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Healthy School Lunch Ideas & Packing Tips
Katie - Wellness Mama 36 Comments Updated: August 22, 2022
Let the Kids Help
One of the most important things I’ve found this year as we’ve been making lunches is the importance of letting the kids help with the preparation and how this translates into them being excited to actually eat the foods they’ve made. In fact, working with my older kids to allow them more freedom to help in the kitchen is a big goal in our family this year and the results have been incredible.
How to Teach Your Kids to Help Safely
Let your children help with all aspects of cooking. Kids naturally enjoy helping out in the kitchen with food prep and cooking, and they are probably able and willing to do much more than they’re currently allowed in the kitchen. Our family has recently started watching these Kids Cook Real Food online classes (you can watch three of the lessons, including an amazing knife-skills class for kids of all ages, at no cost using the link above) which teach kids basic and advanced cooking skills.
While these videos have been the easiest way I’ve found to let my kids learn how to help (because they get to learn from someone else besides just me… and she is an excellent teacher), I recommend finding ways to involve your children more in food prep and cooking and they will likely be much more willing to eat healthy foods that they have helped to prepare.
Use Reusable Containers
One of the biggest hurdles I encountered when we started packing lunches for field trips and school days was finding something to pack the lunches in. When I was growing up, I had a plastic lunch box and things we packaged inside plastic tupperware and plastic bags.
Since we try to avoid plastic, these weren’t options for me and I didn’t want to use our regular glass food storage dishes when we were away from home at field trips (and I know that many schools don’t allow glass dishes or lunch boxes either).
Reusable Lunch Boxes (no plastic)
After trying several options I finally decided on large size lunch bots steel lunch boxes, which are large enough to hold food for my older kids, and which are dishwasher safe and easy to clean. I’ve used smaller size lunch bots in the past and they are great for our little kids, but didn’t hold enough for my school age kids (6+). These options are more expensive than plastic lunch boxes, but they are much healthier and will last longer.
I also ordered some leak-proof containers for condiments and dips, steel water bottles for drinks, and some silicone bottles for smoothies, chia seed gel, etc. For cooler months, we have these stainless insulated thermos type containers to keep food warm.
I keep all of these containers in one bottom cabinet in our kitchen so the kids can get to them to help pack lunches and put them away after washing.
Store in a Bottom Cabinet
Keep all “kid” dishes in a bottom cabinet in the kitchen, not just the ones for lunches. This way, they can reach the dishes easily and get a cup for water when needed or a plate for food. In our cabinet, we have:
Create a Rotating Meal Plan
We homeschool our kids, but I attended public and private schools at different times when I was growing up and remember one thing very clearly about school lunches (besides how bad most of them tasted): the rotating lunch schedule.
While I didn’t often get to buy lunch because my mom usually packed ours, we would occasionally be given money to buy lunch and I’d scour the lunch schedule to figure out which day to buy lunch. Ironically, I often ended up never using the money to buy lunch, always waiting for better options, but I remember that certain days were always certain foods. Tuesday was usually fish nuggets and Friday was usually pizza (the most popular day at my school).
I certainly won’t recommend a rotating schedule that involves microwaved fish nuggets and pizza, but I think there is a valuable lesson in the idea of a school lunch schedule. Children appreciate consistency and knowing that a favorite food is the usual on Friday gives them something to look forward to, even if they may not love all the lunch options quite as much.
For our purposes, I have a rotating group of ten meal options that I use whenever we have to pack lunches. For families on a regular school schedule, this could simply be a two-week rotating lunch schedule.
This is what our rotating schedule looks like:
Protein + Main Course(s):
Sides + Drinks + Treats:
These menu ideas are also just a starting point for us and include the basics of a protein, vegetable, fruit, and healthy fat. I also often include some homemade sweet potato chips or other snack and often a soup in a thermos in cooler weather. Leftovers also make great lunches. This list is a starting point and to keep things simple, you can just rotate these ideas on a two-week schedule and post it on the fridge so that kids can help prepare lunches each day.
I also think it is important to note that these lunches don’t have as much variety of vegetables and healthy fats as we would typically eat at home, but I focus on making sure that over the course of a day, our children eat a well balanced diet and get enough of each macronutrient, so I typically make more of their favorite foods and finger type foods for lunches to keep things simple.
Always Include Veggies and Fruit
Vegetables are excellent sources of many nutrients and eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables and fruits not only helps make sure children are getting enough micronutrients, but also helps develop their taste for these foods. Fresh fruit and vegetables can also be some of the more difficult foods to get children to eat and enjoy, but I’ve found that the tips above help facilitate this.
This is one area of lunch prep that I always allow my children to help with or completely handle because it encourages them to try and enjoy new foods. My older kids have now graduated to using a regular 8-inch chef knife for cutting vegetables (thanks to this class!) but the toddlers can safely use these crinkle cutters and love helping as well. They even cut grapes and strawberries with these to put in their lunch boxes.
Get Creative With the Drinks
Thanks to our steel water bottles for drinks, and silicone squeeze bottles, we’ve been able to get really creative with drinks and this is another way I can sneak in vegetables, fruits, extra calories and vitamins. I always send water but also send a smoothie, chia seed energy drink, protein drink or yogurt with fruit blended in the silicone bottle. The kids always willingly drink these “treats” and I add extra vegetables, green drink, gelatin and other nutrient-dense foods to up the nutrition.
These all pack more of a nutritional punch than juice or milk (and especially soda!) and they take only minutes to make.
Use a Meal Planning Tool
If you want to simplify the process of lunch meal planning even more and integrate with your shopping list, consider using a meal planning tool. The best one I’ve ever found is called Real Plans and I like it so much that I merged my own meal planner with into it and added all of my own recipes (including the ones above). You can seamlessly plan your meals for the week (breakfast, lunch dinner or any combination) and it creates a shopping list that can be adjusted based on what you have in the house. The system is so easy that kids can use it (and mine do) and it saves me hours of time and money each week. You can read about it here.
Top photo used with permission from the talented Michelle Tam of NomNomPaleo.com, for more great school lunch ideas, check out her post of Paleo Lunchbox Ideas.