The Working Mom’s Guide to Easy School Lunches

easy school lunch ideasOk, ladies — what do you pack for your kiddo’s lunches, whether for daycare, elementary school, or other? Are you most concerned with ease of packing, assuredness of eating, nutrition, calories, or cost? What are your top easy school lunch ideas? Have you had success outsourcing this task — for example, I’ll bet this is a nobrainer for those of you with au pairs, but for those of you in daycare it’s either you or your partner. We kind of had a discussion about working moms and kids lunches a few year ago, but it’s been a while — so let’s discuss.

For my $.02, we’re trying to maintain my first grader’s weight until he grows a bit taller, so my primary concerns are a mix of calories, nutrition, and volume (I want him to feel like he’s getting a lot of food, even if I know he’ll only eat half of the cherry tomatoes or baby carrots I pack for him), and, selfishly, ease of packing for me or my husband. We also try to be good to the environment where we can and pack reusable containers — but I’m also realizing that this is resulting in a zillion dishes to wash, so we’ll see how that goes.

For “mains” I find that it’s hard to get around yogurt/milk/sandwich options, unless we have acceptable leftovers (for example, I’ve given meatballs and rice before!) — so most of these ideas are easy snacks and “extras.” But I’m curious to hear what your tips are for packing school lunches — and what you pack! 

These are my go-tos for easy school lunches:

Easy School Lunch Ideas that are Healthy and Non-Processed

  • cherry tomatoes
  • apples, precut apple slices
  • baby carrots
  • hard boiled eggs
  • shredded or pulled chicken
  • grapes
  • all berries

Healthy, Convenient Food Ideas for School Lunches

Some good ideas if you’re in the middle of the road (i.e., “healthy” convenience food) — but they tend to be expensive!:

  • freeze-dried fruit (we like Crispy Greens)
  • apple sauce pouches or apple sauce (I try to get unsweetened where possible)
  • pickles (kind of a veggie, right?)
  • cold pasta (whole wheat, chickpea, lentil, etc — or a mix thereof)
  • cold rice (or a mix of cold rice and cauliflower rice)
  • raisins, craisins, and other dried fruits
  • individually packaged hummus and guacamole to eat with veggies
  • yogurt and yogurt pouches (as a bonus you can often freeze them and use them as an ice pack)
  • popcorn, crackers, or chips in a reusable tin (high volume, low calorie — but note that popcorn is still a choking hazard until your kiddo is 5, so maybe it isn’t ideal for, say, daycare lunches)
  • crisped greenbeans or broccoli (I often see brands like Harvest Snaps in the salad department, but there are many)
  • string cheese, Babybel cheese
  • cottage cheese
  • milk boxes/milk smoothies like Danimals or Chobani
  • (shredded chicken, beef jerky, or more if your kiddo will eat it!)
  • (seaweed snacks if your kiddo will eat it!)

Some easy school lunch ideas if you’re all about convenience foods but are striving for healthyish:

  • 100-calorie packs and other snack-size bags
  • the Uncrustables line (but know your school’s nut policy, and note that these are probably not much healthier than Lunchables)
  • an RXBar Kids or other protein bar (I almost prefer to give my kids half of a regular RXbar though)
  • cold pizza (I’ve given him leftover homemade Flatout Pizza before and he hasn’t complained)
  • Halloween fun-size candy portions (in my experience they tend to be closer to 50 calories but your kiddo is still excited to see them)

Healthy school lunch ideas requiring a bit of work:

They can be part of your weekend prep for Monday, if you want…

  • sliced fruit or veggies (I didn’t say it was a LOT of work)
  • sandwich/wrap you assemble yourself (I know, groundbreaking!)
  • cold French toast, cottage cheese pancakes, or protein pancakes (we’ve used this mix and liked it but I’ve heard lots of good things about this mix)
  • Pinterest is full of baby frittata recipes like this one from Weelicious
  • to heat up and put in an insulated jar (we always try to first put boiling water in the jar to warm it up, then dump the water before we add the heated food):
    • oatmeal
    • broth/soup
    • mac & cheese
    • spaghetti and meatballs
    • rice dishes (black beans & rice, healthy “fried” rice, quinoa/rice mixtures)

How about you guys — what are your big concerns when packing lunches for your kids? Do you assemble them all at once on a Sunday, or do you take a few minutes at the end of each night or in the beginning of the day? What are your go-to things that you pack for your kiddos? working moms' guide to packing school lunches

Picture via Stencil.

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Hunting for easy school lunch ideas that are healthyish and don't require hours of prep work? One working mom rounds up her favorite easy school lunch ideas -- and other working moms share theirs.

