup asparagus, 1/2 cup mushrooms and 2 tablespoons shredded carrots. Cook until the vegetables are tender. Mix with 1 cup cooked penne pasta and top with 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese.

400-500 Calories

Very Veggie Pizza: Spread a 3-ounce whole grain pizza crust with 1/2 cup marinara sauce. Layer with thin slices of the following: 1/2 cup roasted potatoes, 1/2 cup red onions and 1/2 cup green and red peppers. Top with 1/2 cup shredded reduced-fat mozzarella cheese. Bake according to crust package directions.

Family Favorite: Top 1 cup cooked whole wheat pasta with 3 ounces cooked ground skinless turkey breast or very lean ground beef mixed with 1/2 cup Italian-style tomato sauce. Serve with 1 cup spinach salad tossed with 1 tablespoon low-fat Italian dressing

*To find your calorie needs based on your age, gender and activity level, go to MyPyramid.gov and choose “Get a Personalized Plan” in the top right list of selections.

Colorful Meal Resources

By now, you probably know that The Six O’Clock Scramble newsletter is one of my favorite recipe resources. If you didn’t, check Aviva Goldfarb’s service out that achieves the impossible trifecta – quick, healthy and tasty. When you subscribe, you get 5 recipes in your e-mail inbox once a week and it comes with a shopping list for all the ingredients. Don’t think one of the recipes looks good to you? No problem. Log into your account on her website and pull that recipe off and search her database for a recipe you would like to try. You can regenerate the shopping list with your 5 recipes! All her recipes have nutritional information and suggestions for side dishes. There are additional features being added to The Scramble newsletter, so keep a lookout.  Aviva has published two cookbooks that feature many of the newsletter recipes if you choose to have a book rather than the weekly newsletter.

Meal Makeover Moms: Healthy Meals with Kid Appeal website is a must save in your favorites. Janet Newel Bissex and Liz Weiss, both registered dietitians, have developed this website chocked full of free recipes, tips and commentary on producing kid-friendly meals. I will admit that I just ordered their two cookbooks myself – the most recent one entitled, No Whine with Dinner and their original book The Mom’s Guide to Meal Makeovers so I haven’t reviewed them yet. But if they are as good as everything on their website, we will have some great cookbooks for our own families and to suggest to others.

The Nutrient-Rich Foods Coalition is a great website resource on keeping color in your meals throughout the year. Also, the Fruits and Veggies More Matters continues to add awesome tips to their website including gardening tips, ways to get your children involved with food and of course, meal and shopping tips.

Mommy Dietitian Color Challenge Winners Kit
There is only 5 days left to participate in the Mommy Dietitian Color Challenge! There is still time for you. Post your colorful family plates on the Mommy Dietitian Facebook page and you can be the one that receives the winner’s kit I revealed this past week. It contains Eat Right With Color-themed apron and wooden salad spoons and a wonderful book for your family library entitled 365 Days of Healthy Eating by the American Dietetic Association. This books shows you how to combine nutrition with taste, give tips on grocery shopping and also has over 60 recipes to try on your family.  But we all know the real gift to you is better nutrition and health, right?

As always, if you have any tips or colorful recipes that you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!

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