When I was a teacher (in 3rd grade, before we started our cooking classes for kids online, our lunch situation was, I think, rather unique. The children ate in the rooms, and the classroom teacher was the one in charge. I don’t think many teachers actually spend lunchtimes with their students since most schools have lunchrooms or lunch aides of some sort. I had to eat my healthy lunch on the go, but I didn’t mind it.
It was actually quite a treat to
(a) see my kids interact with each other more spontaneously,
(b) observe what kind of foods for lunch they brought and how much they ate, and
(c) get a chance to read books to them and/or chat with them while they ate.
Unlike much of my staff, I truly enjoyed the opportunity to be with my students at lunch.
I remember my in-head comments about kids’ lunches:
“too much white bread,” “everything on the desk is in a package,” “single dad uses whole grain bread – way to go!”
There was a wide range of lunches as far as nutrition goes, from Lunchables to carefully packed, all healthy school lunches.
I was kind of excited to receive a reader request for a “healthy school lunch ideas” post, because I already had the idea on my post drafts list. I think it’s of the utmost importance that children have a healthy lunch, and it is definitely a real challenge to think of portable, nourishing foods that don’t have to be heated and that kids will enjoy.
New Healthy Lunch eBook is Here!
Tired of sandwiches? Not eating bread anymore? Packing lunches can be challenging even with a daily sandwich, but the newest KS eBook, just published in August 2013, will make lunch packing integrate smoothly into daily life. The Healthy Lunch Box: Sandwich-Free Secrets to Packing a Real Food Lunch includes tips, strategies, and recipes to take the stress out of the lunch box and keep the healthy foods IN.
Get The Healthy Lunch Box, an eBook to help you pack real food lunches all year long!
How to Help Kids Participate in Lunch Packing
As I see it, there are two philosophies in packing kids’ lunches:
- Let kids help so that they have some agency, some choice in the process. That will encourage them to eat what has been packed, and Mom is more informed about what they like.
- Pack kids’ lunches yourself. Then you are in charge not only of what is packed, but portion sizes. Sometimes this is important, but I would tend toward the first philosophy unless you have a strong reason to go with number 2.
Many parents find great success in making a list of foods with the child(ren), organizing it by category (main dish, vegetables, fruits, snacks, fun foods, etc) and allowing the child(ren) to choose an item from each list for the day’s lunch.
If this is too complicated for you (for example, the more kids you have, the less they probably get to choose because you must streamline the packing process!), may I highly recommend this policy:
Whatever goes to school comes back home,
unless you have eaten it.
I always told my students to take home whatever they didn’t eat, “So that moms and dads know what you like, what you don’t like, and how hungry you were today.” (Broken record teacher line right there, were you feelin’ it?)
I explained that taking home the half sandwich you didn’t like because it had mustard on it and you hate mustard is a very effective way of communicating, almost like writing a note. Sometimes I even told kids to write notes about dislikes and put them into the lunchboxes!
Do explain this concept to your kids; it’s a great way to stay in control even when you’re out of control because you’re not there. 🙂
If you’ve been struck with “lunch-packing block” in the past (you know, like writers’ block, except you can’t think of anything creative to pack instead), it is my fervent hope that you will find some new ideas on these lists that get you packin’ once again.
Healthy Ideas for Packing School Lunches
(and others who eat away from home)
- Of course, anything from my Healthy Snacks to Go eBook (shameless plug)
- Cut veggies with dip
- Apples or dates and natural peanut butter (kids love to dip!)
UPDATE: please remember that peanut allergies are very, very serious. The peanut allergen goes airborne, so many who suffer from a peanut allergy cannot even be in the same room as a peanut product. There is a list of substitutes and peanut-free ideas in the comments. If someone in your child’s classroom has an allergy, be sure to protect their health by abstaining from peanuts at school.
- Frozen peas
- Homemade yogurt (with frozen fruit and/or granola in it)
We eat yogurt every day with lunch, and it is packable! That’s one reason I love my glass storage containers in the 1-cup size.
- Fresh fruit, whole or cut depending on the child
- Bananas, oranges, apples, pears, plums, melon, grapes, cherries, strawberries, peaches, nectarines…try to stick with what is more or less in season and watch the Dirty Dozen list.
- Dried fruit or homemade fruit rolls (video)
- Homemade Veggie Chips
- Homemade whole grain muffins/quick breads (also grain-free muffins in Healthy Snacks to Go)
- Hard-boiled egg with salt and pepper (cut in half is easier to handle)
- Sandwiches (on 100% whole grain bread or homemade or bread-free):
- Natural peanut butter and raw honey
- PB and jelly (I made honey-sweetened freezer jam this year; just be sure to watch the ingredients for high-fructose corn syrup if you buy it)
- PB and banana
- PB and pickle
- Leftover roast chicken or turkey
- Egg salad, chicken salad, or tuna salad (even try canned salmon like tuna if the kids like it)
Be sure not to serve tuna more than once a week or so because of chemical build-up.
- Cream cheese and jelly
- PB and cream cheese
- Son’s new favorite: cream cheese with strawberry slices and raw honey (peaches are good too!)
- I actually use yogurt cheese instead of cream cheese in all of the above sandwiches
- BLT (low- or no-nitrite bacon is best, regular stuff is a compromise food)
- Bean spreads (the black bean dip in Real Food, Real Easy is a new family favorite!)
