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 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 boxes.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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:
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.
Another one: red plum, cashews, cheddar/apple/turkey skewers, rice crackers.
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
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!