Even if you’re good at something, that doesn’t mean you like it.
I have a gazillion tips for packing a healthy school lunch, but I don’t always follow them all myself, and I’ve certainly enjoyed having the summer off from the constant routine.
As much as I don’t like to admit it, it’s definitely time to start gearing up, getting into the mindset and yes, maybe even getting a little excited for the new school year.
I’ve been thinking about some of my best strategies for making a real food, homemade, packed lunch every day for another 180 days x 2 children…and then I block it all out and go sit in the sun to watch my kids play in the sandbox.
That’s not very helpful to you, however, so I pulled myself together and forced ye olde brain to cough up the best, most helpful real-food-lunch-packing success tips for you, which are generously brought to you by Plan to Eat today.
Although part of my success is that I’m determined not to succumb to allowing my kids to purchase the "hot lunch" at school, I’ll admit that on some mornings, the only reason I don’t give in is that I haven’t figured out how the system works yet (on purpose). It would take as long to determine where to pay for their school lunch as it would to make my own, so I continue to handicap myself in that way.
That’s not really the first tip, folks – but if it applies to you, keep up the good work of keeping yourself in the dark!
Tip #1: Make Lists Now to Fill the Squares
Before you’re rushing around in the morning, wondering what to pack for lunch, take 5-10 minutes and think ahead:
What are some healthy, whole foods that you can easily pack in a lunch? Even better yet if you always or often (or could regularly) have them on hand in the house…
Make a list now that might look something like this:
- Fresh fruits: cut melon, grapes, apples, bananas, kiwi (cut in half or peeled and sliced), berries of all kinds, oranges in season (peeled, or your child will spend half their lunch trying to get into the orange, or just skip it), peaches or nectarines, sliced, whole plums, etc. – whatever you might occasionally have on hand
- OR just write "fresh fruit" and then make it a point to consider good lunchtime fruits when you’re grocery shopping.
- Raw cut veggies with a great dip: cucumbers, carrots, cherry tomatoes, tomato wedges if in season, pea pods, cauliflower, broccoli if they’ll eat it, red peppers, kohlrabi, etc.
- Cold meats: leftover grilled or roasted chicken, roast beef, homemade chicken nuggets, nitrate-free lunchmeat rolls or sausages
- Egg salad or hard-boiled eggs (cut in half for ease of eating and safety)
- Cheese: slices or cubes
- Great leftovers: cold homemade pizza, pasta dishes, BBQ chicken or taco meat, soups (can be frozen for "uh oh" days) – anything that either your kids will eat cold or that will travel well in a thermos.
- Homemade yogurt – our staple in every lunch!
- Healthy grains if you eat them: homemade whole wheat crackers, healthy pumpkin muffins (or the GF version), KS classic granola bars, homemade tortillas stuffed with delicious things inside, even cold oatmeal (or in a thermos) or rice pudding goes over well with my kids.
- Here’s my whole school lunch gallery of photos on Facebook for visual inspiration, and for a more extensive list, check out this massive list of healthy food to pack for lunches.
If you keep this list on your fridge, you can save on brain power for lunch packing and also have some ideas of what you might want to keep on hand, either purchased or homemade.
You could also tag all your favorite lunchtime and packable recipes with "school lunch" or just "lunch" in your Plan to Eat dashboard to make them simple to sort when you’re thinking lunches. Grab a free 30-day trial and test it out for yourself…
The Healthy Lunch Box: Sandwich-free Secrets to Packing a Real Food Lunch is loaded with strategies to streamline your packing process, stock your pantry with emergency backups for your backups, and send healthy, delicious food in the lunch box, no matter how old your eater is. Read more and start packing healthier, processed-free lunches today.
Tip #2: Plan Ahead by Stocking the Freezer
Whether you take half a Saturday every month or just make double batches whenever you can or whenever you run out of something, having certain lunch foods in the freezer will help your packing efforts immensely.
Here are a few key items I try to always keep stocked in the freezer throughout the school year:
- Muffins: either the pumpkin muffins or these grain-free coconut muffins — both come out of the freezer super moist and will thaw in a few hours.
- Soups: I make big batches of soup anyway, and I’ve learned that my kids don’t go through more than 1/2-1 cup in a lunch. There’s just too little time, too much to look at and talk about. In August and September, then, I’ll take out little portions of soup in small jars, one per serving. Then I can grab two the night before and thaw a bit on the counter and also in the fridge.
- Homemade chicken nuggets: last September I made five pounds in one night, froze most of them, and would only tap into my "emergency stash" when I seriously had no food to send with my kids. Chicken nuggets days were their favorite, and my 5 pounds lasted almost exactly to the end of the school year.
- Granola bars: just another easy, grabble snack or official lunch item.
- Green smoothies: If there’s ever a bit of smoothie left, I freeze it in a plastic container, Squooshi, or silicone ice pop mold (found on Amazon). They are great "convenience foods" to grab quickly and thaw to "icy yummy" by lunchtime.
