What to pack for School Lunches

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I have been packing between 5 and 15 school lunches a week for the last 5 years. My kids take their lunch to school almost every day. Among the list of ongoing parenting tasks, I have noticed a particular distain for packing school lunches. I get it! It can be incredibly difficult to manage picky eaters, classroom allergy restrictions, finding the time, and keeping the house stocked with the needed groceries. I have used a simple system to pack school lunches for years. Streamlining the process this way takes less time, less brain power and minimized negotiations with kids. Figuring out how you will pack school lunches is a big box checked on your back-to-school checklist! If packing school lunches is important to you, here is an easy system to make simple, quick, and nutrient dense lunches for your kids.

The Big Picture:

It is important to note from the beginning that packing school lunches for my kids is something I choose to do. Every parent has to make decisions about what is most important to them and prioritize those things. Time, finances, band width/ energy, help from other adults or older children, etc. all determine we how much we can do. I have many amazing friends whose kids buy their lunch from the school cafeteria every day. That is awesome and works well for their family. My kids prefer a packed lunch and are happy to eat the nutrient dense foods I pack. They eat veggies, whole grains, and fruits at lunch. It’s worth it to me to get those good things in them by packing their lunch. For some reason they are much more agreeable to healthy lunch foods than trying new dinners so a healthy lunch feels like an easy win! I have a very supportive spouse who does a lot of other household/ parenting tasks and makes this possible. There are certainly other parenting/ household tasks that I choose to not prioritize so that I can pack lunches.

I also want to speak to the amazingly cute animal faced, themed, or star shaped sandwich lunches that we have all seen floating around on Pintrest. I would use the words creative, adorable and time consuming to describe them. While I do prioritize packing lunches for my kids I do not use it as a creative outlet or an extended use of my time the way some parents do. Again, this comes down to your values and how you want to spend you time and brain space.

When to pack school lunches:

The easiest time to pack lunches when the kitchen is “open.” I pack lunches while prepping dinner (while water is boiling or something simmers on the stove) or while the other family members cleaning up after dinner. The kitchen is already messy and you may already have some ingredients out. For other families, mornings during breakfast might be easier, especially if food fresheners is a big priority for you. My husband usually has to be at work very early so I am on my own getting all my kids up, ready for school, and out the door. I personally can’t image adding lunch packing to our morning routine but you need to think about what time will work best for your family.

Lunch Boxes:

I make packing school lunches easier by using a minimalist packing system. We use the same bento box and same lunch box every day. These containers themselves are a big park of the system and almost answer the questions of what to pack for school lunches on their own! I love these 5 compartment bento boxes from Pottery Barn Kids. This takes the guess work out of how much to pack and is really the basis of the system. Although there is some variety every day (see the system below) the idea is the same. There are certainly other metal or silicone options that are probably better. Whenever ours break or we are ready for new ones I plan to look into this

Lunch Bento Boxes

The System

Everyday lunch is similar. In the largest bento box section there is the “main course” item. I call it the main course because I try to make sure there is some protein and fat in this section. Then there is one section with a veggie, one for fruit, and one carb/ snack type food. If you are starting this plan with your family I would get the kids involved in making lists for each category. Even toddlers or preschoolers can help choose foods that would like in their lunches. If we happen to have something else in the pantry or the fridge I might throw it in on occasion, but the biggest thing that makes the system work is the repetition. Do not use brain space to reinvent the wheel every day when packing school lunches! Here is an example of the system:

School Lunch Packing System

“Main Course”

  • Peanut butter and Jelly or Peanut butter and Honey Sandwich
  • Hawaiian rolls or Mini croissants with turkey or ham
  • DIY Lunchable with Applegate farm salami, Baby Bel Cheese, and crackers
  • Left over Pizza

Fruit

  • Strawberries
  • Cantolope
  • Apple slices (mix with a few drops of lemon juice so they don’t brown)
  • Blueberries
  • Grapes
  • Apple Sauce Pouches

Veggies

  • Carrot sticks
  • Sliced Cucumber
  • Sliced bell pepper
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Celery Sticks

Snack/ Carb Item

  • Pretzles
  • Popcorn
  • Pita chips
  • Veggie Straws
  • Pirate’s booty
  • Tortilla Chips

Bonus Item:

On certain days or at certain school some treats are permitted so we usually show in a few chocolate covered pretzels or chocolate chips.

Make it yours!

Spend some time with your kids making a list or each category. Put those items on your grocery list or recurring grocery order so they are ready to go each week. One other benefit of the system is that when your children are old enough to start helping to pack or independently packing their own lunch they have a blueprint to follow themselves. This is a good place to start for them packing their own lunches and learning basics of balanced meal preparation/ planning. If you can help more with the question of “What to pack for school lunch?” please let me know! Don’t forget to trow a Lunch Box Notes for Kids every once in a while.

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