Are you ready for the start of another school year? Whether you are ready or not, it’s happening. Time to permanently wash the sand off of our feet, dust off our alarm clocks, and prepare ourselves for the early mornings, the after school snacks, the homework sessions, and the hectic dinners scheduled around kids’ activities. Oh, and school lunches. Sound familiar?
Packing a school lunch for Meghan is not my favorite part of her starting back to school, but I did it every school day last year and I know I’ll be doing it again. Every school is different, but I don’t love the lunch options her school provides, so I make her lunch to bring. There are a few decent options here and there, but they offer an Uncrustable every day, and I just know that’s what she would pick. I can make her a much healthier PB&J, so I don’t need her eating one with high-fructose corn syrup as the #1 ingredient.
We all need fresh ideas for ideas when it comes to making school lunches for our kids. The research I did for this post was as much for me as for you. (Although I’m including ideas for a wide range of palates, not just my kids.) Meghan’s lunches got b-o-r-i-n-g by the end of last year. While I don’t need them to be creative, picture-perfect-Pinterest-worthy lunches, I’d like her to have as much variety as I can. Having everything in one place makes it easier for me to plan and choose a variety of different options, rather than putting the same foods in the lunch week after week. I know I’ll be referencing this post throughout the year as I plan Meghan’s lunches for the week.
Building a Healthy Lunch
When I build a lunch for Meghan’s school lunch, I make sure it has at least one vegetable, one fruit, and a protein. If I get those three things in her lunch box, I feel like I’m doing a good job. My goal this year is to add more variety, but I’m not going to beat myself up if she gets her favorite veggies over and over (carrots, red bell peppers, and cucumbers). At least she’s eating vegetables, right?
Other things I strive for are her grains to be whole grains, and a balance of complex carbs and protein. I want her eating real food, so I don’t add processed foods to her lunch often. (Notice I didn’t say never…sometimes I do. We occasionally get crackers or such and I’ll add them to her lunch. I try to make this the exception and not the norm.) I also pay attention to how much she eats so I’m not sending too much food that gets wasted.
Making it Work
I think every mom I’ve talked to about going back to school has the same reaction about it. Making lunches is the worst part. I wish I could say I have a system that magically makes this chore an easy, effortless task that you’ll love. I don’t. You have to find a system that works for you in your life, but I don’t think there’s an easy way out when you are committed to making a healthy lunch.
What time of day works for making lunches? A lot of women swear by making them at night. By the end of the day between making meals and snacks for my family and testing blog recipes, I’m usually 100% done with being in the kitchen. Getting up early to make lunches works better for me. There are mornings when I wish I had it done already, so maybe getting it done during the day is the answer.
The one thing that I do that helps the making lunches time quicker is prep things ahead of time. I’m not talking about prepping every component all at once, but a little here and there. Think about times when you can kill two birds with one stone. When making muffins, throw a few in the freezer for lunch the next week. When cutting fruit or vegetables for dinner, cut extra for the lunch boxes. Make extra salad so there are lunch box leftovers. When you’re having chicken for dinner, cook a little extra so you have leftovers for lunches. Having things ready to put in the lunch box makes it much faster when it’s time to make the lunch.
Let’s get to the ideas! Here are the different components you can use to build a healthy lunch for your child.
Sandwiches are a classic “main” part of a lunch. Meghan would eat peanut butter and jelly every day if I let her, but I like to mix it up as much as I can get away with. There are great ways to get fruits and vegetables into the sandwich. Find some ideas that will work for your kids!
Broccoli and Cream Cheese Sandwich
Mashed Banana and Tahini Sandwich
Hummus+Chopped Veggies on Almond Sweet Potato Flatbread (for the gluten-free kid) or a wrap
Mashed Avocado + Nutritional Yeast (Try it! Meghan and I both love this.)
Waffle sandwiches–add your child’s favorite sandwich ingredients to a waffle instead of bread (Use leftover waffles, of course!)
Muffins aren’t just for breakfast! They are a great way to add complex carbs to your child’s lunch. Look for recipes that use whole grain flours and no refined sugar for the biggest nutritional benefit. Here are some recipes to get you started!
Super Healthy Banana Pumpkin Muffins
Apple Cinnamon Baked Oatmeal Cups
1,000 Seed Banana Date Muffins
15 Minute Flourless Apple Peanut Butter Blender Muffins
5-ingredient Blender Muffins-15 Ways
Whole Wheat Chocolate Zucchini Muffins
Whole Grain Blueberry Lemon Muffins
Strawberry Banana Yogurt Muffins
This is where leftovers can come into play! Make extra of something when you are having it for dinner, and freeze the leftovers for lunch the next week. Using a stainless steel thermos like this one keeps the food hot from morning until lunch time.
