You may think you’re doing your kids a favor by packing homemade lunches for school. But a new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics shows that kids’ lunch boxes could use a major makeover.

The study compared home packed lunches with school-bought lunches that follow guidelines for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides low cost or free school lunches to children. Lunches brought from home contained more sodium (almost twice as much), fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less milk than NSLP lunches. Almost 90 percent of home packed lunches contained desserts, snack chips and sweetened drinks, which are not permitted in the NSLP meals. 

“It's no surprise that home-packed lunches are less healthy than school lunches,” says Suzanne Rostler, RD, a nutrition consultant based in Wellesley, Mass. “Processed snacks like chips and Goldfish crackers, sugary juice boxes and dessert after lunch have all become the norm for many kids.” Add to that a less-than healthy sandwich made with white bread and deli meat turkey, ham, salami, or other high-sodium meat or cheese — a staple of many a lunchbox. 

The reason many parents miss the healthy mark when it comes to school lunches? It’s partly convenience. Packing a lunch during the morning rush isn’t easy, and it’s difficult to find foods that won’t get soggy or mushy by the time lunch rolls around. “The truth is that it takes more effort and time to put together a healthy lunch,” says Rostler. Plus, parents may fear that their kids will toss the healthier options (peer pressure or they don’t like them), so what’s the point of packing them.

But with a little out-of-the lunchbox thinking and planning, it’s possible to pack a healthy lunch that will stand up to a few hours in the lunch box and that will appeal to your school-aged kids.

Related: Unpasteurized Milk Is Trendy, But is It Safe?

Healthy main attractions

  • Switch off from a “main course” for lunch to a Bento box filled with healthy sides to graze on. Sliced carrots, chunks of cheese, whole-wheat crackers and fruit make a fun and filling lunch.
  • Instead of white bread, try a whole-wheat wrap. Fill with hummus and cucumber slices, or add slices of grilled chicken breast with romaine lettuce and a drizzle of homemade dressing.
  • Buy low-sodium, nitrate-free cold cuts to reduce salt in sandwiches.
  • Pack Greek yogurt (livened up with savory spices like rosemary, dill and chives) in a small container. Include whole-wheat pita chips and baby carrots for dipping.
  • Use a thermos to pack dinner leftovers such as chili, rice and beans or a hearty soup.
  • Pack a low-sugar yogurt and a whole wheat mini-bagel with cream cheese.

Related: Packaged Infant and Toddler Foods: What Parents Need to Know

Smarter snacks

  • Try mini fruit kabobs. Using short skewers, add chunks of pineapple, halved strawberries and grapes.
  • Switch off with veggie and cheese kabobs: skewer mozzarella cheese and grape tomatoes.
  • Pack snack-sized bags of sodium-free roasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds. These are a protein-packed alternative to pretzels or chips.

Less decadent desserts

  • Rethink serving dessert in the first place. Lunch need not end with a sweet.
  • If your child wants a sweet, try unsweetened applesauce or canned fruit as a “desserty” alternative to fresh fruit.
  • Pack a single chocolate kiss or cookie for a small serving of sweet.

Low-sugar drinks

Avoid sweetened iced tea, sports drinks, sodas and fruit drinks. “Keep in mind that there are four grams of sugar to a teaspoon. So if your juice box has sixteen grams of sugar, that is roughly equal to fours teaspoons!” says Rostler.

  • Pack plain milk boxes, naturally flavored seltzer water or low-sugar juice.
  • Brew decaffeinated teas, chill, add lemon and pack in a thermos. 

Related: Energy Drinks: Are They Hurting Our Kids? 

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist for the New York Times, national consumer magazines and websites.