What Should a 16-year Old Eat For Lunch?

Lunchtime rolls around and 16-year olds finds themselves facing an endless array of food options. Should they grab the entree and salad from the school lunch-line, head to the nearest fast food joint or bring a pre-packed lunch from home? A 16-year old wants to satisfy their hunger and taste needs, but may also begin to consider nutrition, as it affects both current and chronic health. What should 16-year olds eat for lunch?

A 16-year old will want to consume a lunch that contains a balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat from a variety of nutrient full foods. Some of the best ideas includes whole grain pasta with meat and veggies, curry and rice, turkey wraps, burrito bowls, hummus with veggies and crackers, and more. A 16-year old should strive to make half their plate full of vegetables and fruit along with a quarter full of protein and a quarter full of grains. Drinking non-sweetened fluids with meals also promotes health through adequate hydration. The lunch should leave a 16-year old feeling satisfied and energized.

Just one example of this type of meal could include a whole grain turkey, avocado and lettuce wrap with a side of carrot sticks with hummus, some whole grain crackers and an orange. The many possible combinations of carbohydrate, protein and healthy fats allow for creativity and enjoyment at lunch time.

In order to be effective, knowledge must transform into action. Continue reading to receive more guidance about creating a healthy lunch for a 16-year old.

Components of a Healthy Lunch for Teenagers

Healthy foods to include at lunch will contain a higher amount of nutrient per calorie and a lower amount of saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Meals signify a combination of foods, which benefits health far more than any one food. Even a “superfood” will be limited in its effect on health due to lacking all macro- and micro-nutrients.

Balanced lunches should include a variety of foods that provide all three macro-nutrients of carbohydrate, fat and protein. This variety will also help a 16-year old consume adequate levels of micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

Healthy foods to include:

Fruits and Vegetables (F&V)

Eating the rainbow, or many different colors, will assist a teenager in consuming enough vitamins and minerals without the need for a nutrient supplement. Additionally, each type of F&V provides unique health promoting antioxidants, polyphenols and phytochemicals. These food components effectively fight inflammation to decrease the risk of many chronic diseases. F&V also help teens manage a healthy weight, blood sugar and promote a healthy gut through their relatively high content of fiber.


  • Combine with healthy fats to improve nutrient absorption and taste
  • Use a plant-oil based dressing 
  • Roast some home-made veggies fries 
  • Eat veggie sticks with hummus or guacamole
  • Add vegetables and avocado to sandwiches and wraps
  • Add vegetables to any soup
  • Combine fruit with nut butters
  • Use fruit in hot cereal or baked goods
  • Eat fruit for a sweet end to a lunch
  • Make a fruit smoothie


These plant-based protein foods boast of high amounts of fiber, antioxidants, polyphenols and phytochemicals. Due to these beneficial components, legumes are associated with reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, swapping out some animal protein with plant protein can benefit the environment.


  • When cooking meat, swap out half the meat with lentils or another favorite bean
  • Roast and season chick peas
  • Try tofu or tempeh instead of meat in a dish
  • Use beans in burritos, wraps or salads
  • Blend some chickpeas into hummus
  • Make vegetarian taco soup

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds also boast of high protein, nutrient and antioxidant content. These hunger satisfying foods also contain healthy fats to protect brain and heart health.


  • Nut and seed butters make great additions to baked goods and hot cereals
  • Add nut butters to smoothies for some protein
  • Use nut butters as a spread for sandwiches, fruit and vegetables
  • Garnish salads and parfaits with nuts and seeds
  • Combine with dried fruit and pretzels for an easy trail mix


U.S health organizations recommend eating seafood twice weekly. The vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fats assist with healthy development. In particular, omega 3 supports a healthy brain and heart in teens.


  • Smoked salmon with toasted bagel
  • Tuna fish wrap
  • Sardines with crackers
  • Any fish air fried with vegetables

Lean Meat

Poultry, beef, pork, etc. all offer quality protein along with important nutrients such as iron and zinc. Meat often contains higher amounts of saturated fats, so teens should look to consume leaner cuts more often. They should also limit highly processed meats such as deli meats, pepperoni, sausage, bacon and hot dogs.


  • Choose 90% or higher lean meats 
  • Replace deli meat with shredded chicken or turkey
  • Use seasonings to flavor ground meat for meatballs, taco meat or pizza toppings
  • Enjoy a chicken sandwich Instead of a burger

Unsweetened Dairy Products

The teenage years are a critical time for bone growth and development. Dairy products contain calcium, vitamin D, protein and other nutrients essential to skeletal health. 

Teenagers should try to consume foods high in these nutrients every day.  They can seek advice from a healthcare professional regarding supplementation if unable to meet needs through the diet due to allergies, intolerances or dietary preference. 


