School starts this week around these parts. It has me thinking about the almighty school lunch. Do any other moms out there struggle with healthy options to send in their kid’s lunches?

This year, I’ll have two kiddos in school – a 2nd grader and an all-day Kindergartner (boo-hoo!). They prefer to take a home lunch and I swear that’s not even with me brainwashing them into it and telling them all the reasons to avoid the mystery meat in the cafeteria lunch line. Because they enjoy it, I try to stay on my toes about keeping foods on hand that they like to eat.

I have compiled a list of lunch solution ideas that I keep taped to the inside of one of my kitchen cupboards.

When I’m throwing together lunch in the morning or the night before, I open up the cupboard, take a peek at the list and choose an option or two from each section. It takes the brain work out of fixing lunch. Cause, you know, it requires a ton of brainpower to do such a simple chore around my house. I also keep these items on my grocery list at all times so that I have them on hand to make lunches.

This year, I am changing up the system a bit. In the past, I’ve put all the lunch components in plastic bags and in my child’s lunchbox. But this year, I bought two little bento-style boxes. Not because I plan on cutting out their sandwiches in the shape of a transformer action figure (because I don’t) but because I like the idea of placing the food in different compartments, washing it quickly at the end of the day and reusing the next day. I have a few insulated lunchboxes that these Goodbyn lunch containers fit into, in case I am sending something that needs to stay cooler.

Here is an example of a lunch I packed in one of the boxes. I keep things pretty simple. Reduced-fat Triscuit crackers, a ham and cheese roll-up on a tortilla (secured with toothpicks to prevent unrolling and thereby prevent my Kindergartner from melting into a pool of tears at lunch time without his mom there to help him), grapes, a Babybel cheese round, and a homemade chocolate chip cookie.

Here’s another lunch option. Trader Joe’s kettle corn, a PB&H sandwich on homemade bread (I understand peanut butter is banned from some schools due to allergies but it is still allowable at ours thanks to Peanut-Free tables), string cheese, a handful of garden-fresh cherry tomatoes, and dried mangos.

You really can get as creative as you like and customize the food options to what your child(ren) like to eat.

I’ve compiled a list of our favorite lunch options – an even greater list than the one that resided in my cupboard last year. I plan on branching out even more and adding to that list (thinking up some ideas for savory-type muffins) as I embark upon lunch-packing this year, whereupon I will let you know immediately with a little blurb on facebook or a recipe post here.

As a quick sidenote, I splurged at Pottery Barn when I was there last month on vacation in Oregon and bought a Lunch Lines booklet of easy tear-out slapstick jokes to include in my boys’ lunches. You know, jokes like “What do you call someone who designs dog houses? A Bark-itect.” Hilarious. For a 7-year old, that is. I think my boys will get a kick out of seeing the latest joke to appear in their lunch (and maybe a sappy lovenote from mom, as well).

One of the biggest helps I have for lunch packing is to have a lot of the foods prepped in the refrigerator (as in, watermelon already cut, carrots cut into sticks, etc.). It makes throwing it in the lunch box easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

Here is my list so far:

SANDWICHES/WRAPS/MAIN FARE
• Tortilla wraps {Natural lunch meat and cheese wrapped in a tortilla, cut in half and each half secured with a toothpick}
• Sandwiches {PB&H, PB&J, meat and cheese, etc.}
• Sandwich skewers {a deconstructed sandwich skewered on a long toothpick or bamboo skewer – meat chunks, cheese cubes, bread cubes, cherry tomato, etc.}
• Meatballs {my kids love meatballs on a toothpick or just in a little container with a plastic fork}
• Leftover pizza {I know cold pizza makes some of you want to hurl but my kiddos love it}
• Ham or Turkey roll-ups {lunch meat rolled up with a squirt of mustard and a pickle}
• Mini-bagels with filling/topping of kid’s choice
• Sliced turkey kielbasa or other lean sausage {I include a toothpick for easy eating}

FRUIT
• Apple or Pear slices
• Dried fruit/Raisins
• Fruit Leather {I like the Stretch Island brand}
• Applesauce
• Strawberries/Blueberries
• Grapes
• Half of a banana
• Watermelon/Cantaloupe chunks
• Pineapple chunks
• Orange slices

VEGGIES
• Baby carrots/carrot sticks
• Sugar snap peas
• Celery sticks
• Handful of cherry tomatoes

SIDES
• Hard boiled egg
• String cheese
• Mini Babybel cheese
• Crackers/chips
• Pretzel sticks
• Yogurt/Cottage cheese
• Popcorn

DESSERTS
• A note: I don’t send a treat every day in my kid’s lunches, but when the mood strikes, I grab one of these homemade cookies from the freezer and throw it in frozen to thaw before lunch time.

DRINKS
• Another note: My kids drink white milk for lunch and they buy it at school so I’m off the hook for packing a drink.

Here is a less-wordy PDF version for printing, if you’d like.

Now it’s your turn…what are a few of your favorite school lunch solutions? Oh yes, please share!

P.S. If you are on the hunt for ultra-creative lunch ideas (we are talking Hello Kitty themed lunches and sandwiches in a rocket shape with cucumber planets), check out this compilation of amazing and over-the-top lunch inspiration from eighteen25.

