school lunch ideas

Ah, packing school lunches. Can we talk about this? How I love to hate this process? How I feel guilt for not cutting my boys’ sandwiches into the face of Obi-Wan Kenobi and how I sometimes do bad cartwheels on the weekend when I realize I don’t have to actually pack a real, live lunch for anyone? Yes, let’s talk.

My School Lunch Philosophy:

Since I am currently packing four lunches this year (three for the last couple years), my criteria for packing school lunches is: quick, efficient, healthy, and eatable (meaning, my kids aren’t going to stare at the raw quinoa kale salad at 11:17 a.m. in the packed school room and wonder who they are and how did they get there).

Yes, in an ideal world, my kids would eat anything and everything. And while they are very good eaters, I tend to stick with foods in their school lunches that I know will get eaten. I don’t do a lot of experimenting anymore (I learned a few years ago that my boys would come home so ravenous from school after an experimental school lunch day, they’d eat my entire pantry in a matter of 20 minutes and not be hungry for dinner). And I want the security of knowing they are getting a good meal in them while they are gone without throwing away most of their lunch.

school lunch ideas

School lunches have to work for you and they have to work for your kid(s). I try to give a variety of lunches with healthy, every day ingredients without stressing each night what I’m going to pack or cooking an entire meal just for the school lunch (no, no, no). Now that I’ve officially packed over 1,700 school lunches (yes, I calculated it out), I have it down to an efficient little system and no longer feel badly that my kids’ lunches are more functional than adorable.

My Go-To Supplies:

I did a school lunch post many moons ago (about four years to be exact) and many of you have asked if I still use the same lunch boxes/supplies I did back then. Here are the details on what’s happening in our lunch packing world these days.

The Lunch Box:
After six+ years, we have stayed strong and true to our favorite lunch boxes. These Goodbyn Bynto lunch boxes (Goodbyn store here, you can also get them on Amazon for a few dollars more with free shipping for prime members) have been workhorses. My sixth grader has been using his (the blue one) for five school years and it’s still as trusty as the day we bought it. I can’t sing enough praises about these lunch lunch solutions
Each of my kids has a sleeve they tuck the box into (adding an ice pack when needed) and while the downside is the lunch boxes have to be washed out every day, it’s not a deal breaker for us because of how great they are (plus, it’s one of their after school jobs to wash the lunch box with hot, soapy water which kind of makes me feel like I should be paying the lunch box for teaching them life lessons on dishwashing).
school lunch solutions

Occasionally if we have some stellar leftovers that I’m not fighting them for, the kids will take something heated in a thermos. These thermoses actually. We’ve been using them for years and they really do keep the food piping hot (the key is to follow the instructions and fill the thermos with boiling water and close it for several minutes prior to emptying it and filling it with the hot food – usually warmed up in the microwave the morning of for us).

I’ve found we don’t need a thermos for every kid – they don’t all take leftovers on the same day, so two of these babies work perfectly in our family.
school lunch solutions

Miscellaneous Supplies:
Because we use a bento-style lunch box, these silicone muffin liners have come in very handy for separating the compartments when needed. Granted, since the boxes don’t lay flat all day until lunch, the dried fruit or cashews or whatever else gets assigned into the muffin liners sometimes spill out into the trays but my boys have also reported that surprisingly, many times, they stay put, too.

So anyway, use them at your own risk? I guess that’s what I’m saying. I like the reusability and plus, Camryn plays with them every single time she “helps” me make cookies. In the interest of full disclosure I must report that I have never baked actual muffins in these. But as a master at repurposing, they do a rockin’ job in the lunch box.
school lunch solutions

While disposable, I am also a huge fan of the small snack/condiment cups that have snap-on lids. They are unparalleled in usefulness for ranch, BBQ sauce and other dipping options, as well as anything else that feels appropriate to put in them and stuff in the lunch.
school lunch solutions

