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Before I share these healthy school lunch ideas, I have a confession to make… Since we homeschool, this isn’t an area 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 grilled cheese sandwiches (crusts on or off?) or the classic PB&J. But it is possible to reinvent the wheel and pack more nutritious options during back-to-school time.
Real-Food Healthy School Lunch Ideas
This year, we’ve made field trips a priority each week. So I’ve gotten a lot of experience packing lunches for 6-8 kids (we bring friends) at least once a week, sometimes more. In my kid’s lunch packing experimentation, I’ve realized how much time they can save. I’ve started “packing” lunches a few days a week for the kids to eat at home on our lunch break.
They love the kid-friendly packed lunches because it’s a break from the norm, and I love that I don’t have to prep lunch that day. I can even pre-make several days’ worth of lunches at a time. I usually make a mason jar salad for myself or eat leftovers while my kids enjoy their “easy school lunch.”
Over time I’ve figured out how to make packed lunch prep even easier.
Tip #1: Let the Kids Help
This is a big one. Letting the kids help translates into them being excited to actually eat the food they’ve made. I’ve seen incredible results after working with my older kids to allow them more freedom in the kitchen. My son even wrote a cookbook with his friends!
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’re probably able and willing to do much more than they’re currently allowed.
Our family utilized these Kids Cook Real Food online classes which teach kids basic and advanced cooking skills. 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.
While these videos are 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. They’ll likely be much more willing to eat healthy foods that they’ve helped make.
Setting Up the Kitchen for Kids
I keep all the “kid” dishes in a bottom cabinet in the kitchen, not just the lunch ones. This way, they can easily reach their dishes to get a cup for a drink or a plate for food. In our cabinet, we have:
Tip #2: Use Reusable Lunchbox Containers
One of the biggest hurdles I encountered was finding something to pack the lunches in. When I was growing up, I had a plastic lunch box. And there were plastic Tupperware and plastic bags to go inside.
Since we try to avoid plastic, these weren’t options for me. I also didn’t want to use our regular glass food storage dishes when we were away from home. 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. These bento boxes are large enough to hold my older kid’s food, they’re dishwasher safe, and easy to clean. I’ve used smaller-size lunch bots in the past and they’re great for our little kids, but don’t hold enough for my school-age kids (6+). They’re more expensive than plastic lunch boxes, but they’re much healthier and last longer.
Here are some other healthy containers we use for packing lunch:
- Condiment and dip containers (they’re leakproof!)
- Steel water bottles
- Silicone bottles (for smoothies, chia seed gel, etc.)
- Insulated thermos (great for cooler months)
- Beeswax wraps (or try this DIY version)
- Silicone containers (for nuts, seeds, fruit, mini sandwiches, cottage cheese, etc.)
I keep all of these containers in one bottom cabinet in our kitchen. This way the kids can reach them to help pack lunches and put them away after washing.
Tip #3: Always Include Veggies and Fruit
Veggies and fruits are excellent sources of many nutrients. Eating a wide variety not only helps make sure children get enough micronutrients but also helps develop their taste for these foods. It can be tricky to get children to eat and enjoy their produce, but I’ve found the tips above helpful here.
Here are some healthy school lunch ideas for fruits and veggies:
- Snap peas
- Cherry tomatoes
- Broccoli florets
- Cauliflower florets
- Sliced bell peppers
- Apple slices
- Watermelon cubes
- Cucumber slices
- Diced jicama (with a little lime and salt)
- Celery with almond butter or other nut butter
This is one area of lunch prep 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 graduated to a regular chef knife, but even my toddlers can safely use crinkle cutters to chop fruits and veggies.
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. This is another way I can sneak in vegetables, fruits, 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.
My kids love drinking these “treats” and I love that they’re full of extra veggies, gelatin, and other nutrient-dense foods. They pack more of a nutritional punch than your typical juice box or milk (and especially soda!) and take minutes to make.
Tip #5: Use a Meal Planning Tool
To simplify lunch planning even more (and integrate it with your shopping list), consider a meal planning tool. My all-time favorite is Real Plans. I like it so much that I merged my own meal planner with it and added all of my own recipes. You can seamlessly plan all of your weekly meals and it creates a shopping list for you.
It’s so easy even my kids use it. And I love that it saves me hours of time and money each week. Read my review of it here.
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 while growing up. I remember one thing very clearly about school lunches (besides how bad most of them tasted): the rotating lunch schedule.
While my mom usually packed my lunch during the school year, I’d occasionally get money to buy it. I’d scour the lunch schedule to figure out which day to buy lunch. Ironically, I often never used the money, always waiting for better options. Tuesday was usually fish nuggets and Friday was often pizza (the most popular day at school).