Comments

  1. POSITA says:

    Along the same lines, does anyone have suggestions for the best lunch packing containers? My 4 yo is going to start bringing her lunch this year. The school requests that we only use containers that she can open herself. I was thinking that she’d be most likely to eat well if it was a single bento-ish container where she only had to open one thing to see all of her options. Does this seem accurate? There are several options on Amazon, some pricier that others. Any favorites?

    • Easylunchboxes

    • We still like the ThinkBento boxes we bought when J was in daycare, and we still use silicone baking cups to separate stuff if we need to. Looking for others, though, so following!

    • We use the Rubbermaid LunchBlox. It’s multiple containers instead of one. My 4yo can open them easily and loves opening them all to see what her options are. We bought a couple packs, so we can send two ice packs to keep the lunchbag (we got the small one that goes with the set) nice and cool all day long.

      • avocado says:

        We had issues with the LunchBlox containers leaking. They do fit into nicely into a lunch box, though.

        • Hmmm ours haven’t leaked at all (I use them for my own lunch as well) but we’re not sending liquids or even stews in them – if we do liquid, we use the Foogo Thermos. But things like a caprese salad (with balsalmic) or oatmeal have been fine for us. We dishwash ours on the top shelf so they don’t warp or shrink, and they stay fairly upright in the associated lunchbox so as long as it doesn’t get thrown around, there’s not a lot of opportunity for leakage either.

    • We love Yum Box Lunch, a leak proof bento box for kids. Fits in most lunch bags as well (we have the PB Kids insulated lunch bags and the bento fits great).

    • I do a square plastic container with silicon cupcake wrappers. It’s colorful, but stuff doesn’t move around too much and there’s only one top to open.

    • Anonymous says:

      I posted a novel below but we LOVE our Planetboxes…they are definitely investments but they are totally worth it. Easy to open and not spill for a little person (I think youngest was barely 3 when we got them). We wasted money on some plastic options before finally splurging and wish we’d gone straight to the Planetbox…the plastic options eventually fall apart (I’m talking about not sure what brand, but they have the easy hinge lock lids and the hinges eventually break). Someone else has mentioned the major con besides price – they are heavy, which is definitely true.

    • We have been very happy with the Pottery Barn Kids lunch boxes and bento boxes that fit inside. They have held up very well over multiple years and daily use. Originally we were going to do Planetboxes, but some friends weren’t thrilled with those.

    • Anonymous says:

      Way late to the party here, but wanted to add this suggestion if it helps anyone. We bought some Rubbermaid Balance lunch boxes this year – it’s a white box that fits four portion-controlled containers and then the whole thing can go in an insulated lunchbox with a separate ice pack (we already had the bag and the ice pack; all you get with the kit is the box, lid and four lidded containers). It works similar to LunchBlox but it’s easier to keep everything contained. My kid loves it – he’s very big on “all foods must be kept separate” and this keeps everything very separated, unlike regular bento boxes – and the containers are easy to open.

    • We use LunchBots. I’m surprised no one mentioned them, as I think I originally found them mentioned here. Not as big as the Planet ones folks are mentioning. We use the 4 section one and the 3 section one. I think they hold plenty of food for my 2 and 5 year old kids. They would not be good for liquid foods but we don’t send stews anyway. Lids are very easy to take off and they have gone in the dishwasher zillions of times for the past 3 years. Very, very durable.

  2. Perfect timing! I was just coming here to ask for suggestions for lunches for my 3 yo. No nuts, must not require heating or refrigeration. I just ordered him an insulated lunch box, so I’m hoping that puts things like cheese and meat back on the table (otherwise, how do you do protein without nuts or refrigeration?). Thankfully my au pair will do the actual packing, but I still have to have the stuff lined up for her to pack. Adding a wrinkle is the fact that his twin is going to a different preschool and will likely have lunch at home before they go pick up the other one. I’m already looking forward to when they’re 10 and can pack their own lunches.

    • mascot says:

      We use an Artic Zone insulated lunch bag and things stay pretty cold. Most of the cold stuff is coming from the fridge into the lunch bag and being stored in a climate controlled classroom as well so the contents don’t seem to warm up all that much. If your kid drinks milk, there are several shelf stable varieties that are easy to toss into a lunch box.