We employ the good old-fashioned toothpick on a lot of occasions but for something sturdier, these pronged toothpick-thingies are fantastic. Sadly, I can’t remember where we got them (maybe just Walmart?) but we also have these 4-inch bamboo skewers which are great for when we do a little kebab action in the lunchbox so I don’t have to risk life and limb hacking off the 8-inch ones we use for grilling.
school lunch solutions

Our latest addition to lunch box fun are these silicone popsicle molds. My kids are so excited about them (and I have to admit, they make me kind of giddy, too). I’ve been freezing leftover morning smoothies (usually a fruit/milk kefir combination) in these molds and popping them into the kids’ lunch boxes completely frozen in the morning.

They stay cold until lunch time (partly frozen even) and haven’t leaked yet (I have to fold up the bottoms to fit inside the lunch box and I put a small lunch baggie over the top to minimize leakage just in case). They are a great way to give variety to school lunches (they can be filled with yogurt, dry snacks, fruit juice that’s been frozen, etc.).
school lunch solutions

My Method:

87.5% of the time, I pack lunches the night before. That’s mostly to save my sanity in the morning (they’re just crazy, school mornings, they just are), plus refrigerating them all night helps them stay cooler in the kids’ lunch boxes. My kids are old enough they can help pack their own lunches and they already know to get it approved by the boss, it has to include fruits and/or veggies along with something to help fill their bellies and give them energy.

Treats find their way in occasionally, too; I am definitely not a no-treats in the lunch box kind of mom. Homemade cookies and sweets in moderation are just fine by me as long as it’s not a 90/10 ratio of sweets to nutrition if you know what I mean.

If the kids aren’t helping, I generally pack the same lunch four times – I don’t really short order cook the lunch boxes. The only exception to that is with sandwiches. I have two peanut butter lovers and two ham and cheese kids. So. I dig deep and make two varieties of sandwiches.

But other than that, they usually all look identical except for quantity. My 11-year old eats more than his 6-year old brother which means his lunch box is beefed up with larger portions.
school lunch solutions

My Go-To List:
To keep things simple, I keep a list on my cupboard door with some of our favorite lunch box combos. It’s an updated list from the school lunch post I referred to earlier. It’s not fancy – has no bells and whistles or clipart or emojis, but it’s printable and it works for us. Here’s what’s on the list:

school lunch ideas

You can download and print a copy here if you think it might be helpful. Generally when I’m planning our weekly menus for dinner, I take a glance at the list of school lunch ideas and add a few to my grocery shopping list (I don’t necessarily schedule them on particular days) – just so I have the ingredients or supplies on hand to change up school lunches during the week. And, if the kids are helping pack their own lunch, they’ll have some options as they peruse the list.

You’ll see that while most of the stuff I pack is homemade, I rely on a few prepackaged items at times for variety and convenience. Our favorite fruit leathers are the Stretch Island ones or the Pure Organic fruit strips (both available on Amazon but cheaper at Costco and probably other retailers) and I stock up on Trader Joe’s squeezable yogurts when I’m there (although now that I have the popsicle molds, I’m going to use them more often with our homemade yogurt).

Besides sandwiches, some of my kids’ favorite lunch items are hard-boiled eggs, muffins (particularly these honey bran muffins or these applesauce oat muffins), lots of sandwich kebabers (basically deconstructed sandwich on a skewer), tortilla rollups, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables (with ranch, always, as a dipping option).

I keep these granola bars made and in the freezer as well as our favorite granola bites. And many times, we repurpose leftovers (not heated up – just eaten cold or at room temperature from the lunch box): burritos, pao de queijo (shown below), pasta salad, Asian lettuce wraps, etc.

Here’s a classic example of a school lunch with minimal fuss: strawberries, leftover pao de queijo, whole wheat chocolate chip cookie, squeezable yogurt (from Trader Joe’s). school lunch solutions

Another one: red plum, cashews, cheddar/apple/turkey skewers, rice crackers.
school lunch solutions

Other Resources:

There are endless resources online for school lunch prep and planning – some more helpful than others. I have a couple places that have given me great inspiration (the others usually just overwhelm me and make me feel bad about my food art abilities, if I’m being honest).