- Try making a wrap to switch it up, but watch the tortilla ingredients for trans fats. I make my own homemade tortillas or grain-free crepes (pictured above), recipe in The Healthy Lunch Box. Or easier yet, use the meat as a wrap and put cheese and vegs inside (my kids love a pickle in there)!
- Cold burrito or refried beans with guacamole or salsa on a tortilla. (I used to think cold refried beans were gross, but then I realized that people don’t even question eating cold refried beans in so many tex-mex dips with tortilla chips.)
- Another new idea: pancake sandwiches! Spread natural peanut butter or yogurt cheese and honey on leftover pancakes, like these orange vegetable Paleo pancakes or grain-free almond pancakes for a new twist on the old sandwich.
- Cheese and whole grain crackers or homemade wheat thin crackers
- Cottage cheese with various mix-ins
- Homemade “lunchables” – stack crackers (or cukes and peppers for a grain-free version), cheese slices, and meat slices for the child to assemble with apple slices and cream cheese dip.
- Leftovers that can handle the “thermos” treatment:
- Homemade soups
- Homemade mac-n-cheese
- Many casseroles
- Spaghetti and other pasta dishes
- Stir fry with brown rice
- Of course, heat on the stove before packing in the thermos. Not that I would use the microwave anyway, but mic’d food just doesn’t hold the heat long enough, no matter what.
- Homemade potato salad (pictured above)
- Cold grain salads (like this spelt salad which is in both the Healthy Snacks to Go eBook AND the Family Camping Handbook)
- Cold bean salad (same idea as above – you know me and beans!)
- Leftover homemade pizza
- Homemade granola bars or quinoa oat snack bars, shown above
- Homemade applesauce or storebought natural (no sugar) applesauce. Add cinnamon for your kids to sweeten it up a little without adding a sweetener. My kids also like cinnamon-applesauce stirred into their yogurt.
- Homemade jerky (recipe can be found in the newly expanded Healthy Snacks to Go eBook along with over 45 real food snack recipes – click HERE to learn more.)
What to Drink?
What to pack IN?
I use either the EcoLunchbox or Lunchbot Quad (in the photos) every day and LOVE both of them. I really love not having waste, too. Check out my reviews of 7 brands of bento boxes (more to come hopefully!) and a ton of reusable sandwich and snack bags too.
In a Massive Hurry? Compromise Foods for “Sometimes” Lunches
- Natural applesauce single cups
- Goldfish crackers, only the “Made with Whole Grain” version (they’re very good!) UPDATE: I now know that those Goldfish have MSGs…so…I won’t touch ’em with a 10-foot pole. It’s all about baby steps, and cutting these out was one of mine.
- Pretzels, as long as there isn’t HFCS or trans fats in the ingredients (UPDATE: I wouldn’t do this anymore as of 2014, partly because we’re a “low gluten” family and partly because white flour just isn’t worth it.)
- Packaged Popcorn, IF there aren’t any nasty additives
- Blue Diamond Nut Thins and some other brands of crackers are “okay” on ingredients
- Canned fruit cups (if no sugar added and no artificial sweeteners)
- Plain yogurt with fruit in it or organic yogurt cups
- Pita bread and hummus
- Lunchmeat, as an occasional thing unless you get nitrate-free meats
- String cheese and real cheese slices (pre-sliced)
- Larabars and KIND bars
- Fruit strips or chews that are 100% fruit or fruit juice – not so nourishing or very filling, but a quick fix for “sometimes”
- There have to be more items for this list…help me out, busy mommies!
Unacceptable items (or: This Counts as Dessert if you Pack It!)
- Potato chips
- HFCS-laden yogurt cups and Gogurts (sorry, I know kids love these, but they’re not worth it!)
- “Fruit Snacks” (this stuff is candy!!!)
- Fruit Roll-ups and similar (see above)
- Little Debbie anything
- Pudding cups (is there any “real food” in pudding cups?)
- Jello cups (ditto)
- Processed cheese slices or cheese and cracker packages
- Processed beef jerky
- Storebought cookies
- Pastries, crescent rolls, biscuits from a can (trans fat alert!!)
- I’ve been away from school lunches long enough that I’ve forgotten some of the atrocities passed off as “food” that don’t fit into any food groups. What else should be banned from healthy school lunches?
Remember the Goal
The purpose of lunch is to provide the person with brain food and energy for the rest of the day. Learning happens all day long at school, and it’s so important that kids don’t have a “brain drain” between the hours of 1-3:00 because their lunch didn’t provide them the fuel they needed.
Many kids also need energy for after-school sports or playtime. It’s okay to constantly remind your kids that good food makes you feel good, think better and get stronger. Someday they’ll thank you for it, and for now, you’ve been charged with your family’s nutrition. What a blessing and a responsibility! (Check out these high protein snack ideas for working out.)
Other lunch-packing installments:
- “green” lunch packing (reducing and reusing disposable items)
- gluten free lunch ideas
- 10 School Lunch Packing Tips so food is not wasted
- If I was in charge of school lunches…
- Are the new natural lunchmeats too good to be true???
- a great idea for an incentive to get your kids to unpack their own lunches at the end of the day
- my reusable sandwich bag review
- philosophies on hot lunch and classroom-wide snack policies
- Fed Up With Lunch review
Other posts that may interest you as you head Back to School:
- Does Your School Use Antibacterial Soap and Sanitizer?
- Plastic Safety – Know Your Numbers
- Hand Sanitizers in the Home
- Plastic Bag Debacle – We Use Too Many!
Disclaimer: I am an affiliate of a number of businesses linked to in this post, including Amazon, Vital Choice, and more.