    • 23 Weeks says:

      For our 3YO with no-nuts policy and 5-food-group policy:

      Protein: Veggie burger (microwaved & left cold), sliced turkey, greek yogurt
      Dairy: greek yogurt, cheese stick, sliced cheese
      Vegetable: cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, frozen peas/corn, sliced bell pepper
      Fruit: small apple, banana, clementine, fruit cup, applesauce cup, assorted berries/cut fruit (toddler is not very picky when it comes to fruit, so basically everything goes here
      Carb: crackers (goldfish/ritz – I buy the ‘single serve’ packages), bread

      We include a cold pack in the insulated lunch bag.

  3. shortperson says:

    we love planetbox, no plastic and makes packing lunches easy. it is so much faster when you dont have to pack things in individual baggies etc. we have 3 so that we dont have to wash every day.

    for content, some faves to add are trader joes frozen foods: my kid loves the fried rice which we can microwave a single serving of. she also loves the scallion pancakes and gyoza. these take a few minutes but are hands off so i just cook while she dawdles over breakfast. we also do a lot of leftovers. her favorite food is salmon which we eat once a week at least, so i just make extra. rather than pack leftovers, it goes right from the table into two lunchboxes for two more days. for sides, she also loves dried coconut chips.

    • Anonymous Mom says:

      Planetbox is AWESOME. I recommend buying the silicone divider containers as well– they’re great. All dishwasher safe, and durable.

      The only negative is that it’s a bit heavy, not really an issue if you’re driving, but can be an issue if you walk/take transit to school.

  4. My son eats everything cold, including scrambled eggs and mac and cheese. A couple other ideas to add to Kat’s list:
    Frozen peas (defrost if you want but these are actually quite tasty still frozen – my mother used to give them to us as a before dinner snack and I still like them. Weird I know)
    Frozen corn
    Cut up or shredded cheese
    Turkey pepperoni (Boar’s Head brand is particularly tasty)
    Banana rings – slice a banana into discs without peeling it – the peel helps keep them from getting smushed and is easy for kid to remove

    For containers, we use the easy Lunch Boxes brand plastic ones from Amazon. Cheap, easy for my son to open, dishwasher/microwave safe. I do recommend also getting some of the mini ones that are not microwave safe but are more water tight for subdividing and sauces.

  5. avocado says:

    The Kodiak Cakes pancakes linked above are very tasty, high in fiber and protein, low in sugar, and easy to make, but they would be awful cold and/or in a lunch box. We make a batch on the weekend and freeze them for weekday breakfasts. You can buy the mix in some Targets.

  6. avocado says:

    We do a lot of hot entrees in a Thermos Funtainer jar: mac and cheese, tomato soup, fried rice, lo mein. I fill the jar with hot water to preheat it while I heat up the food, then pour out the water and fill the jar all the way to the top with food. This way it stays hot until lunch.

    • I so wish my kid would go for this. I’ve tried all the Funtainer tricks and my kid swears that stuff is “yucky” by lunchtime. May be a texture issue as much as a temperature one, though.

  7. Anonymous says:

    A few allergy friendly options from a peanut/nut free parent (many of these are also dairy/egg free):

    hummus and pita/veggies
    salsa/guacamole and toasted pita
    crackers, cheese, halved cherry tomatoes
    cold pasta salad (diced peppers, penne pasta)
    cold or warm quiche
    pancakes precut into pieces and jam for dipping (less messy than syrup)
    plain pasta or pasta with tomato sauce (put in container very hot and will still be warm at lunchtime)
    Ham and avocado or guacamole sandwich
    wow butter (sunbutter) sandwich (note that some schools do not allow peanut butter alternatives because they are too hard to tell apart from the real thing)
    pinwheel wraps
    greek yoghurt with fruit and a muffin
    rice bowl with rice, chopped roast chicken and chopped cooked veggies (leftovers from dinner) – can be eaten with a spoon

    Sandwiches are sometimes more popular when cut into 4 strips instead of triangles.

  8. lunch master says:

    THIS IS MY JAM. I have this down to a science. You gotta be okay with a lot of repeats, but it’s healthy and fast. I used to pack 5 lunches on Sunday but now with 2 kids I do 2-3 lunches at a time twice a week, for fridge space reasons.

    I have three formulas and rarely deviate from them. Even if I do, having the ‘formula’ helps me decide what to do even if I swap out a component for something nonstandard. Each formula is based around being able to pack the foods in it bento-style (touching each other) so you can just use one container.

    All of these are vegetarian and nut-free.