91 Responses to School Lunch Solutions!

  1. Emily says:

    I have such picky kids! It makes lunch-packing a tad frustrating. A few things we send that I don’t see on your list–cucumber slices and ranch (smart and final has tiny plastic cups with lids perfect for dipping sauces, cream cheese, etc); leftover crepes with pb or nutella; mini pepperoni (so cute!) with crackers; pirates booty; Trader Joe’s vanilla yogurt in a small lidded ziploc cup and a baggy of granola to stir in; pistachios or cashews; leftover muffins; I’ve even been known to send a cup of cold cereal for which my daughter bought milk and poured on top–desperation!!

  2. Angie Walker says:

    It is sad that some schools are banning packed lunches from parents. There are some parents (like you) that are concerned about what their children eat. When my children were small I packed their lunches daily. I think my children ate better meals than what they offered in school. I used to pack the fruit, sandwich rolls, cheese, crackers, and sometimes they would take a thermos of hot soup. There are still parents out there that tend to their children correctly. Great post!!

  3. Randee Donovan says:

    Good morning, Mel! I just found your site a couple of weeks ago. I LOVE IT! I’m so happy to see another mom taking care of her family and having fun doing it. This post is wonderful. I’m definitely going to check out the Goodbyns (too cute!) and make my own lunch list. Your lunch list, pantry staples, menus- and so much more!- have inspired me, motivated me, and given a summer-long slump in the kitchen a kick in the butt! Can’t wait to read more!

  4. Charmaine says:

    I like the peanut free tables. Wish the schools in Oz had tht. Unfortunately, most schools and daycare centres are nut free. I like to make sausage rolls, curry puffs or vegie pasties to freeze and bake them in the mornings for lunch boxes. My girls are fussy eaters so there needs to be variety. My older girl who is in high school will take soups, pasta, fried rice or nachos. To keep warm, I put the hot food in a thermos food container.

  5. Katie says:

    We do a lot of crackers with cheese and lunchmeat (a la lunchables) and frozen gogurts, but my daughter’s favorite thing is to take reheated dinner leftovers in a thermos. Thanks for the great lunch list!

  6. crafty p says:

    THanks for posting this! I have a love/hate relationship with lunch packing. The kids see to get pickier and pickier about what they will or will not eat!! I asked each of my big kids to make a list of their faves last night and unfortunately, most of it is hot foods that need to be prepped right before lunch and Joe’s O’s (which is only a special treat). So, today it was a tomato and mozzarella salad, applesauce and a banana choc chip muffin for one and a mini bagel with berry cream cheese, grapes and frozen yogurt for the other. I’ve also weaned all 4 boys off juice boxes and they can take ice water and on days they buy a lunch, they’ll get to buy chocolate milk- another SPECIAL treat.
    I’ll save cookies and milk for after school snacks. ;)

  7. kelley says:

    Thanks for the ideas. I feel like I pack the same stuff over and over. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of the toothpick but I love it!

  8. Tanya H. says:

    Our preschool and school are nut free, so I try to offer other good sources of protein like quinoa (curried quinoa in a thermos, mini quinoa pancakes, quinoa muffins, sprouted quinoa & feta/veggies salad) and homemade hummus (no sesame, another allergy ban). My kids eat fruit and veggie chunks speared on toothpicks, and we use playdough shape cutters to cut cheese into fun shapes.

  9. Stacy says:

    Let me echo the “Great Post” comments! My kids are at a small private school with no cafeteria, so lunches from home are required. I LOVE your list because last year I believe my kids ate enough PBJ’s to carpet our town. There is a microwave the kiddos can use, so sometimes, if I’ve struck just the right chord with dinner, my kids will take leftovers in for lunch the next day. Today my middle child has leftover broccoli beef in her lunchbox. Yea for variety! And thanks for the list idea. Supremely simple and yet I’ve missed it all these years. ;)

  10. Jeanette says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Melanie. I decided this year to be more creative in packing lunches and so far have done pretty well. (We started school last week). Your ideas will be a big help!
    Here’s a few of the items I send:
    *Cubes of turkey on toothpicks (I get the little plastic packages of cubed turkey that is marketed as a salad topping)
    * Jello made in tiny , individual Tupperware type containers
    *Homemade mini muffins (I can’t wait to see what savory type muffins you come up with!)
    I’ve been busy so haven’t responded a lot lately, but am still a loyal reader….it’s still my fav. food blog!!!! J

  11. Patricia says:

    My babies are 20 and 22, so my lunch packing days are long gone! However, when I was packing lunches daily – my kids loved salad. I would pack lettuce in a container and then put toppings such as shredded cheese, croutons, strawberries, diced turkey, etc. in plastic bags and they would have their own salad bar. It was easy to prep the night before. Also, as a second grade teacher, I still encounter a lot of school lunches and those little notes from home are a big hit especially the first week or so! Enjoy packing those lunches now because time really does fly!

  12. Liz K. says:

    Love this post! Moms can never have to many great ideas when it come to paking lunch. Last week my neighbor made a super creative and yummy lunch. She made pizza dough, rolled it out into a rectangle and then topped it with a chopped broccoli, cheddar cheese and cottage cheese mixture. Next she basically followed the steps of making cinnamon rolls, but instead of cinnamon rolls she had broccoli rolls. They were so good. I made them this weekend and my kids really liked them. They would make a great addition to the lunch rotation. I think you could get creative with the “filling” and use pizza sauce and pepperoni or maybe use spinach artichoke dip inside. Thanks for all of the great ideas!

