Packing a Lunch: Healthy Food To Go

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Healthy Lunch Ideas for packing food on the go - gluten-free, grain-free and plain old regular stuff too. This former teacher pulls out all the stops!

When I was a teacher, 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; so many are in lunchrooms or have lunch aides of some sort.

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.

Healthy Lunch Ideas for packing food on the go - gluten-free, grain-free and plain old regular stuff too. This former teacher pulls out all the stops!
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. :)

Healthy Lunch Ideas for packing food on the go - gluten-free, grain-free and plain old regular stuff too. This former teacher pulls out all the stops!

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
        • Veggie ideas:  cherry tomatoes, carrots, pea pods, cucumbers, cauliflower or broccoli spears, celery, fresh green beans, colored peppers,
        • Dip ideas:  hummus, homemade yogurt dip or yogurt cheese dip, ranch dressing, even ketchup if it’ll get them to eat their veggies!
      • 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.

A New Post: Back to School with Food Allergies including lots of gluten-free lunch ideas.

Another new post: 10 Bread-free Packable Alternatives to Sandwiches for a Healthy Lunch on the Go.

Healthy Lunch Ideas for packing food on the go - gluten-free, grain-free and plain old regular stuff too. This former teacher pulls out all the stops!

      • 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

Healthy Lunch Ideas for packing food on the go - gluten-free, grain-free and plain old regular stuff too. This former teacher pulls out all the stops!

      • 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

Healthy Lunch Ideas for packing food on the go - gluten-free, grain-free and plain old regular stuff too. This former teacher pulls out all the stops!

    • 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?

Water. Period. Send a reusable water bottle like one of these or anything made of stainless steel (not aluminum!) that you can find. (Why not juice?)

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
  • Lunchables
  • 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
  • Pop-tarts
  • 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.)

Healthy Lunch Ideas for packing food on the go - gluten-free, grain-free and plain old regular stuff too. This former teacher pulls out all the stops!

Other lunch-packing installments:

Other posts that may interest you as you head Back to School:


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66 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    Wonderful lunch ideas! We head back tomorrow, and I’m planning to sit down with my boys today and make the list you suggest. And you’re so right — getting them involved means they actually EAT what you pack!

    We were at the pool yesterday, and a mom was moaning that she dreaded packing lunches, and needed to pick up some snickers bars for “protein.” I am not making this up.

    Which reminds me — another lunch my boys like is a “snacky” lunch. Dried fruit, nuts, some grapes and a slice of banana bread make a fun, nourishing lunch! (And this would be super easy to pack the night before.)

    Go moms! We can do this! :-)

    • Katie says

      My eyes got HUGE as I re-read the “Snickers for protein” bit. Heart palpitations. Oh, dear. The world we live in. More people need to read Kitchen Stewardship! :)

      Glad the ideas are helpful to you!

  2. says

    Love these ideas. I just decided that each year a couple weeks before school starts (yikes, that’s NOW), we need to sit down with your list, my list, and others to ask the kids what their ideas are and what they’d like to take in their lunches. Then we can shop and be ready to go that first week of school. :)

  3. says

    Thank you for this list! I have been talking to my daughter’s daycare about their menu and they are asking for better suggestions for what they are currently serving. I am going to print this out and pass it along.

  4. says

    THANK YOU for all of the great information. I appreciate you stopping by my blog and am glad you directed me to yours.

    I will bookmark this so I can reference it next week when I have to start packing my son’s lunches.

  5. says

    Thank you for the wonderful tips on creating healthy lunches for our children. It can be so easy to get stuck in a rut when packing a lunch.

    We recently moved to Barcelona from California. On my blog, I wrote a post about the typical school lunches at my children’s kindergarten and the public elementary school. Packed lunches always involve a thermos with several courses inside – salads, entree, fruit or yogurt for dessert. Even mini bottles of olive oil! Bought lunches at school are very healthy, fresh-made – stuff you would serve for dinner.

    Looking forward to next week’s post!

  6. says

    We’re homeschoolers, but I still find myself drawing a blank at lunchtime – especially if we’re out of bread. So thank you for all the great ideas!

    Do you have links to recipes for bean-based sandwich spreads? This is something I would like to start doing, but I’m a dunce when it comes to flavoring things, so I need some recipes to get me started.

  7. says

    I was a teacher with lunch in my classroom, too, and many of the same thoughts ran through my head at lunchtime! One of my students constantly had digestive issues (read: he was always constipated and always had gas!) but he NEVER, not once in the whole school year, had any whole wheat anything or even any fresh fruit/vegetable. The closest thing he ever got to fruit was yogurt-covered raisins. CHOCOLATE yogurt covered raisins. His mom complained that he was “picky”.