Mel’s School Lunch Solutions Post: Part 1
Annie’s Eats School Lunches on Instagram: #anniesschoollunches (love her ideas!)
100 Days of Real Food School Lunches (lots of great, practical, healthy options)
Update: another great Instagram feed: @happykidslunch

In summary:

School lunches are not one size fits all! What works for one mom/dad/caregiver won’t work for another based on time, budget, and a million other reasons. My goal is to give my kiddos a healthy, home-packed lunch that’s nutritious and one step up from completely boring. Like I always say, keep their expectations low and they’ll never be in tears that Hello Kitty didn’t get pressed into their cheese cube.

Feel free to share any of your school lunch thoughts/feelings/resources below!

Like always, none of the products I’ve talked about in this post are sponsored – they are just items I’ve bought myself and loved; some of the links are Amazon affiliate links – at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase – but please feel free to shop around for the best price!

82 Responses to Let’s Talk: School Lunch Solutions {Part 2}

  1. SVF says:

    Thank you! Hope is restored!

  2. Sheila says:

    Love these talks! As usual, you did an amazing job in thoroughly covering this subject and placing within many super helpful ideas and products. I am so thankful you shared the thermos you use. I am so over the cheap thermos I have purchased that keeps food hot for 30 minutes or less. I did swallow hard when checking out the price of this referred one. But then realized I would pay twice this amount to get one that would actually work right. And it is a product that would be used for years. Sometimes making something as simple as producing non-boring, nutritional lunches can become quite laborious without lots of preparation done ahead of time.

    The boys are adorable. Thank you for sharing such a well written post full of great ideas.

  3. Teresa says:

    I love this post full of great ideas. The colorful lunch boxes are adorable. Unfortunately once my boys hit 7th grade in middle school, out went those cute ones and in came the brown paper bag. I am so excited for these new lunch options, thanks so much.

    • Mel says:

      Haha! Yes, I can see that eventually we’ll phase out the colorful lunch boxes for something more middle-school friendly although no one’s complained yet. It kills me that those things start to matter! But I remember middle school/junior high (trust me, I do) and I so I get it.

  4. Barbara H says:

    Thank you so much for this post! My son is starting grade one in about 2 weeks so I’ll be a first time lunch packing mom. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve been a bit nervous about it & this helped quite a bit. I’ve been thinking about baking some things up just to have ready for lunches like pizza rolls, calzones etc for varieties sake. Do you ever do that?

    • Mel says:

      Yes, that’s a great idea, Barbara! Usually if I’m making those types of things for dinner, I’ll double or triple the recipe so I can pop some in the freezer. I don’t find that I make/bake/cook a recipe very often just for lunches though, if that makes sense.

  5. Megan Lang says:

    Love your cheat sheet of ideas. My son would eat peanut butter every day (sandwiches, crackers, celery bites, apply sandwiches, etc), but I try to mix it up and get him to try different things. He’s pretty flexible, thank goodness. Thanks for the packing ideas, too. The pop cycle squeeze is particularly nifty.

  6. Rebecca says:

    Mel, how are they getting a drink to school? It doesn’t look like it fits inside the sleeve, are they carrying it separately?

    • Mel says:

      Good question, Rebecca – they all bring a refillable (washable) water bottle to school for their classrooms and they use that for lunch. Occasionally they’ll grab a milk from the lunch line but it’s usually water.

  7. Barb says:

    Well I’m in a different phase of life than you, but now I pack lunches for a husband and myself for work. Its sad that a hospital cafeteria could be a nutritional wasteland. I will not pay those prices either. When the girls were in grade school I enjoyed packing their lunches- alot of rollups, fruit, home baked cookie, string cheese. Then suddenly in Jr. High– well anything brought from home was dorky and uncool and nerdy. So they bought a school lunch (because i was working fulltime) but they still would put fruit, string cheese, etc. in their backpacks. So I’m working on a list of grownup lunches- everyone’s favorites, creative use of leftovers, and pre-portioning things out in small ziplocks for grab and go convenience. I’ve found whatever is ready and within sight is what they will take. i really like the idea of the silicone cups as dividers.
    Thanks for the new ideas.