  13. Joelle Fryer says:

    Thanks Mel for this great post. My oldest will be in first grade all day and one of my biggest worries has been what to pack in her lunch.
    My daughter is allergic to Cashews. We try not to make a big fuss about it and she has never had a reaction since she was diagnosed. I have done quite a bit of research on nut free and peanut free schools. There have been several studies done that banning and over reacting to allergies is actually making the problem worse. I love the idea of nut free tables. If you belong to a nut free school check into it and make a difference. Nuts are a great source of protein and other nutrients.
    I hope my post doesn’t cause a stir. I LOVE your website and use several of your recipes and my family has enjoyed all of them. Thank you.

  14. Whitney says:

    I love this post!! Thank you!! :) My oldest just started kindergarten a couple weeks ago, so I’m pretty new to this whole packing a lunch thing. Last week, I sent her a thermos of oatmeal and blueberries and she LOVED it! I also did a “make your own pizza” where I sent slices of whole wheat pita bread, homemade pizza sauce (I froze the sauce in an ice cube tray, so I can just grab a cube out of the freezer and stick it in her lunchbox), shredded cheese, pineapple, and canadian bacon, and then she assembled the pizzas at lunch time. We all love, love, love your recipe for Pumpkin Chocolate Chip muffins. I make them with white whole wheat flour and freeze them. They make a great quick addition to the lunch box (or a quick breakfast on busy mornings :). If you haven’t already, you should check out http://www.100daysofrealfood.com. On the top right of the website, there is a tab that says “children adapting” and under that it says “school lunches.” It is a great resource for healthy lunch ideas. I can’t wait to see what you come up with for savory-type muffins! I have a pizza muffin pinned on pinterest, but haven’t gotten around to trying it out yet.

  15. Jessica says:

    I bow down to you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My oldest is starting school soon and I really appreciate you sharing your lunch ideas. I’ve seen bentos and thought they were adorable but not very practical in my life. I do love the idea of using the containers and having lots of different lunch options! Thanks again! :)

  16. Emily says:

    As a 20-something with no kids, I’m surprised to hear that schools are banning nuts altogether. I understand that allergies are a serious, life-threatening concern, but banning peanut butter from individual school lunches seems so extreme. The nut-free tables sounds like a better idea. Don’t you sometimes wonder how we managed to grow into healthy adults without all these rules in place?

    Anyway, I pack a lunch to work everyday so these ideas are good for me as well. :) I usually pack a sandwich, a salad, or leftovers from whatever we had for dinner the night before. Sometimes I’ll make a big pot of something like black bean soup on Sunday and eat it for lunch the rest of the week, but that can get boring. I like the rolled up tortilla idea.

  17. Even though WizKid is attending public school at home and I’m home as well, I still find it hard to figure out lunch every day.

  18. Cara says:

    LOVE this post! My boys (I have three in elementary this year) favorite lunches are your french bread roll recipe with fillings. Sometimes it is ham and cheese, sometimes it is leftover chicken and broccoli casserole. They love these rolls and are often the envy at the lunch table for their homemade roll/sandwich. It is a great way to disguise leftovers and I bake 12 of them at a time and freeze them. They defrost for 30 seconds in the microwave and are perfect by lunch time. Mini calzones are another big hit. One of boys is not able to bring PB&J due to an allergy in his class so we have been getting more creative this year. I also highly recommend the resuable thermos for soup. They can be an investment at something like $16 a thermos, but we have had the same ones for three years now and are in great condition.

  19. Kim says:

    4 of my kids eat school lunch this year so I appreciate your post a lot. My kids make their own lunch the night before. They have to take at least one thing from each of these categories: grain, protein, fruit/veggie and dairy (not including their milk). I also have a list taped inside my kitchen cupboard so they can see ideas for each category. It doesn’t matter if the categories are combined, like in a sandwich or a wrap. In years past, they’ve just gotten milk at school but they would often complain that it was warm or smelled funny (not to mention that at 25 cents it adds up to $4 per gallon) so I bought each of them a 10 oz stainless steel thermos that has a flip lid with a straw. They fill it up and then is sits in the fridge all night and is still plenty cold by lunch the next day. They each also have a wide mouth thermos for taking leftovers or jello if they want to. I hate the quality and cost of school lunch so home lunch is a great thing for our family. Thanks for the great post and some new ideas.

  20. Maegan says:

    Mel! I love you blog. Every single thing I have made (which is lots) had been delicious. Thank you so much. I don’t even have kids yet but I get bored making lunches for my husband and me. Thank you so much for your great ideas!

  21. Marissa says:

    Wow Mel, I was just going to e-mail you last night to request a post about packing lunches, because I was desperate for ideas. I love your list and the idea of using bento boxes–we homeschool, so we’re usually home for lunch, but we’re crazy busy running to and fro in the evenings–so it’ll be great to employ these ideas for dinners on the go! (And reduce the need for last minute stops at McDonalds to appease the hungry tribe!) Thank you for posting!

  22. Julia says:

    These are some great ideas. Ziplock makes a (BPA free) divided container that has 3 sections. You can get 2 for about $2.50. These are a great option for those who need something a little less expensive.

  23. Lindsay says:

    Mel, I still have about 4 years til I’ll have a kiddo in school. But you’ve totally inspired me. My mom always packed us lunches, and these ideas are great. There is no wonder why your kiddos prefer a home lunch rather than the school lunch (which I agree, is a little scary!). Thanks again!

  24. Sarah says:

    This is a great post! I don’t have any kids yet, but my husband is almost done with his thesis and will be starting a new job in a couple of weeks. He’s had a couple of summer internships since we’ve been married, and I always get into a rut about what to buy for his lunches. This gives me some new ideas to start out right with his first “real” job. Thanks!

