- Packing a school lunch can be a daunting and monotonous task, but these tips and suggestions will make the process easier.
- In each lunch, aim to include a protein, whole grain, fruit, vegetable, healthy fat, and a drink.
- Pack lunches in appropriate containers that will keep them from getting smashed while also maintaining the correct temperature.
- We recommend bento boxes from Bentgo, OmieBox, and LunchBots, as well as good old paper bags, an insulated lunch tote, a good thermos, and reusable containers.
- Don’t forget – your ultimate goal is to feed your child, so don’t aim for perfection every day.
Squeaky clean shoes, new school supplies, a fresh start, a fall crisp in the air, and … packed lunches. If the thought of packing a nutritious lunch for your kids every single day gives you anxiety, breathe a sigh of relief because we’re here to help.
Packing a school lunch may seem simple – pack what your kid likes to eat – but any parent will quickly tell you that it’s not that simple.
We’ve rounded up a bunch of great school lunch ideas, tips on how to pack a lunch, and recommendations for great lunch boxes and food containers you can use.
Tips and tricks on how to pack a school lunch
- Give yourself some grace. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t pack the most nutritious meal every single day. You fed your child and that’s what matters. Sometimes their lunch will be perfectly balanced, and sometimes they’ll come home having eaten nothing but the bag of chips you packed. Sometimes I make my 1-year-old daughter a delicious meal, and all she eats is ketchup. It happens.
- Follow your child’s cues and communicate with them about their lunches. If they always eat grapes at home, but they never get eaten when you send them to school, there’s bound to be a good reason why!
- Try to pack a little more than you think your kid will eat. It’s better to waste a small amount of food than for your child to not have enough. As a high school teacher, I used to have hungry athletes who would finish their packed lunch by second period. If your kids are very active and/or they continually come home with their lunch completely gone, that’s a good indicator that you need to start packing more.
- Pack a variety of options so your child has choices, and make them things that you know your child will eat. A packed school lunch isn’t the place to try out olives for the first time.
- Label lunch boxes and water bottles in case they get left behind somewhere.
- Know your child’s school restrictions. If your child attends a nut-free school, take this restriction seriously – nut allergies can be extremely severe and even life-threatening. Always check labels of food you’re going to send to school. You’d be surprised how many products contain nuts. For PB&J sandwiches and other foods that typically include nuts, sun butter is a good alternative.
- Opt for school-provided lunch. If it’s too overwhelming to pack a lunch every day, get your child excited about the options offered by the school. Sit down each week to look over the menu and have them choose one day a week to buy lunch. This is also a great way to get some inspiration for your own packed lunches.
- Keep an eye out for safety. If you’re packing a lunch for a child under four, be sure to avoid common choking hazards.
The bottom line with packing your kid’s lunch is that you want to pack something nutritious that will fuel them to have energy and do their best in school. If you know that your child will only eat mac and cheese and that anything else you pack will get thrown away, then mac and cheese it is!
Try to include the following in your child’s lunch each day:
- Whole grain
- Healthy fat
- Water or other non-sugary drink
- Napkins or wet ones
- Something fun or sweet (this doesn’t have to be every day!)
Simple school lunch ideas:
- A whole-grain wrap filled with avocado, grilled chicken, and cheese; strawberries; cucumbers; ranch
- Natural peanut butter and jelly on whole-grain bread, apple slices, freeze-dried banana slices, yogurt
- Whole-grain crackers, cheese slices, sugar snap peas, peanuts (or sunflower seeds for a nut-free school), raspberries, a piece of chocolate
- Hummus, sliced bell pepper, cuties, a hard-boiled egg, popcorn
- Leftover cheesy tuna casserole, kiwi, cherry tomatoes, a cookie
Think beyond the sandwich and don’t be afraid to keep it simple! You don’t need to go crazy searching for creative or cute lunch ideas. If you want to add something fun for younger kids, try using cookie cutters to cut up sandwiches, veggies, or fruit. A nice note from you with some encouragement or a quick joke is always a good touch, too.
The best lunch boxes, containers, and water bottles for school lunch
For younger kids, use a durable container. Letting your child pick out a lunchbox with a fun design or favorite character can help them get excited to eat their lunch. Very young kids might get excited about choosing a lunch box with their favorite character or show, like PAW Patrol or Minecraft. You can check out our guide to the best lunch boxes for more options.
Older kids might prefer a plain brown paper bag, but it’s a good idea to at least put their sandwich or anything else that is prone to getting smashed in a durable container. There’s not much worse than opening your lunch to find everything got ruined when you threw your backpack in your locker and piled your bags on top of it.
Also, make sure you use leak-proof containers for anything that could leak. You don’t want to be paying for your child’s history book at the end of the school year because applesauce leaked out of their lunch box and into their backpack. Take it from a teacher – you will have to pay for that book.
Our favorite lunch boxes:
- Bentgo Lunch Boxes, $14.99 to $27.99
- LunchBots Stainless Steel Bento Boxes, $19.99 to $34.99
- OmieBox Bento Box with stainless steel thermos, $39.50
- 500 Brown paper bags, $17.88 to $19.99
- Cosfash Insulated lunch tote, $12.99 to $14.99
Our favorite food containers:
- Reusable sandwich and snack bags, $16.99
- Stasher Silicone Reuseable Bags, $9.99 to $11.99
- Sistema Klip-It Sandwich Box, $3.99
- Rubbermaid LunchBlox Sandwich Kit, $6.99
Our favorite water bottles
- CamelBak kids water bottle, $12.99
- CamelBak standard size water bottle, $8 to $14
- Hydro Flask kids Stainless Steel Bottle, $29.95
- Standard size Hydro Flask Stainless Steel Bottle, $29.95
- S’well Stainless Steel water bottles, $35
How to keep hot lunches warm and cold lunches cold
When I was in elementary school, I went through a stint of requesting soup for lunch every single day and in high school, it was a chicken salad sandwich. Sorry, mom and dad!
So how do you keep your kid’s favorite food a safe temperature?
- According to the USDA, cold food should have at least two ice sources. Two ice packs or an ice pack and a frozen water bottle would work.
- Use an insulated container for hot food like the Thermos insulated food jar. Fill it with boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes before dumping out the water and filling it with the hot food. OmieBox also makes a cool bento lunch box that has a thermos inside for hot foods in addition to sections for other, cold foods.
Our favorite thermos and ice packs:
- Thermos Stainless King Food Jar with Folding Spoon, $15.99 to $29.99
- OmieBox Bento Box with a thermos, $39.50
- 8-pack of Healthy Packers Ice Packs, $19.99
How to pack a school lunch without feeling rushed
This really doesn’t have to be a chore you dread! In my experience, lunch packing is a much less enjoyable activity when you leave it until the last minute.
- Pack leftovers. If you’re including leftovers in the lunch, pack them as you’re cleaning up dinner.
- Get your kids involved! As part of their routine when they get home from school, spend some time with them unpacking their lunch from that day and re-packing their lunch for the next day. An added bonus of this: they helped choose what would go in their lunch, so they’re likely to eat and enjoy it!
- Prep with good containers. Buy a few lunch boxes or containers and meal prep lunches at the beginning of the week.
- Schedule it in. If you insist on packing lunches in the morning, make sure you set aside time to pack them so they’re not thrown together last minute.
- Have some quick options ready to grab for lunches if you’re running short on time, forgot to pack lunches, or your kids need a snack before practice.