  8. Shelly says:

    Thank you for keeping it real! I can finally read a school lunch post and not feel guilty. Our youngest child moved to middle school this year, so we have two in middle school and two in high school and they still prefer home packed lunches. Needless to say, we pack A LOT of food to get them through the day. Thanks for some fun ideas!

  9. Shar says:

    Hi Mel, Thanks for the lunchbox ideas; it helps to mix things up instead of same old/same old. My problem is keeping everything cold for a high-schooler who’s lunch is at 12:30 (and he leaves at 7AM for school). He makes his lunch the night before & we put ice packs in, but things are warm by the time he gets to it. Does anyone have something that works to keep things cold?

    • Bonnie says:

      We have had great luck with the “Packit” brand freezable lunch bags. They have a freezable gel/substance right in the lining. The bag folds up, you freeze it then fill it with your lunch in the morning. We pack lunches at night and put them in the fridge then in the morning get the frozen lunch bag out of the freezer and put the cold lunch in. We got ours at Meijer, but Amazon sells them too.

    • Angela says:

      I pack mine in the morning, and as well as an ice pack, I usually include something frozen (cheese stick, yogurt pop, yogurt cups) and that helps keep things cool. Also, I’ve frozen pb&j sandwiches the night before and they thaw nicely for lunch. You can freeze more than you think! Try and see if any of these things work. 🙂

    • Bonnie N says:

      We have done lunch bags that go on the freezer and have stuff that actually freezes in the walls of the bag. On it’s own it stays cold for at least 5 hrs, but if you add an ice pack to the inside they will make it almost 8hrs. They are the “PK2” from PackIt brand. We’ve had our original one for almost 4 years and it’s still going strong! I found them on sale last year at Walmart for $10 and bought 4 more! (We have 4 kids!)

    • Alice E says:

      One suggestion, you might try freezing a bottle of water at least overnight. Because of the shape, volume or whatever, I have found it takes the filled bottle a long time to fully thaw. Years ago, I’m a retiree now, I used filled Tupperware glasses with lids that I froze ahead of time, and they worked well also. By lunch time the bottle should have thawed enough he can drink part of it. Also the idea of freezing, or chilling the lunch itself would help. If you put a room temperature sandwich in the ice pack has to cool it, not just keep it cool, so if you make the sandwich the night before and chill it that helps.

  10. Jenny says:

    Thank you so much for this post! My kids start school next week and I’ve been dreading making lunches. Thank you for the printable, and the links to your fav products and the reminder to use those silicone muffin cups that I have in my cupboard.

  11. Paige says:

    Oh man! So many links have been pinned and opened in a new window from this post! I don’t have any kids in school yet, but I’m totes already stressing out about what kind of school lunch mom I’m going to be! I’m definitely going to be looking into those lunch boxes because they’re exactly what I’ve been mentally planning on getting for a while now!


  12. I love the Rubbermaid Lunch Blox system, there are so many options it fits everything I want to send with my kids I love that the ice packs are sized to fit and easy to use.