  25. Sheila says:

    Any of your pasta salads work for us each week. I have also deconstructed a taco salad and they put it together-chips, lettuce, tomato, black beans, salsa, cheese, etc.

    Pesto chicken, five cup salad, and pasta are also a great meal.

    PS. We also love cold pizza and cold spaghetti and cold lasagna.

  26. Elizabeth says:

    My son started his all day kindergarten two weeks ago and I started experimenting in desperation for some more lunch ideas. I used your lion house rolls recipe and rolled it out a third at a time, and then made a mix of ground beef, ketchup, onion, shredded cheddar cheese and a little mustard, and put about 1 Tbsp of mix in the middle of the rolled out rolls, and wrapped the dough around the mix and baked for as long as normal. I was kinda like the chicken pillows but with a cheeseburger filling, I also did it with a pizza sauce, mozzerella and pepperoni filling. I then froze these cheesburger and pizza balls I stick a couple in my sons lunch frozen in the morning with some ranch or ketchup to dip it in, and they are thawed by lunch.

  27. marisa says:

    We have peanut allergies in our family and I am thankful the school works with us parents who have kids with severe allergies. You never know how badly a child will react. The smell can send a kid into a frenzy.

    I have been doing the list inside of our pantry for awhile now. Really helps with 5 kids!

  28. Leslie says:

    Thanks so much! I may just have to get some of those little Bento boxes, because my husband freaks out whenever I use a ziplock bag (too expensive!) Also you have ideas I didn’t have yet as far as food to to include! We’ve just started our first try of Home lunches and I’m really pumped for it! So far I did buy some individual sandwhich containers (to save on ziplocks ;) ), and I change up between PB&J, tuna or egg salad (mixed with miracle whip, not mayo–so it won’t spoil), or ham/chicken/turkey (real meat from the deli) sandwhiches. I have the kids choose at least on fruit and one veggie and one side. My list isn’t as extensive as yours. So far we’ve just had Go-gurts or string cheese or yogurt in a small tupperware. I’ve heard of someone freezing individual smoothies somehow and sending those. They work well to keep the lunch cold until lunch time too.

  29. Judy F. says:

    I recently heard on the news that a large majority of the school lunches tested are not very safe due to lack of refrigeration. If you are going to send a lunch that needs to be cold be sure you include a cold pack. It doesn’t make sense to send a nutritious meal and then have it become dangerous from sitting in a warm lunchbox for several hours.

  30. this is awesome, we plan on homeschooling our little one, but my husband takes lunches and he is always complaining that he has to eat the same thing. He won’t stop and take a lunch break so he likes food that he can eat on the road, he is a local truck driver. These will be great Ideas for him. I can also mention veggie sticks, we give these to my daughter as “chips” We are definitely trying to change our eating habits for the better, this will be great for us. Thank you!

  31. Jenn says:

    I just visited your website last night looking for ideas before I typed up a list to send to my SIL about ideas. So fun to see your list on here this morning :)

  32. Nicole says:

    First just to the comment about refrigeration- yes definitely make sure you send a cold pack and they have cute ones at target or other stores that kids won’t accidently throw away…but also my kid’s lunch is at 11 am which means if I send him to school at 8:30 that only leaves 2 1/2 hours between then and time to eat, so it’s well over the “after 4 hour danger zone” of leaving things un-refrigerated
    Anyway my main problem is getting my kid (who usually likes veggies) not to bring home un-eaten veggies every day! Since he’s allergic to dairy and we can’t dip stuff in ranch, I was wondering if you have a good dairy free dipping recipe for like hummus or anything? Ideas? :)
    I LOVE all of your sandwich and rollup ideas and will definitely be stealing those :)

  33. Jackie Brown says:

    Great ideas, Mel. I do the same thing rotating items. I bought reusable separate containers from Ross from FIT lunch this year. I got a set of eight containers for 9.99 with ice packs. I thought it was a great price for my two grade school kids. They even had pink and green for girls and black with skateboards for boys. So it was easy to divide and conquer. I DO include a sweet treat every day from my freezer (two small cookies, muffins or homemade granola bars, http://momonamission.me/?p=2512 I rotate it to keep it interesting. The freezer helps me preserve our baked treats. Thanks for the inspiration!

  34. Chelan says:

    I’m a nanny, but I’m often the one in charge of packing lunches. Two picky eaters have led me to get somewhat creative. Homemade, childsize calzones have been a great option. I make half a dozen at a time and the kids get to help. Fresh dough and sauce from Trader Joes, some cheese and a variety of pizza toppings/fillings. They get to pick what they want to go inside and then we bake and freeze them. I toss them in the lunch box in the morning and they’re defrosted by lunch and have acted like a cold pack to keep the rest of the veggies/fruit, etc. cold. Empanas are basically the same thing with different dough and fillings. Try beans, cheese, mexican rice, chicken, taco meat. Or go Pierogi style and do mashed potatoes, chicken, cheese, corn… It all just depends on what your kid will eat :)

  35. megan says:

    man, as much as I love reading and using all your recipes, I really love it when you share such useful, practical posts like this one. Thank you! Just in time for my first kid to start kindergarten next week.

  36. Jennett says:

    I discovered bentos toward the end of school last year and did a lot of research on them this summer to find some fun containers. If you would like some other resources, I have several! A fun shop I just ordered from is called: allthingsforsale.com and they carry a lot of creative picks/cutters etc… with $6 flat rate shipping, but I’m always looking for new ideas, so thanks for the fun links my 4th and 2nd grader were already drooling over their new found love–Phineus and Ferb bento style!

