There’s nothing better than a kid messing up and earning a consequence.
Don’t believe me?
I didn’t pack my 5th grader’s lunch almost the entire year, and I barely had to remind him that it was now his responsibility.
Because he earned it as a consequence for messing up. I can’t even remember the transgression, but I can say that a true joy of parenting is watching a kid try to climb out of the "I’m in trouble" hole by being extra super good. In this case, he knew he was in deep and was sooooo good for the first week of his consequence – packing his own lunch each night – that it sort of magically became a habit. Truly lovely.
The poor kid didn’t even have easy packaged food to rely on to simply toss into his lunch! I can imagine that an 11-year-old boy’s self-packed-lunch would easily often consist of a few single-serving packaged snacks like chips and granola bars, maybe a PB&J sandwich (or a pre-packaged one!) and a juice or sports drink.
We have no bread in the house, no jam or jelly, no sports drinks, and it’s quite clear that the pre-packaged snacks we have, like KIND or Larabars and a few applesauce cups, are only for special occasions (i.e. when Mom is really unprepared to leave the house with food and says it’s OK).
My son did great overall though, because he’s watched me pack for him – and eaten the results – for five years now. He’s also an efficiency master, motivated by his love of reading, so he took to these simple tips for easy things to pack for school lunch like a fish to water, or a bookworm to the latest fantasy novel from his favorite author (John Flanagan currently, if you have voracious pre-teen or middle school readers).
This post is sponsored by Rubbermaid LunchBlox®.
Packing Healthy School Lunches Doesn’t Have to Be Hard!
1. Keep it simple.
Don’t overthink things. You don’t need special recipes for lunch (egads).
I spend enough time in the kitchen without planning and cooking for lunch – I’m all about using what’s already available and making it packable.
We use dinner leftovers about 75% of the time for lunch – cold cooked meat, pasta, roasted veggies, or hot soup or casseroles in an insulated container. It makes lunch quite different every day and helps us avoid wasting food, too.
2. Use whole foods that don’t need recipes.
How to keep it simple?
Use fruits and veggies that simply need to be washed, maybe cut up quickly, and make lunch packing more like browsing a great salad bar than poring through a cookbook and creating something.
These items pack GREAT in a lunchbox:
- cherry tomatoes
- carrot sticks or baby carrots
- pea pods
- sliced cucumbers
- red pepper slices
- apple slices (pears and peaches are riskier for packing, unless you can pack a spoon and use an airtight sealed container to prevent spilled juices)
- Clementines or a peeled whole orange (kids don’t have time during school lunch periods to fuss with peeling a real orange. Help them out so they can finish eating and not waste food or go hungry in the afternoon)
- kiwi, halved, with a demitasse spoon
- melon cubes
- whole plums
- cherries (other berries tend to be so soft, they’re more risky for packing)
For some of those ideas, you can prep a bunch at the beginning of the week and pick at it all week long. Include a dip if it helps!
You can make a whole lunch by choosing 2-3 items from that list plus something with a little fat and protein like ants on a log, cheese sticks or trail mix. If everything can handle a bit of time out of cold storage, the Rubbermaid® Fasten + Go™ kit is such a cute way to not even need another bag to carry it in!
3. Have a no-brainer.
Part of keeping lunch simple is psychological: the question, "What’s for lunch?" can be so intimidating, it’s like the equivalent of a writer looking at a blank screen and freezing up. If you have something you always pack, it greases the chute so to speak, so that finding more is easier.
For us, that’s homemade yogurt.
It’s perfect for a few reasons:
- Everyone loves it.
- It can be varied by including different frozen fruits.
- It’s super healthy and no sweetener.
- It’s abundant because I make it by the gallon, so we’re (almost) never out of it.
Once I’ve put together a few yogurts, it helps my brain feel less overwhelmed, because there’s that sense of accomplishment:
Oh, good, I’m 25% of the way finished packing lunches now…
4. Batch it!
Because we eat the yogurt every day, we’ll often make up 2-3 days worth in individual cups so that it’s that much easier and more efficient.
What might you be able to pack multiples of at once to save time the next day?
5. Use mealtimes for efficiency.
And when I’m really doing it smartly, I make up those yogurts when I’m also serving myself or my younger kids yogurt at lunch at home, and then I’ve saved even MORE time in getting stuff out and putting it away.
Because parents, for real – how much time do you think you spend every day just moving things around, aka getting stuff out and putting it away? Thousands of hours of my life, I’m convinced of it. I shave those as often as I can!