    Some of my kids’ favorite lunches (I’ve packed over 6500–yikes!): Naan pizzas–everything from the typical, turkey pepperoni or sausage to ham with roasted asparagus or BBQ chicken. Soups. Sandwiches. My daughter loves to take baked potatoes w/shredded cheese, leftovers, grilled chicken salads or grilled chicken Caesar salad. They’ll both eat the occasional sandwich, but I need to keep it very occasional. Sadly, they’ll never eat PB&J. They will eat mac and cheese in a thermos (we use the same thermos, btw, they are wonderful.) They enjoy homemade “lunchables”, meat and cheese cut into circles or squares with crackers. They also like lunch meat “roll-ups”, a slice of meat or cheese rolled with a slice of cheese and skewered. My daughter likes quesidillas, we do bagels with or without creams cheese, sometimes cereal with fruit and yogurt. My son loves homemade trail mix–dried fruit, nuts, seeds and a bit of M&Ms. They both love Caesar chicken pasta salad or plain buttered pasta with fresh shredded parmesan to sprinkle on top. Sauteed garbanzo beans with pasta, sometimes chicken, peas or sugar snaps is a big hit too. Leftover taco fixings with either tortillas or chips. I try to keep it creative, I try to keep it healthy. I do pack in the mornings so things are at their best when they get them. BTW, my younger kids are 12 and 15 now and while I don’t think they’d be thrilled to use your system, they’re happy to take a lunch box (Lands End) because they know you can’t really rock the yummy stuff they like in a brown paper bag.

  13. Shar–check out an insulated lunch box (Lands End are the ones we have). That and ice packs plus a frozen but thawing Gatorade or Capri Sun type drink keep my kids’ lunches cold for hours. Good luck!

  14. Shannon says:

    Oh Mel, it’s like you looked inside my head – or at least my pinterest account -and saw my whole board dedicated to school lunches and meal planning and said, “here this will make your life so much easier, all you need in one little packaged post.” I promptly printed your list and will skip looking at pinterest for visual lunch ideas. Who needs that kind of guilt anyway for not having made the cutest lunch with different shapes of food and fun animal picks to eat each bite with? My boys just care about the food! Thanks! You inspire me!

  15. Jo says:

    You’re a lifesaver! I feel like I just had a cup of coffee & an encouraging chat with someone who gets the whole crazy busy-mom-trying-to-be-healthy-and-somewhat-creative scenario. Thanks so much for the tips!

  16. Nicole says:

    Love this post Mel and I can’t believe how big your boys are! It’s so cute when they are lined up and there’s not much height difference. So adorable! Anyways I have to second your love for the goodbyn containers. After years of throwing out all of my experimental containers, I bought the Goodbyn ones you posted about in 2011 (was it really that long ago?) Still the only ones we use going on 3 years now and I LOVE them! I’m always needing more ideas of what to put in there though so thanks a bunch once again!! 🙂

  17. Rachel says:

    I just want to add a big AMEN to this post. Good ideas, but MAN I hate packing lunches!!!

  18. Emily Hoffman says:

    Thank you, this is much needed!

  19. Merianne says:

    I’m the world’s worst mom. David gets a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his lunch box every single day. He hasn’t complained yet, so I ain’t switching it up until he does! 🙂 maybe one day I will be awesome like you are, but probably not!

    • Mel says:

      That doesn’t make you a bad mom, Mer! Gotta do what works for you and if that’s working – awesome!

    • Stephanie says:

      If it’s working, that’s great but you might wanna ask to be sure it’s working. My Mom sent turkey sandwiches everyday for years and I just tossed that part and ate the other stuff. Not saying that’s what he does but you may want to ask.

    • Alice E says:

      If he’s happy, go for it. My husband packs his own lunch and has eaten PB sandwiches for several years. He also takes a cup of fruit.

  20. Emilee says:

    Thanks for the printable list! That’s actually my best tip is that at the beginning of each school year I make my own list of lunch ideas divided by main dish, fruits/veggies, and sides. I don’t look at it every day, but it helps on days when I’m struggling to find what to put in my daughter’s lunch. Thank goodness I only have to worry about one kid’s preferences so far! I try to incorporate leftovers whenever possible to break up the monotony of sandwiches.

  21. Beth says:

    Are these lunch boxes leakproof? Can you put yogurt in one section and it wont leak into another section?