  37. tiffany street says:

    i actually work in a school cafeteria, and i must say.. that school lunch has become a lot better and ALOT healthier. everything is made with wheat or on wheat bread. (this is in our state anyways, idk if other states have different regulations) but we also offer fresh apples, pears, oranges, carrots, cucumbers,celery sticks, strawberries. these are all daily choices. this year they are also restricting desserts and starches. so it is much much healthier than it used to be. my child eats school lunch on days that there are choices he likes. i don’t often send a home lunch but when i do i am extremely careful not to send deli meats or anything else that really should be refridgerated. at our school the AC is out, so it is hot from the minute they walk into school till the minute they leave. i put a frozen go-gurt and frozen capri sun in my son’s lunch to keep things cold and themselves cold. also, the health department in our state is much more critical and picky about school cafeteria’s than any fast food restaurant or establishment, just something to think about :)

  38. Sarah R says:

    I love this post! I love packing lunches and getting creative with them.
    Also, and this is mostly for the commenters, my daughter is severly allergic to peanuts. I am beyond grateful for schools now that are very acocomodating for children who suffer from food allergies. She can have a severe reaction if the peanuts are in the air so it doesn’t just happen from contact. So in our case a peanut free classroom and cafeteria is absolutely essential to her health. Her lips and face will start to swell up if she is anywhere near peanuts or if it is in the air. I can’t tell you how many people don’t understand this and give us such a hard time. I’ve been called a “crazy allergy mom” or “overprotective” on more than one occassion. Usually once people have witnessed first hand her swelling up and stopping breathing and us having to administer her epi-pen and run to the ER before it runs out they get it. Sadly our life revolves around those stupid little peanuts. So please if you know someone who suffers from an allergy, whether it is life threatening or not, give the parents a break. We go through enough as it is. We only want our children to be safe and healthy.

  39. Kira says:

    Mel- Awesome post. No kids in school yet, but my three year old and I will enjoy this anyway! Thank you. We sometimes eat all the same types of sides and such as you listed with a piece of homemade banana or zucchini bread as our “main dish”.

  40. Krissa says:

    Yay! Thanks! I’m starting school lunches for the first time with my daughter going into KN. So I’m looking for ideas…I’ve frozen some Gogurts to put in her lunch, string cheese, Pirate Booty, grapes, cherry tomatoes, fruit leather, veggie straws, peanut butter filled pretzels…and of course, an occasional treat…like a homemade cookie.

  41. LM says:

    O.K. How do I express how awesome you are. You just get me. I’m printing and pasting onto the cupboard. It’s just awesome to have a quick reminder not only in the morning, but just before I run to the grocery store!!!

  42. sarah says:

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! My kids went back to school last week and we’ve started the daily “What to pack for lunch” drama. My four oldest take their lunches every day and I like a variety of healthy options. Love this!

  43. teacher karen says:

    As a preschool & kindergarten teacher, I want to add a few notes:
    *make sure you buy containers your kids can open! A teacher or lunchroom monitor can’t make the rounds to help with thermos lids that are too tight, tiny lids that don’t have a ‘starter’ handle, etc. Practice opening these containers at home before you send them to school and buy different containers if they can’t open them themselves.
    * make a tiny cut to help your student peel wrappers off string cheese, fruit roll-ups and the like. Test if they have the pincher strength to peel off foil yogurt seals–if not, shop for brands they can open.
    *if you are sending lunchmeat, be sure to pop and ice pack into the lunch. Turkey/ham and the like are not safe if they are sitting at room temperature for several hours from the time your child gets to school until lunchtime begins.
    *remember spoons, forks & napkins!
    *don’t overpack! Most early elementary kids are happy with 1/4 – 1/2 of a sandwich, a few cherry tomatoes and 10 grapes. We send SO much unfinished food home, hoping the parents will adjust their lunch packing to avoid wasting! They will usually eat less at school than they do at home–there is a lot of visiting to do!

  44. Karla says:

    I like all of these ideas! Someone mentioned dipping sauces that are dairy free. I like Dorthy Lynch on vegetables, especially cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. =)

  45. This really is wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

  46. Kelly J says:

    Mel, where did you get those cute lunch caddies?

  47. I love those cute lunch boxes! I’m saving these ideas for my own lunches:-)

  48. Kimberly says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I just did something similar with snacks and posted it on my blog. Lunches are next on my list. I’ve looked at other blog ideas, but some of those bento boxes (while totally adorable) would take way more hours to prepare than I have – not to mention not a one of my boys would care if their lunch were ‘cute.’ In fact they would probably just be mortified. :)

    My lunch making is in need of improvement. I either make pbj’s, wraps, or “snack lunch” – which has some protein – trail mix, pb pretzels, pepperoni slices, string cheese…, a grain – cracker, pretzels, etc, and a fruit – dried fruit or fresh.

    Thanks again for a great post – lovely beginning to my lunch list.

  49. Jessica says:

    Very inspirational post! We have had the lunch doldrums. Time to spice it up a bit.

    I have a savory muffin recipe for you on my blog. I have been making them for years and my family adores them. The variations are endless for this recipe. Here is the link:http://damommachefcooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/cheddar-pepper-muffins/

    Also, our local Great Harvest makes savory breakfast rolls that my kids think are great. We have duplicated them at home with great success, and they would be great for lunches too. You basically make a roll dough, then prepare just like sweet rolls, except instead of brown sugar and cinnamon you spread some garlic, cooked onion, cheese, peppers, and ham. Of course you can suit the fillings how you would like. Then roll like a sweet roll, slice, and cook.

