Packing and coming up with school lunch ideas can be a challenge for seasoned and new parents, but this guide will cover ALL of the most common challenges—plus gear recommendations, packable recipes, and answers to FAQ. Yes!
School Lunch Ideas
Whether it’s the start of the school year or a random Tuesday in the middle, packing school lunches for the kids can be daunting—whether it’s your first year with a kiddo in kindergarten or later down the road.
It can be hard to come up with healthy foods they actually will eat, and then there’s the challenge of packing food that will taste good hours later.
Factor in food allergies, picky eating, short lunch periods, and not wanting to waste food and sheesh, it can be downright overwhelming.
The good news? I have SO many tips for you!
Kid-Friendly Lunch Ideas for School
There are some great resources available to make packing lunches for kids so much easier. I’ve gathered the best of the best to put all of the best advice in one place for you. (You’re welcome!)
(Honestly, I needed to do this for myself, too so I too can find the resources I need when I need them. We’re all in this together!)
School Lunch Ideas for Kindergarten
If you have a kiddo starting kindergarten this year, yay! But also, welcome to the world of school lunch. My best tip for packing lunches for kindergarten include:
- Keep the foods simple. They are navigating a LOT of new, so their food should be easy to eat and familiar.
- Talk to them when they bring their lunchbox home to gather any feedback so you can make adjustments. (Lunch periods are short—they may not have time to chew all of those cute baby veggies you packed! I say that in all seriousness. My oldest repeatedly tells me not to pack baby carrots because they take too long to chew. Sigh.)
- Practice packing and having them eat lunches on the weekend before school starts if you have concerns about them doing it on their own.
- Make a physical list of foods they like to eat for lunch and stick it to the fridge so you can avoid reinventing the wheel every day.
- If your child has a food allergy, be sure to discuss the lunch room set up with their teacher. If they’ll be eating at a special table, make sure they will always have at least one friend with them so they don’t feel left out.
TIP: Check out my 50 Kindergarten Lunch ideas for lots of easy meal ideas to pack.
School Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters
Despite the social media pressure to pack perfect, rainbow-hued lunches, one of the best things you can do for picky eaters is to keep their lunches simple. Pack an assortment of foods, including something from most of the food groups, and try to avoid packing foods they’ve never seen before.
And aim to pack at least 2 foods you know they like to ensure they have something to eat.
How to Pack School Lunches Step-by-Step
Here’s a cheatsheet for how to pack a healthy lunch for kids.
- Make a list of the foods they like to eat for lunch and physically hang it in the kitchen where it’s easy for everyone to see.
- Choose foods from each (or most) of the food groups most days for a balanced lunch.
- Include a mix of protein (lunch meat, nut/seed butter, meat, beans, tofu) , complex carbohydrates (bread, crackers, pasta), produce, dairy (yogurt, milk, cheese), and healthy fats (coconut, avocado, nut/seed butters).
- Aim to include 1-2 items of produce everyday.
- Talk to your child about milk and help them make smart decisions about choosing plain or chocolate. (They may be offered milk twice a day, which may be helpful to keep in mind when packing their lunch.)
- Know your school’s rules about peanuts and follow them!
TIP: It can be helpful to have a few items of veggies for lunch that you reserve for lunches such as baby bell peppers, mini cucumbers, baby carrots, grapes, strawberries, or whatever items of produce your child prefers.
How much food do I need to pack?
That is often such a tricky question to figure out, but I love this post from Real Mom Nutrition on the subject. And remember to adjust if your child says they are hungry or need more food, and to talk to them about whether or not they have enough time to eat the food you send.
TIP: Lunch periods are short so some kids may have a hard time finishing food that needs to be chewed a lot, such as raw veggies. Keep an open dialogue with your child to troubleshoot any issues.
Best Lunchboxes for Kids
I’ve tried out a LOT of lunchboxes and I’ve narrowed down the best ones for durability, ease of use, smart design, and ease of cleaning. You’ll find options made from stainless steel, BPA-free plastic, and with bento box styles.
Best Lunch Bags for Kids
If you want to send a lunch box in an insulated bag or just want a soft bag to pack the lunch in, I hear you—it’s a great option! And it’s nice that you can throw them in the washer from time to time to get them super clean.
Best Kids Thermos
Having the option to pack warm lunches for your child when they’re at daycare, preschool, school or out on the town can go a long way towards making the endeavor seem that much easier.
TIP: Here are the best kids thermos options for kids.
Best Ice Packs for Kids Lunches
These thin ice packs are awesome for sending in a lunch since they don’t take up much room in the lunch or in the freezer.
Sandwich-Free Lunch Ideas for Kids
Should you need a non-sandwich lunch idea—maybe your kid is sick of them or doesn’t like them!—having a list of ideas to refer to can make lunch packing so much easier.
TIP: This list of Sandwich-Free Lunch Ideas from the Kitchn is a great resource.
Best Alternatives to Peanut Butter
Since most schools and daycares don’t allow peanut butter (though some still do), there are a few alternatives to consider for simple sandwiches and roll ups. I like
- Granola Butter (it sounds odd, but it’s SO delish!)
- Sunflower seed butter
- Almond butter (works for a peanut-free school, not if all tree nuts are excluded)
- Tahini (works well if mixed with honey or maple syrup to balance the slight bitterness)
TIP: I’d recommend that you try these at home before you send them in a lunchbox to make sure the kids like them.
Nut-Free Snack Ideas for Lunchboxes
These are great options should you be looking for simple, nut-safe snacks to add to a kids lunch. For my favorite store-bought options, these Healthy Snacks for Kids and my guide to Peanut-Free School Snacks will point you in the right direction.
TIP: Find general tips for kids with food allergies here.
Easy School Lunch Recipes
I put together my go-to recipes for lunch so we can always reference them quickly and easily. These recipes for school lunches are easy to make ahead and pack (both chilled or warmed in a thermos).
School Lunch Packing Checklist
Sally from Real Mom Nutrition is always sharing awesome advice to get the kids packing their own lunches and her downloadable is a great resource. (She also has a great how-to on making a lunch packing station.)
TIP: Download her lunch packing checklist here.
Bento boxes are an awesome way to pack a mix of nutritious foods together in one lunch box—and the options for what to pack are almost endless! The little compartments somehow make it much easier to pack meals, in my opinion, and they can be perfect for kids who prefer their food to not touch.
I have a lot of recipes for lunch that are perfect for sending in a thermos or a lunchbox, though I’m going to share 10 ideas that require no cooking at all.
These are great ideas to throw together at the last minute in the morning (because life happens and I realize that is when many of us are actually packing!) and to make when it feels like you’re running low on groceries.
Coming up with cold lunch ideas can feel really daunting—and like peanut butter is jelly is the only option! Good news though—there are actually a lot of options beyond sandwiches that you can pack to be served cold or at room temperature at daycare, preschool, big kid school, and even camp.
Hot Lunch Ideas
Try these easy wraps for kids as an easy lunch or meal when you want to change up the usual sandwich options. They’re quick, full of nutrition, and have lots of kid-friendly flavor. Plus: you can customize them as needed for food allergies for the chewing ability of your child!
And if you have littles who are still in daycare or preschool, these simple ideas may help.
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I’d love to hear any tips you have to add, so please comment below to share!
This post was first published June 2020.