    • Mel says:

      I’ve done that a time or two. They are leak proof if the lids are pressed on super tight and you hear them pop at each section. The problem is that when my kids reseal them after lunch (if they haven’t eaten everything), they don’t always seal them in their rush to get to recess so sometimes they come home with really messy lunch sleeves (the little sling they put the lunch box in).

  22. Sara says:

    Great post! What tortilla wrap-up formula do you use? When I read that part, my heart did a little dance. Thanks!!

    • Mel says:

      We wrap up a lot of stuff in the tortillas – but my kids favorite is to spread a laughing cow triangle cheese on there with turkey (or ham) and sometimes cucumbers. But sometimes we just do ham and cheese and mustard or just cheese/meat or my two youngest like peanut butter and bananas.

  23. Nancy says:

    Yummy choices. But, here’s my philosophy when you got 4 plus kids and you want to save your sanity. Pay for hot lunch in the office for the year and shove them out the door to school. No work, no dishes, there you gom My mom used it on me and I will most likely on my kids.

  24. Julie says:

    Before my first grader started school last week, I looked at your old school lunch post, and we bought one of the Goodbyn bento boxes. I have been loving it! I love not having to use so many little ziploc baggies. I am still on the hunt for a sleeve she can put it in that fits an icepack and a waterbottle. Thanks for the great lunch ideas! I made your ham/mustard/pickle roll-ups last week and my daughter loved it. You are the best Mel! Thank you for sharing your great ideas and pictures of your sweet little family with us!

  25. Louise says:

    Mel! I have never met you and other than this website I know nothing about you – but I can honestly say I LOVE YOU! I love the way you write, the way you sum up what millions of mums across the globe think and do on a daily basis and for your amazing ideas. Great post and great ideas – I hope Australia sells those popsicle modules 🙂

  26. Jen T says:

    So appreciate this! I have 4 kids, 2 in high school, 1 in middle school and 1 in elementary and they all hate school lunches so we have been packing lunches for years. My oldest is a senior and has never eaten school lunch. Always looking for new ideas. We get our lunch boxes at costco and they come with an amazing ice pack that keeps things cold for hours–even when my kids leave at 6 a.m. for seminary and don’t eat lunch until 12:30 it is still cold. Thanks for this post! Really appreciate it!

  27. Jocy says:

    Love it! I’m all about keeping it simple, healthy, homemade 90% . I think getting the kids involved about what they would like to eat at lunch helps a lot and they will eat the food even if it’s not in cute shapes. Thank you Mel!!!!

  28. Trisha says:

    Lunches have been on my mind for the past week or so and my son is still in preschool! Yet, here I am wondering how I can send him with a healthy lunch that he likes next year. In fact last night I dreamed about lunch boxes. Ha! Now maybe I can get a little more sleep at night. Thanks for the awesome post! 🙂

  29. Lisa L says:

    Thanks for your recipes and for keeping it “real”…

    My high school sophomore daughter is also a swimmer. She has a super long day with commuting, school, practice and homework. I pack her a lot of food, but mostly leftovers. Typically I will make an extra batch of pasta or chicken dish over the weekend for days where leftovers are scarce (did I mention she doesn’t eat sandwiches!) I have made both your Classic Mac & Cheese and Stovetop Mac & Cheese, reheated with a bit of milk and sent in thermos. She loves the Classic M&C! Also, she takes an apple with peanut butter everyday. I cut the apple in half and take out core & seeds with melon baller, fill the hole with PB, put the apple back together and wrap in plastic wrap. She’s a grazer, so I also put in lots of little bags with snacks – nuts, granola, cereal, popcorn.

  30. Kelly says:

    I have been looking for a Bento type lunch box and was excited to see your post about all things school lunch. I’m wondering if your thermos fits into one of the compartments on the Bynto box?

  31. Sharon says:

    I love your honesty and simplicity. My oldest daughter is starting school in a few weeks and packing school lunches is something I’ve been fretting over – but fret no more, you’ve given me some great ideas and taken away the worry. Thanks – you rock!