    Thanks again!

  50. Kelley says:

    Mel, YOU ROCK! My baby won’t be starting school for a few more years, but when he does I hope I am as cool of a mom as you are! Thanks for sharing this.

  51. Amy M says:

    Loving this post. My babies are too young for school lunches but I have been packing a lot of picnics lately. My 3 year old loves your caprese salad skewers so I’ve been doing those alot along with a skewer of veggie tortalini, olive, salami and cheese. I also make your chicken strip recipe a lot. My daughter also likes these cold with a bit of dip.

  52. Carmen says:

    Mel, I LOVE this post. Just the inspiration I need. I am wondering what brand of natural lunchmeat you buy? I didn’t know there was such a thing. Thanks!

    • Mel says:

      Hi Carmen – I buy Hormel Natural brands…they are the ones in the natural-looking cardboard boxes with a window in the front of them. I have found them widely available at most of the stores in my area here in Wisconsin and when I lived in Utah. They don’t have any additives/nitrates/etc. and they taste great.

  53. Tricia says:

    I’m curious… what are PB&H sandwiches?

  54. Jessica says:

    This is just another reason why you are my go-to website for food! I love that you included your go-to list. I can tell we have the same foodie beliefs – that things shouldn’t be processed with crap and that natural is the way things are meant to be. While my daughter has only just started 1/2 day Kindergarten and doesn’t need a packed lunch, you better believe I’m coming back here next year to double check your list! They are exactly the kind of things, I would send in hers. And I love that you used a bento lunch box, I think they are perfect for a child’s lunch!

  55. Mistie Barfus says:

    My kids take their lunch nearly everyday and my oldest daughter refuses to eat school lunch and would rather have leftovers any day of the week. They have a microwave in their school cafeteria so that is nice. Their current favorite is bean and beef burritos–homemade refried beans and cheese on a whole wheat tortilla. So easy, even they can make it! My goal is to train them to make their own lunches everyday and we’re actually getting there. When they do pack their own, I’ve trained them to always pack at least one fruit and one vegetable, along with a main dish and a drink.

  56. Mistie Barfus says:

    My kids take their lunches nearly everyday and my oldest daughter refuses to eat school lunch and would rather have leftovers any day of the week. They have a microwave in their school cafeteria so that is nice. Their current favorite is bean and cheese burritos–homemade refried beans and cheese on a whole wheat tortilla. So easy, even they can make it! My goal is to train them to make their own lunches everyday and we’re gradually getting there. When they do pack their own, they know to always pack at least one fruit and one vegetable, along with a main dish and a drink.

  57. Kim in MD says:

    I’ve been MIA for a few days (power out since Saturday due to hurricane Irene) and look what you’ve been up to! I love this post, Mel! Those little bento containers are adorable! My daughter dispises the food at her school, so she takes lunch everyday. She normally likes a salad or pasta salad with some fruit and an apple juice box. I throw in a frozen homemade cookie sometimes, too!

  58. Katie says:

    I loved this post! I actually don’t have any school aged children, but I have been struggling with giving my twins variety at home. I will definitely be printing this list for home use! Thank you!!

  59. Erica says:

    I agree, great post! I was pleased to see that I send many of the items on your list in my child’s lunchbox. He insists on picking out “cool” lunchboxes every year, so I can’t do Bento boxes, but I’ve stocked up on bpa free small plastic containers that I use in place of baggies. I learned to turn them upside down so he can “see” what’s inside of them (the lids aren’t clear). I also use a thermos regularly to pack heated food (organic mac and cheese, home-made soups, reheated dinners, etc.).

  60. Susan says:

    Wow, this is definitely a hot topic (and understandably so)! I also make a list of lunch ideas for shopping or lunch ruts. I’ve used the laptop lunchbox system with our kids for 4 years and it has worked quite well (although it’s not perfect). You and others have shared some great ideas. I keep healthy-ish muffins in the freezer as well as other make-ahead things. Every few weeks, I’ll make a batch of pigs in a blanket (using veggie or turkey dogs and homemade dough) or “pizza roll-ups” (same idea, but with mozzerella cheese and turkey pepperoni rolled into a crescent). I do have to be careful of packing food that our kids normally love but doesn’t taste as good at room temperature (like grapes, blueberries and yogurt). Thanks for the ideas and discussion.

  61. Carmen says:

    Thank you so much, Mel. I’m going to look for that tomorrow and am totally excited to know there is such an option out there!

  62. Emily says:

    Great list! It’s also been fun to read the other comments for some awesome ideas. For lunches I love making up either pizza buns or taco buns (taco meat and cheese inside a homemade bun), keeping them in the freezer and then taking them out as needed. For protein, I also love edamame – this is the favorite snack of my 4 year old. At one school I worked at, a girl ate plain noodles with turkey chunks every single day. She needed some of this variety.

  63. Carolyn says:

    Are you tired yet of being thanked? Can you handle one more? :) Seriously, I really do thank you for all your ideas and I’ve enjoyed the comments. However, other than one mom of 20 and 22 yr olds, I must be the only one with a teenager. My daughter’s loving the fact that now she’s an upperclassman she can leave the building and guess what’s close by? DQ! Be assured Mom and Dad do NOT pay for those lunches. She kind of mooches off friends who are more than willing to share. sigh… My dd is also a picky eater and though some of these ideas are incredible, I can’t imagine her eating something cold or at room-temp that’s normally served hot (i.e. calzones, etc.). We’ve tried thermoses and the food was lukewarm by the time she ate it. blech! We go through a tug-of-war with sandwich baggies as I’m desperately trying to get rid of plastic, but I also understand her desire to have as little as absolutely possible to deal with after she’s eaten. Even saying all that, I’m going to go through this list again and again and hopefully come up with something she’ll enjoy. thanks for the inspiration. I rarely post, Mel, but I also rarely miss a day checking to see what you’ve shared. I’ve tried LOTS of your recipes and have only been disappointed in a few, but those were related to personal likes/dislikes.