Homemade Baked Chicken Nuggets
Pesto Veggie Chicken Meatballs
Veggie and Bacon Lunch Box Frittatas
Vegan Coconut Curry Chickpea Lentil Soup
Broccoli and Chicken with Peanut Sauce
20-Minute Barbeque Chicken Quinoa Bowl
If you aren’t including a sandwich or a hot item, there are still many ways to get a protein into the lunch box. Check out these ideas.
hard boiled egg
roasted chickpeas (these, these, or these)
Cheesy Ham and Broccoli Quinoa Bites (good protein option even if you leave out the ham)
Vegetable and Fruit Ideas
Raw vegetables and plain fruit are standard for Meghan’s lunches. Not every kid loves plain fruit and vegetables, though. Here are some more ideas to incorporate vegetables and fruits in other ways!
2-ingredient Sweet Potato Pancakes (these are great served cold with nut or seed butter spread on top)
Fruit Salsa with Cinnamon Chips
Dips for Veggies or Fruits
Dips can add nutrition to a lunch! They can also encourage vegetable and fruit-reluctant eaters to eat more of their fresh veggies or fruits. Here are some dip ideas for vegetables and fruits.
2-ingredient Vegan Caramel Dip
Bites and Bars
These are options that work great for adding to a lunch box or if you have to send a snack in to school!
No Bake Pumpkin Spice Energy Bars
Chocolate Almond Butter Oatmeal Bites
Strawberry Shortcake Energy Balls
Chocolate Oatmeal Granola Bars
Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Balls
4-Ingredient Tahini-Maple Energy Balls (nut-free)
Pre-packaged Add-ons or Snacks
These are pre-packaged foods that are minimally processed with just a few recognizable ingredients. Not all convenience food is terrible and these make our lives easier! We add these to lunches or take them for snacks.
Fruit or Vegetable Pouches (like these) Look for the organic varieties.
Popcorn (with non-GMO corn and just salt)
I asked my Facebook followers what their kids love to get in their lunch boxes, and these were the answers!
“We just found these at Costco and the kids love them as a crunchy substitute for crackers. They are baked and the only ingredient is organic apples.”
“Veggie wraps are a favorite and my 10 year old likes salads”
“My son loves to take a salad, but our usual fare is gf chicken strips or a sandwich as the main feature. “
“Carrot soup, chicken noodle soup, pasta…my girls’ choices!”
“A HydroFlask container with butternut, red lentil soup with yogurt and pumpkin seeds, celery and organic cream cheese, sliced red peppers, raw nuts and dried fruit, and my favorite is natural peanut butter mixed with spirulina and a little black strap molasses, a few raisins and spread between Ezekiel wraps eaten’ tortilla style ( Sometimes I make a bunch and freeze them for on the run). For a little “treat” I add a ton of chopped par-cooked broccoli and Asiago cheese to corn bread muffins.”
“My oldest prefers either Turkey or Nutella and Sunbutter on 10 grain bread. My youngest loves Sunbutter and Jelly.”
“My daughter loves hummus with raw veggies and we do different kinds of fresh fruit daily.”
“Honestly, good ol pb&j! Also your blender muffins.”
“Sliced red bell peppers. Also cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes.”
“I’ll be FT at work this year, so I’m encouraging my girls to make food for lunches on Sunday…so, soups are made on Sunday and ready to plop into thermos the night before!”
I loved reading your responses and was inspired by many of them! I’d love you all to join our Facebook community as it’s a great place to get ideas from each other. You can like my page here! 🙂
I hope you find this post helpful and encouraging. Have a great start to the new school year and please let me know how packing your children’s lunches goes for you!
asad abbas says
What a wonderful recipe!! I included this in my list of best recipes …. thank you
Rey Griswell says
Find out why and get easy ideas for healthy, appealing snacks. These creative combos add up to one-of-a-kind after-school treats.
Jen Lemke says
Thank you so much for posting this! While I don’t have school-age children, this is a great resource for me for trying to include more variety in my toddler’s meals! I am a long-time follower, and I love your balanced approach to keeping our kids healthy (and happy with occasional treats!). Thank you so much for sharing! Pinning immediately!
Thank you so much, Jen!
Lindsay @ The Lean Green Bean says
what a great resource! pinning! thanks for including me!
Heather Hurt says
Hi Maryea! I just had to comment to tell you how impressed I am by your blog. I have been following you for years. Your blog was always great but you have really stepped up your game. Your pictures look amazing. Your recipes are wonderful and inspiring. I love that you have a good balance of food, parenting, fashion, beauty, etc. After your recent post about the time you spend I wanted to point out how much it shows. Keep up the great work!! 🙂 <3
Your comment made my day. 🙂 Thanks so much for the feedback–you have no idea how much I appreciate it!