  32. Melanie says:

    Thank you for these wonderful ideas and suggestions. I’ll be sharing today with our readers as well. Having been a home-school family, we haven’t had to worry about packed lunches very often. But I know many families struggle with managing that task day-in and day-out for so much of the year. Thanks for the terrific post!

  33. Kira says:

    It’s posts like these that make yours the only blog I can be on board with! You don’t have to pretend that you do kale quinoa salads each day! I’ve got to get some of those boxes because it kills me to use about five baggies everyday for each kid! And when I learned to pack lunches the night before, I’m not even kidding, our mornings are about 300% better!! It’s hard because I know we are all so EXHAUSTED at night, but worth it every time.

  34. Lisa says:

    Thanks for the ideas! I have a full day kindergartener and I have a lot to learn about lunches. I’ve seen the idea of a bagel with various toppings of choice in a few different places. I guess I’m not that creative. What toppings do they like? All I can think of is cream cheese or a pizza bagel. Any others?

  35. Julia says:

    Definitely on my wavelength here 🙂

  36. I don’t pack lunches yet, but I’m totally getting one of those Goodbyn boxes! I was just wishing I had a divided bowl for my 4 year old. She likes things separated but we only have divided plates and she often ends up with a bunch of bowls at a meal if we’re having something like burrito bowls (which she likes in deconstructed form)! :o) This will be perfect and she can use it when she starts taking a lunch to school!

  37. Shauna says:

    THANK YOU!!! You rock! A couple questions…how do you keep the apples on the skewers from turning brown? And where do I find these rice crackers you speak of?

    • Mel says:

      Hey Shauna – sometimes I’ll cut a lemon or lime and rub the apples with the cut side. But often I don’t. My kids know that even if they have changed color a bit, they still taste delicious. 🙂 And I get those rice crackers at Costco. I think they are the Crunchmaster brand.

  38. These are really helpful ideas. A lunch pack with lots of fruits and vegetables will make the kids healthier and cheerful all day. Thanks a lot for sharing your valuable experience.

  39. Judy Hintz says:

    This is a great topic as we start school 9/1! I have a Kindergartner and a 3rd grader and here is the ‘formula’ I’ve used in the past. We use LL Bean lunch bags ( because the handles are on the top (so my kids can carry them upright without dumping the containers. Also, my 3rd grader is on his 3rd bag in 4 years (!) due to fork and other boy mishaps. LL Bean has a lifetime guarantee so I just send it back and get a replacement – easy. We pack our drink in these Kleen Kanteen bottles ( and the boys report their drink stays cold until lunch (around 5 hours). I was hesitant to pack milk in anything else, and I calculated almost $50/year if one son bought milk every day. I’ve been known to put hot chocolate in on cold WI days or lemonade on warm days. I like to keep them guessing. For our food, I use Tupperware sandwich containers ( for a half sandwich plus 2 silicone muffin cups with other items. We have found that sandwiches add moisture to the container so we don’t put chips or crackers in the same container. Rather carrot sticks or grapes or raisins, etc. Add one other container with something crunchy and lunch is done. Also, I rarely use an ice pack and all has been well. Good luck to your family on the start of the new school year! We’re excited in our house – apparently learning cursive in 3rd grade is a big deal… and Kindergarten is always a big deal. 🙂

  40. Sacha says:

    This is wonderfully helpful! Thank you so much. Question: If you cut the sandwich in half will it fit in a compartment of the goodbyn box? Or do you put the sandwich in a separate container? Thanks again!

    • Mel says:

      Hi Sacha, yes, half sandwiches fit great in the two larger compartments (and whole sandwiches fit, too, with the halves stacked on each other).

  41. Nicole H says:

    I don’t have kids in school yet, but do have a husband with one year left in grad school. I think I’ll have to invest in some of these supplies and use the tips that you speak of. They sound stellar and so helpful! Thanks for sharing!
    p.s. You’ve got a good looking bunch of boys, and I love your new picture 🙂

  42. Sharon says:

    These are great ideas for packed lunches for adults as well. The muffin case idea will be used a lot. We have too many flasks and sandwich boxes but I might just look online at above suggestions while my beloved is looking the other way.