  64. Danielle says:

    I dont’ have to pack for my girls yet- but I do pack a lunch for my husband and I am running out of ideas! These are great…I love the new ideas. The other day I packed a container of your pizza sauce (our favorite!) and homemade breadsticks as a simple main dish. He raved! I also make the super bean burritos you have posted, freeze them, and then pop one in his lunch before he goes. We do lots of sandwiches (tomatoes, lettuce in a separate baggie to avoid getting soggy), salads, leftovers, and baked goods (retrieved from freezer) as well as fresh fruits and veggies.

  65. Michele says:

    We have reusable containers as well. My aunt lives in Japan and sent my daughter the cutest Hello Kitty lunch containers!! I hate seeing all the plastic garbage that gets thrown away in school cafeterias each day. I try to put resusable containers in my kids’ lunch boxes when I can. I love your list and it’s very similar to mine. Here are some things that my kids enjoy that aren’t on your list. Thanks again for all your recipe inspiration!! :)

    My kids each have a thermos. I put leftover soup and chili in them and they love them as an alternative to sandwiches. For my oldest, I’ll even put taco meat or sloppy joe meat in the thermos and he can build his own tacos or sloppy joes for lunch! I send it to school in the thermos already heated with the bread or tortillas and fixings on the side. (The microwave lines are lunch are soooo long and they don’t get much time to eat!)

    sliced kiwi
    carrots with low-fat ranch dip
    hummus with carrot and celery slices
    celery with natural peanut butter (or ants on a log)
    Kashi and Cascadian Farms bars
    whole grain Goldfish with craisins and cashews
    raisins
    whole grain tortilla chips with homemade salsa
    all-natural applesauce and fruit pouches (These are my daughter’s fav!)
    My 1st grader loves the veggie juice boxes by Adam and Eve.

  66. Katie says:

    I hate making sandwiches in the morning so I make them in large batches and freeze them. I use King’s Hawaiian Rolls (homemade rolls would work great too) spread them with mayo mustard mixture then top with ham or turkey and a slice of cheddar cheese. They get wrapped individually in saran wrap and thrown into a gallon ziplock to freeze. In the morning I pull out a sandwich throw it in my daughter’s lunch box and it’s thawed by lunch time. I usually make 48 at a time. I’ve also done PB&J and PB&H this way. It works great!!! Thanks for some new lunch ideas Mel.

  67. Olga P says:

    I cannot believe I missed that one! Great post, Mel, like you needed another thumbs up, huh?! I have the 1st grader this year, and we stopped doing school lunches early fall last year after a terrible tummy bug. It is true that school cafeterias are trying to serve healthier lunches: low sodium, whole wheat, fruits & veggies, etc. It sounded great on paper, and I was all for it. After watching my child throw up his veggie soup one day after returning from school and then staying home for couple of days to get over the aftermath, I decided to join him for lunch. As a child of two docs and having my own food establishment, I knew right away there was a problem. Violation of time-temperature control is one of the biggest causes of food borne illness, so if you cannot keep whatever is meant to be cold cold, and whatever is meant to be kept hot hot for proper time, you are drastically increasing the risk. That was the last day my son ate school lunch, despite of what he had on his plate was healthy options.

    I have pretty much the same things on my list as you except for a few additions:

    *Soups and pasta in thermos (my son loves potato soup, chicken and corn chowder, itallian wedding soup, gumbo, vegetable soup, chicken noodle soup, broccoli and cheese, and spaghetti–some of it are leftovers, one is his favorite canned, and couple I pick up from his favorite dinner as a special treat)
    *His fav leftovers in a thermos
    *Cold pizza
    *pizza bites
    *hamburger sliders (if we are having hamburgers, i just make a few little ones, litte stuff is so much more fun to eat)
    *Cubed cheese/deli meat on toothpics (we have Publix, and they carry Boars Head products in their deli, so every once in a while, we go there and my son can choose some meat and cheese, he usually goes for hard salami and swiss cheese; i ask them to just slice me a .25 inch to .5 inch slice of each of his selections, and then cube it at home as needed)
    *Cheese quesadillas
    *Mini hotdogs on a toothpics
    *Homemade fish sticks
    *Homemade chicken nuggets with dipping sauce
    *Chicken wings
    *Guacamole with pita chips (I love 100 cal packs of Wholly Guacamole brand)
    *Fruit2day brand drinks with real fruit bits
    *Organic smoothies
    *Cucumber slices with ranch dipping sauce

    Some of the options may not be the healthiest, so he does not get them very often, but he is still a 7 year old boy, and as long as he eats a balanced meal, I’m okay with them : )

  68. Katie says:

    Some school lunches aren’t all that bad. The school that I student taught in had fresh fruit and veggies everyday and they kids loved it! I also dislike the fact that some parents freak out about peanuts!!! Peanut free tables are the way to go!!! Thanks for the ideas Mel! I plan on using them in my own school lunches when I go to work!

  69. [...] • School Lunch Solutions Tags: breakfast, quick dinners, school lunch, snacks [...]