- Frozen peas: Your kids eat these cold, right? My kids treat them like candy! One of my favorite simple, ready-to-eat real foods for lunch…
It doesn’t take dozens of items to be prepared for lunch, as long as you have some staples on hand. If you store your recipes in Plan to Eat, an online meal planning service that allows you to plan 100% of your own meals and even coordinates with your online calendars, you’ll always be able to find them quickly and add them to your to-do list for the week without any hassle. (Have you seen the new "prep notes" feature? I’m loving it! Help me brainstorm how that one might apply to lunch packing in the comments…)
Tip #3: Choose Strategic Packing Times
Let’s just start by agreeing that in the morning during the breakfast rush is a bad time to pack lunches. Whenever I don’t follow my own advice and leave lunch packing until morning, I always regret it! That’s when I’m more likely to dip into my "Uh oh" stash of chicken nuggets in the freezer, but I can’t do that every day.
When I am wise and strategic, I pack lunches throughout the day before.
I might spread some peanut butter on leftover pancakes in the morning after the bus leaves and put them directly into lunchboxes for the next day’s lunch (check out my favorite lunch containers here).
When the yogurt is out for my own lunch, if I’m smart, I’ll dole out a few more yogurts with frozen fruit for those school lunches.
And at dinner, when we’re cleaning up the table, I’ll grab some of the cut veggies we always offer and a dollop of ranch dressing while the spoon is already in the jar, add it to the pancake sandwiches, and voila! I only have to find one or two more items and the lunches are 100% packed, without my even having to get out anything that wasn’t already out.
Trust me, you’ll love yourself and real food lunches will feel so doable if you can get in some of these habits!
Tip #4: Involve the Kids
I’m a big believer in kids having responsibility and helping out around the house, both inside the kitchen and out.
With each year that passes, each child receives a bit more of his or her own "unpacking the lunch" responsibility, starting with just getting the lunchbox to the kitchen counter in kindergarten.
By second or third grade, they should be unpacking the lunch completely: ice pack in the freezer, dishes in the dishwasher or sink, leftover food checked with mom and pitched or refrigerated, and any trash (we usually don’t have any) in the garbage.
The lunchbox must be put away before they can play.
It’s my goal this year to get my kids more involved on the packing end of the process, but I’ll admit that with my scattered packing system, intermittent food availability and the fact that it seems the kids are hardly home after school as it is, I haven’t included them much as of yet. Still brainstorming on how to incorporate them a bit more…
Tip #5: Double Duty Prep
This is another easy "just have to think about it" tip like number three.
When you’re packing something, do it twice.
This means that if I’m going to portion out yogurts with frozen fruit for Monday, I might as well do four of them and have Monday and Tuesday knocked out.
It also means that I might pack a "double lunch" like this:
- Child comes home from school with empty lunchbox.
- Mom grabs box immediately. If it’s still a bit cold, Mom packs the exact same lunch, in the exact same squares (for the same kid) for the next day.
- Put it into the fridge and you’re done for the following day!
Food safety wise, you should only use this tip on two consecutive days, no more, but if you would allow your child (or yourself) to put an unfinished dinner plate or yogurt cup into the fridge and eat it the following day, how is this any different?
It cuts down on brain power needed because you don’t have to think about what you pack on day two, and, my favorite, cuts down on dishes because you use everything twice. You do need to use a few ice packs or a Pack-It lunchbox (part of our $100 lunch packing giveaway tomorrow!!) to keep things nice and cold.
When it comes to snacks, I’ll put a granola bar or muffin into a reusable bag 3-5 times in a row, depending on the item and condition of the bag when it comes home.
Come to think of it, this would be a great way to give the kids some more responsibility, since the choices are already made and they can just fill in the blanks. Thanks for helping me think that one through!
The secret to holding onto those reusable bags and boxes, by the way, is a policy I instituted when I was a third grade teacher and have trained my kids to do. I haven’t lost so much as a spoon to the garbage can in over 800 packed lunches! Check out that tip right HERE.
What’s the hardest part about school lunch (or lunch at home) for you right now?
Be sure to come back tomorrow morning for your chance to win $100 of my very favorite lunch packing supplies!
More Lunch Packing Thoughts from KS:
- My eBook: The Healthy Lunch Box, on sale now!
- Packing a Lunch: Healthy Food to Go (the big huge list of ideas)
- 10 Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches and Avoid Wasting Food
- Can you Pack a No-Waste Lunch?
- My reviews of 7 brands of bento lunch boxes
- Huge review of reusable sandwich and snack bags
- Back to School with Food Allergies (including lots of gluten-free lunch ideas)
- 10 Bread-free Packable Alternatives to Sandwiches for a Healthy Lunch on the Go
- 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
- 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?
- Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST
- Healthy School Treat Ideas when You’re Not Allowed to Make “Homemade”
- No Sugar Healthy Halloween Classroom Party
- Plastic Safety – Know Your Numbers
- Hand Sanitizers in the Home
- Plastic Bag Debacle – We Use Too Many!
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon, Mabel’s Labels and Lunchbots from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. The post is sponsored by Plan to Eat. See my full disclosure statement here.