    Option 1: Dr Praegers spinach cakes (buy big box at costco), sweet potato tots, scrambled eggs
    Option 2: Pasta (usually with pesto), misc vegetable (usually Steamfresh), cubed tofu
    Option 3: Quesedilla with black beans inside, cucumbers+tomatoes (this one the veg has to be packed in a separate compartment)

    Lunch is always one of those. I also need to send 2-3 reasonably hearty snacks (my kids are at daycare for 9.5-10 hours). Those might be:
    – banana
    – peanut/sun butter sandwich
    – fruit + string cheese
    – fruit + crackers
    – yogurt
    Snacks I prep kind of ad hoc, 1-3 days worth at a time.

    And we have some cheerios, applesauce pouches, and fig bars stored at daycare for extra-hungry days.

    • lunch master says:

      Muffins would be a good addition to the snack rotation if I had my shit together enough to bake muffins. So would hummus+veggies. I used to do veggie pancakes too (with shredded carrot/zucchini) but my kid quit pancakes (even plain ones with syrup! wtf!) at about age 1.5.

    • Anonymous says:

      +1 to the having a set rotation menu.

      Pinterest makes me crazy. Kids don’t need an entirely different and artfully arranged meal every single day of the month.

      • Clementine says:

        Absolutely!

        As a kid, I had PBJ every day for lunch for years (except for a single year where I had tuna and crackers). My husband STILL has PBJ for lunch almost every day, to the point where I have to remind him if there are leftovers that need to be eaten.

        • Ha, I was on the same schedule as a kid – PBJ daily for kindergarten through 8th grade – except I did a year of grilled cheese in 1st grade.

  9. My daughter (6yo) loves a good salad for lunch. I also do turkey lettuce wraps and chicken nuggets in the thermos. Pasta (I get the barilla pasta plus in the yellow box because it has protein) is a favorite as well. She’s a skinny little thing so I tend to just shove tons of food in her bag with the hope that she eats more than the carrots!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Also in the mindset that variety is not necessary. DH hates eating the same thing over and over so his least favorite job is packing kids’ lunches because he has this idea that it has to be different every day. Meanwhile when I pack it’s the same darn thing and guess what? Kids eat it. Or they don’t but it’s not because it’s not varied enough, ha!

    Anyway, we are totally on team Planetbox. We’re going on year 4 with ours and have only had to replace one of the carrying bags because one kid likes dragging his and it was torn up. But the steel containers are still in perfect shape. I actually love that we have exactly ONE container to wash and keep track of for each kid. OK we also have silicone cupcake liners that I use to separate stuff inside sometimes (i.e., crackers so they don’t touch slimy stuff) and the occasionally-used round containers that come with the Planetbox, but still…very minimal clutter in the kitchen and while it’s a pain to have to wash daily it’s worth it over having more things to keep track of.

    So, what goes in the Planetbox for a 3rd grader and a 1st grader – basically it’s the same thing for a week:

    MAIN section = protein & carb: 2 kids who won’t eat sandwiches, so this is the toughest section, but rotate:
    – Yogurt or Frozen yogurt tube
    – Babybel or cheese stick + crackers or pretzels
    – Ham/turkey w/avocado rollup or sometimes just the meat folded (NOT rolled, mom!)
    – Tofu cubes
    – (Someday I’m going to try pasta salad)

    LONG section = vegetable
    – Baby carrots
    – Snap peas
    – Cucumbers
    – (used to offer grape tomatoes until no more love for them)

    VERTICAL RECTANGLE section = fruit 1
    – apple slices 90% of the time unless it’s cuties seasons, then it’s cuties…
    – half a banana

    HORIZONTAL RECTANGLE section = fruit 2
    – berries
    – something else in season that isn’t messy
    – Sometimes when we are low on fruit/veg or I am feeling crazy I stick a granola bar here

  11. layered bob says:

    I send all kinds of things that “should” be hot or cold – I do not understand the necessity of keeping foods at a specific temperature until lunch time (from 8:300 to noon, are foods really going to make you sick in four hours?) Anyway, makes lunch packing much easier. I guess we don’t really eat meat or mayonnaise, so maybe that lessens my food safety risk?

    • Rainbow Hair says:

      The best thing we’ve done so far is to raise a kid who likes cold savory food.
      “What do you want for dinner?”
      “Cold mac n cheese?”

  12. AwayEmily says:

    These are all so helpful! A few things not previously mentioned:

    – Edamame (counts as protein AND vegetable, at least in my mind)
    – Black beans sauteed with onions and cumin and then mushed up a little
    – Trader Joes turkey burgers

    And one weird thing that my daughter LOVES and maybe your kid will too? We take frozen peas + frozen spinach (about a 2:1 ratio), microwave it until it’s all hot, mix in a fair amount of good butter (the salted Kerrygold) and then roughly blend. Eat with a spoon. The peas make it really sweet (and the butter helps, too). This dish is probably her main source of vegetables, and if you make a big batch it also works well for daycare.