  70. Jessie Mae says:

    I am loving your website! My daughter is a big fan of eating at school but occasionally I convince her to take a lunch and I love some of your ideas I haven’t tried. My son on the other hand is a bag lunch boy every day because he is the pickest child on the planet… He eats peanutbutter sandwhich every day. I get creative with bread trying whole weat flat bread and bagels and he loves hamburger buns with seeds. Always has cheezits or wheat crackers on sun ships but zero on the fruit and veggies for him. And like you my kids drink there white milk or I send a bottle of water.

  71. joey says:

    Love your post! I am all for packing lunches.. way better than the nasty school lunches. Although there is a salad bar and fruits (sometimes, canned fruits), they are optional and not all kids eat them. The main course is usually nasty as well.
    Anyway, my biggest problem is, lunch is only 10-15mins for my daughter. She talks way too much to be able to finish her lunch. I wanna pack her variety but I can only manage one piece of bread (with fixings like tuna salad) and one carrot stick. Anything more, she cant finish, unless it’s candy! :(

  72. Michelle says:

    I love these ideas. But, most of all, I love the container with the partitions. Where can I find one?

  73. Mel says:

    Michelle – the link is included in the post but here it is again:
    http://store.goodbyn.com/Green_Apple_Goodbyn_Bynto_Kit_p/20071.htm

  74. melanie says:

    Hi Melanie! I love your blog! I was wondering if you have been happy with that bento box? I’m in the market! :)

  75. [...] Smart Lunch Solutions + Lunch Ideas (pictured above) [...]

  76. Sophie says:

    Hey, I clicked on the link for your Bento boxes, and it no longer works. Where did you find them?

  77. I don’t have to pack lunch b/c my preschooler does lunch at home, but I do have to pack snack. He his so darn picky that I am very limited, but I think I may try those wraps with him!

    I made some of my own lunchbox notes and posted on my blog… check them out: http://www.believingboldly.com/2012/08/encouragementlunchbox-notesfree.html

  78. Lorie says:

    Hi Melanie, If I wash and cut fruits (strawberries, apples, etc.) will they start to brown? Are these OK to cut up the night before and keep in the fridge, or would you recommend cuting these the morning of?

    Thanks!

  79. Kesa says:

    Thanks Mel! I saw this when you first had posted it, but didn’t have any little ones in school…now I do this year so thanks for the link reminding me of this. You are the best! I hope the move is going well!!

  80. Mel says:

    Hi Lorie – I always wait and cut up apples and pears (the fruits that brown more) the morning of, but strawberries, grapes, and many other fruits I’ll prep the night before.

  81. Lorie says:

    Great, thanks for your response!

  82. Abby Peterson says:

    I love this list I like to be organized or have some help since brain power runs a little low in the morning. Our school has decent hot lunches served and we have told our kids that they can choose one day a week that they can order from the menu and then the rest of the week we pack our own. One idea I do is generally when I make pancakes/waffles for breakfast there are a few extra that I freeze-I warm it up so it isn’t frozen wrap it in foil and send a little container of syrup-if I have bacon that I’ve already cooked and frozen I do the same-so she has breakfast and loves this. Also, I made my own little notes-about 20 or so that I wrote, “you’re special” or “have a great day” etc and some I’ve used stamps on too-then I laminated them and then I can use them again-but since I’ve made enough there is a good rotation, but they are easily cleaned-sometimes my daughter has even specifically asked for a specific note. It always makes her day. I’ve learned lunches don’t always have to be a chore but a way to invest in your kiddos.

  83. Gaye Lynn says:

    We love the goodbyn box & are also experimenting with the http://www.easylunchboxes.com method…. One favorite that works for my picky eater is homemade corn dogs. Basically your favorite cornbread recipe with diced up all natural nitrate free hot dogs & pour in muffin tins to bake. These are great warm or cold. Can’t keep these stalked. You’ll never buy frozen corn dogs again no matter how desperate you are. Sliced kiwi & avocado & pink grapefruit are favorites with my 5yr daughter who loves her fruit & veggies. Peanut butter & banana is another winner. Love all the ideas. Glad I found this post!!

  84. Stephanie says:

    I know this is an old post but still very helpfull! I found these great reusable bags at squooshi.com that are exactly like the single serving applesauce bags that you can buy but they have a heavy duty ziplock zipper on the bottom so you can wash and refill them. I have filled them with yoghurt smoothies and stored them in the freezer, then put them in the lunchbox in the morning and they thaw out great. The lid was a little tricky to get back on for my kindergartner and I have had the last little bit of smoothie leak out all over the inside of the lunchbox, but overall they work great. They have adorable animal pictures on them that my kids love. I think there is a larger but less cute brand out ther also. Thanks for all the inspiration!

  85. Karen says:

    Maybe this was addressed in another comment, but I didn’t see it. Isn’t there a chance that some food will go bad when they are out of the fridge for so long? At my daughter’s school(in Southern CA), their lunches are stuck in a bin outside for five hours until they get them for lunch. I always worry that if I put meat, cheese, mayo, etc. in her lunch it will make her sick. Even when I put an ice pack in, it’s barely cold when lunchtime rolls around. So many of these lunch ideas sound great, but I worry. Am I worrying for nothing?

    • Mel says:

      Karen – Hmmm, I’d probably worry too. My kids lunches are inside in a cool locker or desk until lunchtime (which, at most, is 3 hours). If the lunch won’t be cold by the time your daughter eats it, I wouldn’t risk using lunch meat, mayo, or other foods that can spoil.

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