  8. Anita says

    My favorite lunch nibbly snack is Mini Quiches.
    I use 6 eggs, heavy cream, 1/2 cup plain flour, (lightly beaten with electric beater), 1 cup grated cheese, 1 onion & carrot- grated, some green vegetables, some red capsicum- chopped.
    Mix lightly in a bowl, then spoon into greased muffin trays/patty pans, & bake 20 mins.
    Great for breakfast on the go, or a filling lunch with tomato sauce & salad. YUMMY!

    • Katie says

      Wow! I’m salivating…can you eat those cold, too? They sound easy, yummy and healthy! A great combination… Welcome! Katie

  9. Anita says

    Hi Katie,
    Thanks for the welcome! I really like your blog!

    Hi Kelly,
    I’ve been reading yours for a while, too- it’s great.
    Red capsicum are Red Peppers in the US (I’m an Aussie). They add nice bright color to the quiches.You can add whatever leftover meat/vegies you’ve got. And you can substitute the cream for quark/kefir cheese or something else similar.
    Yes, they can be eaten cold, or better at room temperature. That quantity recipe made 24 mini quiches & 6 medium size!

  10. monica says

    Thanks for the tips, however at my son’s school we are not allowed to bring ANYTHING with Peanuts in it or Honey as there are kids who are very much allergic to it, so most of the sandwich ideas are out for us…. any other suggestions?

    • Katie says

      Almond butter, or even “sun butter” made of sunflower seeds are two quick, easy 1:1 substitutions for peanut butter in any sandwich. You can even make your own to be frugal if you have a good food processor or powerful blender. My son loves his cream cheese and jelly (which is actually yogurt cheese). I’ve never heard of people being allergic to honey such that you couldn’t bring it, although I know the peanut butter allergies area VERY serious thing because they are anaphylactic and the peanut allergen can get airborne. Egg salad is another easy one, or any leftover roasted meat. Cold pizza, even cold refried beans and guacamole in a wrap are yummy.
      Hope that gives some inspiration!
      :) Katie

  11. Tracy says

    I totally agree that allowing your kids to help with packing their lunch makes a world of difference in how much they eat at school. As the parent of a food allergy child, I just want to throw out a reminder that while natural peanut butter is a fabulous source of protein, some schools don’t allow it for the safety of the nut-allergic children. That basically leaves us with half of the options on your list, but my son doesn’t seem to mind!

    • Katie says

      Another gal just wondered about non-peanut options, too, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many ideas I could share with her (right above). It is definitely an important note, and one I should have mentioned in the post since I taught two little guys with peanut allergies.
      Thanks for the reminder for all of us!
      :) Katie

  12. Marissa says

    Found you through Tip Junkie. Thanks for all of the great suggestions. When I was teaching, I once had a student bring donuts and chocolate milk for lunch. That was it, nothing else! Inspired by “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” I talked with my kindergarten son about all the sugar in chocolate milk and the reason why he shouldn’t drink it (at least not everyday). Surprisingly, he took my challenge to only drink white milk for a week and HE noticed a difference in his energy in the afternoon. Now he asks me all the time if something is “healthy enough” to eat. So, definitely talk with your kids about their food choices!

    • Katie says

      I am SO impressed that your little guy noticed his energy change. Truly amazing that he is so aware of his health – bottle that up! 😉 I’m so glad you stopped by to share this story and hope to see more of you! :) Katie

  13. says

    What GREAT information!! Some of it I knew but a bunch I hadn’t even thought of. I always try to make my kids’ lunches somewhat nutritious. Now I know my kids won’t eat veggies at school so I make them eat more at dinner. But that doesn’t mean I’ll substitute with junk food. I’m amazed at some of the stuff these kids are bringing to school. My daughter would comment about how her friend always had chips & candy bars in her lunch every day…in first grade!! And we wonder why kids can’t concentrate in school.

    I will definitely be using many of your suggestions!!!
    .-= Michelle W´s last blog ..a good day =-.

  14. says

    My daughters preschool has each student bring a morning snack for the classroom (on rotation) and I see a lot of parents bring in gogurts and other prepackaged disguised junk. I hope to be able to forward this great reminder to all the families. Thank you

  15. says

    My preschooler came home every day last year an emotional wreck because he had crazy junk for snack. This summer we really talked about why we eat healthy things, and so as a kindergartener this year he says things like”Mommy, my friends just eat not healthy stuff from the store!”. Ha! That’s a start, I guess. Katie, we need a healthy lunchbox pudding recipe. Kozy Shack makes a good one but I hate the individual packages and it is hard to find in my area.