  • Cottage cheese, plain yogurt and milk add creaminess to smoothies
  • Melt some cheese on steamed vegetables
  • Try yogurt-based dressings instead of ranch
  • Snack on cheese and crackers
  • Enjoy a yogurt parfait

Whole Grains

Whole grains contain far more nutrients and fiber than refined grains. Eating whole grains give teens lasting energy with complex carbohydrates and multiple vitamin B varieties. They help control blood sugar, prevent chronic disease and promote feelings of satisfaction between meals.


  • Use whole grain breads, pasta, rice, etc. instead of refined grain counterparts
  • Use half whole grain flours in recipes
  • Make some homemade popcorn

Unsweetened Beverages

Adequate hydration allows 16-year olds to function at their best. Dehydration will negatively impact mental, emotional and physical health. However, drinking too many fluids high in sugar will harm health as well. Water remains the ideal fluid for hydration along with unsweetened milk, plant-based milks and some 100% fruit juice.

Foods to Limit at Lunchtime 

Foods high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat can increase risk of chronic disease, overeating and poor health. Teenagers should avoid eating these foods in excess as they can also displace more nutrient dense foods. The following list gives some examples of the types of foods to enjoy on occasion, but not every day.

  • Fried foods
  • Fast food
  • Sandwich meat
  • Pepperoni
  • Sausage 
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Pizza
  • Hot dogs
  • Ramen
  • Cup of noodles
  • Frozen meals 
  • Chips
  • Packaged treats
  • Doughnuts
  • Ice cream
  • Cookies
  • Candy
  • Soda
  • Fruit drinks
  • Lemonade
  • Sports drinks 

Tips for Packing a Nutritious Lunch

First, packing lunch can take a little time. Try preparing the meal the day before rather than attempting to prep a lunch during the morning rush.

A teen will want to incorporate carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber in order to feel satisfied for the rest of the day. Sandwiches, wraps and salads make easy options.

With a sandwich or wrap, choose whole grain options and use a healthy fat spread like avocado, hummus or a nut butter to prevent sogginess. Make sure to include protein such as eggs, tuna, shredded chicken or beans along with some favorite vegetables. Think along the same lines for a salad but add a whole grain or starchy vegetable such as brown rice, quinoa, roasted sweet potato or corn.

Including a side of vegetables or fruit will add nutrients and fiber. Whole grain crackers, air popped popcorn, pita chips, trail mix, or string cheese also make great sides to bump up the fullness factor.

If adding a treat, make sure to choose appropriate portion sizes. Also, do not feel the need to restrict in other ways to make up for eating a treat. Simply make sure the lunch also contains a fair amount of nutrient dense foods to go along with the lower nutrient foods.

School Lunch Tips for a Healthier Lunch

School lunches must follow strict nutrition guidelines, however pizza, burgers, fries, and other less healthy options are common. Take advantage of the fruits and vegetables made available at each meal. Some schools will even offer a salad bar, which will bring color, flavor and a host of healthful benefits to plates.

Similar to packing a lunch, look to create balance with a school lunch. Choose a variety of foods with a focus on creating a plate with whole grains, protein, fruits and vegetables.

School lunches make an easy, no hassle and nutritious meal option. However, some dishes may be preferred more than others. Use the menus posted to ensure that the school offers an enjoyed balanced meal. Otherwise, a teen may find themselves eating only a cookie for lunch. Days with less desired food options can turn into packed lunch or eating out days.

Eating Out Lunch tips for Teenagers

With more and more restaurants offering healthier options, eating out can still offer up delicious and nutritious meals. Taking advantage of these options supports a healthy eating pattern but choosing a classic favorite on occasion will not harm health either. The key to eating in a way that protects health means eating an overall balanced meal pattern, not about a specific meal or food eaten.

When eating out, take the time to look over all the options of the menu. Often times, a combination of appetizers can beat out the price and nutrition quality of a main dish. Furthermore, do not shy away from asking for substitutions or styles of cooking.

For example, sometimes a cook can transform a fried dish to a baked dish when asked. Also, higher saturated fat dressings can be substituted for oil-based vinaigrettes or a teen can omit lower nutrient toppings and still enjoy a desired dish.

Other tips include modeling the MyPlate method, adding a side salad or veggies, choosing water over sweetened beverages, listening to fullness cues and using take-out boxes for leftovers. 

Eating out often increases consumption of foods higher in sodium, saturated fat and sugar. Try to eat more often at home and eat out less. When eating out on those special occasions, allow enjoyment and avoid restriction.  


Whatever your style of lunch, home packed meal, eating out, or cafeteria style, a 16-year old is old enough to help choose their own nutritious foods for a lunch that is satisfying, energizing, and healthy.

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

Recent Posts