Before I share these healthy school lunch ideas, I have a confession to make… Since we homeschool, this isn’t an area that I have daily experience with as I don’t need to pack lunches every single day (but much respect to all of you parents who do!).
Most of us grew up on turkey sandwiches (crusts on or off?) or the classic PB&J, but it is possible to reinvent the wheel and pack more nutritious options at back to school time.
Real-Food Healthy School Lunch Ideas
This year, we’ve made field trips a priority each week, so I have gotten a lot of experience packing lunches for 6-8 kids (we bring friends) at least once a week, sometimes more. In experimenting with packing these lunches, I’ve also realized how much time it saves when it is actually time to eat lunch, so I’ve also started “packing” lunches a few days a week for the kids to eat at home on our lunch break.
They love pre-packed lunches because it is a break from the norm, and I love it because there is zero food prep for lunch that day and I can pre-make a couple days’ worth of lunches at a time.
Don’t forget, mom needs to eat too! I usually just make a mason jar salad for myself or eat leftovers while the kids enjoy their “school lunches.”
Over time, I’ve found some tips for making the preparation of healthy school lunches easier and since I get quite a few questions about creating healthy school lunches, I thought I’d share. If you have any tips for preparing real food school lunches or any meal plan ideas, please share them in the comments below!
Tip #1: 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. 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.
Setting Up the Kitchen for Kids
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:
Tip #2: Use Reusable Lunchbox 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 containers to keep food warm.
This reusable and plastic-free beeswax wrap is good alternative to plastic food wrap and helps keep small or crumbly items contained in each section of the lunch containers. Bonus: The larger sheets also double as a placemat!
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.
What to Put in Your Child’s Lunchbox: 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:
Best Lunch Ideas for School
And here is a linked list of some of our favorite lunch recipes:
Protein + Main Course(s):
- Egg Muffins
- Beef Jerky Sticks
- Mini Greek Meatballs
- Fish Sticks
- Lettuce Tacos
- Chicken Salad
- Chicken Fingers (Honey Mustard)
- Sweet Pepper Steak Salad (add gluten-free noodles if desired for pasta salad)
Sides + Drinks + Healthy Snacks:
- Zucchini Fritters
- Chia Seed Gel
- Chocolate Coconut Energy Bars
- Probiotic Marshmallows
- Chia Seed Energy Bars
- Fruit Leather (Like Fruit Roll-ups)
- Condiments and Dips
- Coconut Butter Cups
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Fat Bomb
- Tangerine Gummies
- Apple Cinnamon Coconut Muffins
- Homemade Applesauce
- Hardboiled Eggs (the Instant Pot is great for this)
- Trail Mix with Dried Fruit
- Dark Chocolate
These healthy lunch 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. 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.
If you fall off track, don’t worry… leftovers also make great school lunches!
Tip #3: 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.
Some of our favorite produce to pack includes:
- Snap peas
- Cherry tomatoes
- Sliced bell peppers
- Apple slices
- Cucumber slices
- Diced jicama (with a little lime and salt)
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.
Tip #4: 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.
Tip #5: 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.
I want to hear from you… all of you super moms who pack school lunches day in and day out… Please share your healthy school lunch ideas and tips in the comments below!