  16. Dawn says

    Thanks for the wonderful, timely post! But I do have a question. Why is pita and hummus a compromise food? I buy whole grain (multigrain) pitas, and make my own hummus, so I’ve always felt this was a healthy choice. I also include carrots and/or other vegs to dip into the hummus as well. I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

    • Katie says

      Dawn and Jessica,
      yes, good question! Coming from a strict traditional foods standpoint, purchased hummus would be a compromise because the beans wouldn’t be soaked overnight and slow cooked, and they usually use soybean oil. However, if you make your own, that’s a different story! Any whole grain, again from a traditional foods perspective, should be “soaked” first, so grains from the store are always a compromise in that case. That said…I’m having pita and hummus for lunch, so the compromise is a small one! 😉

      Hope that made sense – :) Katie

  17. says

    Thanks for this- I’ve been meaning to sit down and make a list because I kind of dread packing lunches. Not only are we limited to things that will keep until lunch, but we are limited by my super picky child. I never cater to her likes at meals at home, but I feel like packing a lunch I know she won’t eat for school would be 1) mean (not that that one really concerns me the most), 2) wasteful, even if she does bring it home, and 3) counterproductive for her, because hungry kids don’t learn. The ONLY sandwich she will eat is peanut butter, and I’m sure they’ll ban that (with good reason, but still…). She doesn’t dip in anything… except peanut butter. She won’t eat any kind of mixed up anything, esp with any sort of sauce on it. Man, I am that mom I used to make fun of, trying to accommodate my picky eater. So she’ll probably get a lot of plain sliced meats, crackers or bread, and raw fruits and veggies… at least she loves fruits and veggies.

    And just generally I’m freaked out about her starting school, not because of the normal reasons moms freak out (my baby’s growing up, etc), but because I am afraid of the battles I’ll have to/want to fight with her teacher over things I feel strongly about, like hand sanitizer. I’m off to read that post:)

    • Katie says

      Very logical concerns, I think! Hopefully you’ll have the PB option for a while… Has she ever tried roasted almond butter or sunbutter (from sunflower seeds)? They’re a little different but almost mimic PB.

      Good luck as she starts school! :) katie

  18. says

    Thanks for the input. Tomorrow I send my 5yr. old off for her first day at kindergarden. My husband and I decided to send her with packed lunches, and due to her alllergies, put her at the peanut-free table in the cafiteria. We love the look of bento boxes, but untill now have seemed clueless as to how to put the foods that she will actually like/ eat all together…. It’s hard enough at the dining room table.
    I love the idea of bring all your leftovers home.
    I am trying to explain to her the importance of not sharing foods. She knows her own allergy pretty well, but does not know theirs. I am making my own magnetic menu to place on the fridge. in the future, organizing it a week in advance with her help…. I’ve got to make my own labels so my reusable containers all make it home.
    question: if a cold pack can keep foods cold, would one of those hot hand warmers used for winter keep foods hot enough?

    • Katie says

      I’ve never tried a hot pack like that, but my husband has had great luck with a thermos style bowl for soups and stews and such. Liquid-y items work best; others got too cold for him, but might still be warm enough for a child. Good luck! :) Katie

  19. Bre says

    What are your suggestions for someone who is allergic to honey? everything else is easily replaceable but honey is considered the healthiest sweetener but for someone who is allergic to it that means everything is much harder to eat healthy w/o making it completely from scratch

  20. Anna says

    Instead of gogurt, Stonyfield Farms now makes organic yogurt tubes! Granted they still have sugar in them at least its organic and the kids can have yogurt tubes they love!

    Thank you for all the ideas! This is our first year packing lunch, and also with a toddler and pregnant (i feel terrible while pregnant) I am going to print this out, and use it for ideas!

  21. says

    I know this isn’t a new post, but I love the ideas! Like some of the other commenters, I’m going to be packing a lunch for me, rather than for a youngster, and the information is just as relevant.

    Adults trying to pack along healthy food daily face the same challenges, amusingly enough — or maybe even more so, because we expect our hungry-at-lunch selves to be understanding when our late-in-the-morning selves just threw an apple and bread in a bag and dashed out the door. 😀

  22. Suzanne says

    I keep re-posting these so people don’t have any excuse to not pack healthy lunches. As a supply teacher, I agree that eating in classrooms with supervision is the best because it creates a teachable opportunity about eating healthy. It also allows a teacher to stop kids from taking food away from other kids! I still remember the first time I saw a child with only a pack of “Ramen noodles” that they proceeded to pound into pieces before opening, then open and sprinkle with the packet of flavoring! Parents actually let 10 yr olds eat these!!!! I was appalled! The elementary school my children attended did not allow sweets and junk and this helped a lot in teaching my children good eating habits.

  23. Kelly says

    There are some very good ideas here – however… do you have any suggestions for feeding a teenage boy? I know that I could just triple the portions here but some of the ‘finger food’ options just wouldn’t work for him. I’m very open to suggestion! (And on a tight budget)

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