  13. I’ve said it here before, I think, but one of the better parenting decisions we stumbled into was making my kindergartener make his own lunch each day. Total PITA the first year or two, but now he’s in third grade and can do it unsupervised. major upside is that he never complains about it because he packed it. Little brother is now just starting K and we have him on the same work plan.

  14. NewMomAnon says:

    Things I haven’t seen on here yet:
    – dried fruit; kiddo loves dried cherries, raisins, dried blueberries, apple chips, etc.
    – deli meat wrapped around a cheese stick and cut into chunks; kiddo won’t eat cheese sticks consistently, but somehow wrapping them in deli meat makes them delicious.
    – frozen meatballs, microwaved and either put in a heated thermos with tomato sauce or served cold with BBQ sauce
    – leftover fried chicken, cold (yeah, I have southern roots)
    – a small cup of kiddo’s favorite cereal; daycare serves milk so they can splash milk on it or she can eat it dry

    And a pro tip; you can get a little cup of diced chicken or other meat at Chipotle and send that in a kid’s lunch.

  15. Tfor22 says:

    Sorry to join in so late (although I think I’ve settled on a username). We use the Bentology lunchbox system from way back when it was laptop lunches. Usually the big compartment is a jam or bologna sandwich. The two smaller compartments are usually fruit or veggie like baby spinach, sliced cucumber, applesauce, or other fruit. Usually the hubs makes lunch, but when I do sometimes I mix it up and do mac-n-cheese or some kind of leftover in 2 medium size compartments instead. Last week I had luck with veggie dogs a couple times and a cheese/cracker thing a different day. The lad also likes olives. Sometimes I throw in a cheese stick or turkey pepperoni for extra protein. He’ll start 6th grade in a couple days, and we’ve been using this kind of lunchbox since pre-K.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Something that’s made my life sooooooo much easier: Instead of ice packs, freeze applesauce or other fruit/veggie sauce packs and add those into the lunchbox/bag to keep foods cold. I do this for myself. If I bring a yogurt parfait (Greek yogurt, fruit, cereal/granola, all layered in a Mason jar with plastic lid), I usually add one of the frozen fruit sauce packs to make sure it stays cold. That way I don’t have to worry about dealing with too many ice packs. (I wouldn’t recommend glass Mason jars for kids, but I do use them for my own lunches.) I like to buy the applesauce packs in bulk and aim for less than $.50 per pack. Costco has great ones, organic, no-sugar-added.

  17. Burgher says:

    We really like Easylunchboxes and have used them for years now. They have held up surprisingly well. Major bonus, they are bottom rack dishwasher safe.

  18. We are packing three or four lunches a day this year (the three older kids and me). We don’t do sandwiches often b/c we usually have bread and jam for breakfast, and I don’t like to give them the same food for every meal.

    We do leftovers a lot – frequently making extra on purpose. Left over dal, beans and rice, if there’s extra meat, soup, or stew, someone heats it, and stick it in a thermos. Sometimes I ask the au pair to make a full batch of pasta for her and the preschooler one day, and then the rest of us take it the other days.

    We do quesidillas once (sometimes twice) a week, with shredded cheese, beans and/or leftover meat in the tortillas.

    Fridays usually do tuna bean salad, which is a favorite of my kids. One can of tuna to one can of cannelli beans (we are often low on groceries on Friday, which is one reason this works so well), vinegar, oil and salt, and if we’re feeling fancy we shred a carrot in. Or rather, my ten-year-old does, because this is usually her job.

    For snacks we sometimes do yogurt and honey (in reusable containers, I’m weird about the huge amount of sugar in pre-sweetened yogurt), and frequently nuts and dried fruit mix (just cashews, almonds, or shelled pistachios with a few dates, raisins, or Costco dried fruit mix).

    A lot of cut up apples, carrots, red/yellow peppers (dubbed candy peppers in my house).

    Our lunches are a bit repetitive, but since we often have a lovely breakfast (DH has a mean omelet game) and good dinners, I have zero problem with boring lunches.

    All of this food is frequently served for afternoon snack, too. If my kids complain it’s not snack food, well, they must not be that hungry =).

    Also, teach your kids to help as early as possible, even if it’s just setting out the lunch boxes where they are easy for you to reach, or putting their water bottle in! we often have days where the ten and seven year old pack all four of our lunches after they eat breakfast, which means DH and I get to sit and eat breakfast together.

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