I certainly won’t recommend scheduling microwaved fish nuggets, but there’s a valuable lesson in the idea of a lunch schedule. Children appreciate consistency and knowing a favorite food is the usual on Friday gives them something to look forward to. Even when they didn’t love the other lunch options as much.
For our purposes, I have a rotating group of ten meal options for whenever we pack lunches. For families on a regular school schedule, this could simply be a two-week rotating lunch schedule.
Here’s what those school lunch ideas look like:
Best School Lunch Ideas
Here are some of our favorite healthy school lunch ideas when it comes to packed lunches. While many of these lunch recipes are finger foods, you won’t find pepperoni bagel bites, Lunchables, or even whole grain pita bread sandwiches on this list. Our family doesn’t eat a lot of grains and there are so many options that don’t require making sandwiches!
Some of these require a little prep work ahead of time, but you can make a big batch that will last for later in the week. Most are tasty at room temperature, or you can use a thermos for hot foods (like soup).
School Lunch Ideas for Protein + Main Course(s)
- Egg Muffins
- Ham and Egg Breakfast Cups
- Beef Jerky Sticks or Paleovalley Beef Sticks
- Mini Greek Meatballs
- Chicken Salad
- Chicken Fingers
- Sweet Pepper Steak Salad (add gluten-free noodles if desired for pasta salad)
- Bacon Chicken Bites
- Steak Fajita Salad
- Avocado BLT Salad
- Tex Mex Lettuce Tacos
- Chipotle Style Burrito Bowl
- My Big Fat Greek Salad
- Spinach Artichoke Chicken Salad
- Sweet Potato Frosted Meatloaf Cupcakes
- Chicken Parmesan Nuggets
- Homemade Fish Sticks
- Egg salad served over lettuce
- Hardboiled Eggs (the Instant Pot is great for this)
- Quesadillas made with corn flour tortillas and Mexican or cheddar cheese
Warming Soups + Main Dishes
- Hearty Italian Sausage Soup
- Loaded Sweet Potato Soup
- Chicken Tortilla Soup
- Chicken Taco Soup
- Simple Tomato Soup
- Creamy Broccoli Cheddar Soup
- Slow Cooker Orange Beef Stew
- Orange Chicken
- Sweet and Sour Chicken
- Rotisserie Style Chicken
- Bacon Chicken Alfredo (one pan)
- Sheet Pan Honey Garlic Sausage
School Lunch Ideas for Snacks + Sides
- Zucchini Fritters
- Chia Seed Gel
- Homemade Applesauce
- Trail Mix with Dried Fruit
- Homemade Yogurt
- Real Cheese Crisps
- Coconut Flour Waffles
- Crispy Baked Kale Chips
- Soft Pretzel Bites (grain-free)
- Simple Cucumber Salad
- Roasted Chickpeas
Sweet Treats (That Are Still Healthy!)
- Probiotic Marshmallows
- Probiotic Jello Snacks
- Chia Seed Energy Balls
- Fruit Leather (Like Fruit Roll-ups)
- Coconut Butter Cups
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Fat Bomb
- Tangerine Gummies
- Apple Cinnamon Coconut Muffins
- Dark Chocolate
- Strawberry Cheesecake Parfait
- Peanut Butter Chia Seed Pudding
- Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins
- Banana Bread Muffins
- Orange Cranberry Muffins
- Coconut Chocolate No-Bake Cookies
- Coconut Granola
Drinks to Sip On
- Creamy Berry Smoothie
- Herb and Fruit Infused Water
- Probiotic Lemonade
- Natural Electrolyte Sports Drink
- More Drink Recipes
Dips for Dunking
- Creamy Yogurt Fruit Dip
- Radish Cream Cheese Dip
- French Onion Dip
- 5 Minute Homemade Ketchup
- Real Food Ranch Dressing
- Roasted Red Pepper Hummus
- More Condiments and Dips
These healthy lunch ideas are a starting point for us and include the basics of protein, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fat. I’ll often include some homemade sweet potato chips or other snacks. To keep things simple, you can just rotate these ideas on a two-week schedule. Post them on the fridge so the kids can help prepare lunches each day.
Some of these lunches don’t have the same variety of vegetables and healthy fats as we’d 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. For packed lunches, I typically make more of their favorites and finger foods to keep things simple.
If you fall off track, don’t worry… leftovers also make great school lunches!
What are your healthy school lunch ideas and tips? Do you pack school lunches every day? Let me know in the comments!