  43. Kim says:

    Thanks for the realistic advice. The Goodbyns have just been discovered by me. I sm thinking about trying them out this school year. Two lunches to pack and one picky eater. I am slightly nervous. I am thinking about adding nuts daily to their lunches.

  44. Vicky says:

    I loved this timely post. School starts tomorrow, but I may have to order some of those bento boxes. I have never liked how everything gets mushed together in the lunch bags we’ve been using. Thanks for the tips!

  45. britney says:

    I love this post! Not only do I come to your site for all of the amazing recipes, but I love the tips and how to’s as well. Do you by chance have food storage. Our family is similar to yours in taste and size and I would love to know how you do it. Thanks for all of the AMAZING posts that have made me a rock star in the kitchen.

  46. Kendra says:

    Thanks for the great ideas Mel. The funny thing is, all my kids are grown and in their twenties. However, my youngest daughter just started grad school, and on a grad student budget she is packing her lunches, so I am forwarding this post to her. I packed many a lunch, and coming up with creative ideas is the hardest part! The funny thing is, I came to your site today to get the link to send her for the crock pot applesauce. She has golden delicious apple trees in the yard of her new apt. Yay! Free food! Thank you for appealing to all ages and stages.
    Oh, one more thing, after high school years with the brown paper lunch sack, she is back to not caring about carrying a lunch box, and takes an insulated lunch box in to campus everyday!

  47. Annie says:

    Way to go Mel! I hope this boys know how good they have it! They probably don’t. I didn’t appreciate my mom’s packed brown paper bags lunches until adulthood. She did 6 lunches everyday for a couple of years.

  48. Shannon says:

    Mel, I love this post! My daughter started kindergarten this year and this whole lunch thing had me very overwhelmed until I read this post and basically bought everything you suggested. For the most part I have loved all the products but I am continually frustrated with the Goodbyn bento box because it leaks! Even just putting strawberries in it the juice ends up at the bottom of the lunch sack. Help! How do you pack wetter foods?

    • Mel says:

      Oh no, Shannon! That’s a pain! I honestly haven’t had the leaking problem in all these years of using them. Do you hear an audible snap when you press down on the Goodbyn box to close it? I move my hand across all the different connecting compartment seams to close them really tightly. If that doesn’t help, you should definitely contact the company! They have really good customer service.

      • Shannon Richards says:

        Ok I just tested it with making sure I pressed it all the way around and it still leaks like crazy! The bottom compartment does not seal well at all. I think I will call their customer service. Thanks for the tip!

  49. Vicky says:

    I just threw my son’s lunch bag in the garbage because it smelled so bad (he constantly “forgets” to empty it and leaves leaky things and garbage inside—ick) and I’m looking at getting the goodbyn bentos and sleeves for my two in school and one starting in the fall. How cleanable would you say the sleeves are when there is a leak situation? The website says to wipe clean, but I know that sure didn’t cut it for the bag he has been using. What do you think?

    • Mel says:

      I really like the sleeves, Vicky. I know they say to wipe clean and usually we do (with clorox wipes or a hot washcloth) but I’ve even thrown them in the rinse cycle of my washer (front loader, use the gentle cycle too) and it works great. I just make sure to air dry them really well after.

  50. Megan says:

    You are a mom that gets it! After reading countless other well-meaning blogs about school lunches, yours has been the most helpful and real! These are the foods that my kids will actually eat and it matches the vision I have for my kids, by including things like homemade granola bars, muffins, and items that are a little less processed. Thank you!!

    P.S. Your blog is helping me so much with dinner meal planning. Thank you for that too!

  51. Desinia says:

    This is a great blog post. I was wandering do you make lunches for you and your husband as well? I do not have any kids right now but my husband and I both work. Is there any resources for preparing healthy adult lunch ideas?

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