When we have a dinner that would make a good lunch, we immediately package a portion into containers for the next day AS we’re putting dinner away, which is the best thing ever when you get to 8:30 and realize that lunch is nearly or all the way packed already!
6. The freezer is your friend.
When I haven’t been to the store in over a week, our perishables like cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, bananas, and other fresh fruits get dangerously low. But I’ve never had to run to the grocery just to make sure we have something for the kids for lunch (or worse yet, succumb to hot lunch!).
- My freezer always has frozen peas available (vegetable).
- We keep well stocked with frozen fruit.
- Every September I try to make one huge batch of homemade chicken nuggets and put most of them in the freezer. In a lunch box, they’ll thaw just right by noon, and my kids are quite happy to dip them in mustard as a main course (meat).
- I also freeze muffins (bread) and tiny kid-sized servings of soup at the beginning of each year for "food emergencies." (protein, vegetable)
My freezer supplies everything my kids could need!
7. Fill the squares.
This is going back to the idea of a psychological boost – making dinner feel easier.
Lunch boxes with divided containers, little squares to fill, if you will, make lunch feel like a multiple choice test instead of a long-answer essay. Just imagine how you feel looking at those different sorts of test/quizzes – long answer is just totally intimidating, and containers like this Rubbermaid LunchBlox® or Fasten + Go™ kit give a structure to your "answers."
I feel like the things in each box don’t have to be as related as they would be if I was packing in one big lunch box, and my kids also love that things don’t touch and share juices like some of our other divided lunch container options. The individual containers each have a secure lid seal that won’t let leaks spoil the lunch box, and they actually snap together so they don’t bobble all over inside as kids swing their lunch box around (you know they do!).
The Rubbermaid LunchBlox® even comes with a Blue Ice™ ice pack that clicks in between the sections to keep food cold (up to 4 hours). And of course, you know I wouldn’t even have these in my house if they weren’t BPA-free.
You can get prepped for the new school year with 5% off of Rubbermaid LunchBlox® Sandwich Kit (the one I got) and 20% off Rubbermaid Fasten+Go™ at Target online through the end of August or simply grab them during your back-to-school shopping at Target!
8. Breakfast for lunch!
I don’t know why everyone loves "breakfast for dinner" so much, but it’s always a hit.
So why not breakfast for lunch?
I find that leftover pancakes travel great and are awesome with PB&J or cream cheese and honey (yogurt cheese is even healthier and cheaper), and things like sausage patties and hard-boiled eggs are awesome cold too. (Pro tip: Cut hard-boiled eggs in half so they’re easier to eat and not so slippery for little fingers. Sprinkle salt and pepper on top plus a little extra bit for dipping.)
My kids even enjoy cold oatmeal with raisins and milk. (I’m lucky, I know. We set our standards nice and low!)
I just recommend not serving the exact same thing for breakfast and lunch on the same day…unless of course you’re doing a rotation diet, and then that’s just what you’re supposed to do! #realfoodnevereasy #everythingchanges
9. Prevent waste – get the quantity right.
The worst part about packing healthy school lunches can be the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach if your child brings home the lunch box or brown bag with food still in there, and you have to throw it away because it’s been out of the fridge too long.
The waste of money! The time you spent prepping and packing! Noooooooo!
Avoid this by being prepared with one simple rule:
My kids know that every single thing comes home, and that way within the first few weeks of school, I learn a lot of very important facts:
- How much the child can truly eat for their age and the time allowed for lunch. PSA for parents! Your kid will almost certainly eat less during school lunch than they did all summer long. Between friends distracting them and a short time period, your initial quantities will likely be wrong.
- What my kids like.
- What travels well and what gets smooshed into oblivion so they don’t want to eat it.
- How well they can manage new lunch containers. (Are the lids put tightly back on? Is there anything they couldn’t even get into?)
Plus, I feel good investing in quality lunch containers and sending real utensils, because I know nothing will even go near the garbage. We’ve hardly lost anything in over 1,000 school lunches packed in this house!
10. Cheat: Pack a Double Lunch
My son often forgets this and I kept missing opportunities to catch him just after school before unloading his lunch, but he’s coming around to the fact that it’s an absolutely brilliant idea. He’s a fan of cutting corners!
Here’s how it works:
- If you have enough of every item in your lunch available to pack again…
- You don’t put your dirty lunch dishes in the dishwasher (the Rubbermaid LunchBlox® and Fasten+Go™ – and all our other lunch packing containers – are all dishwasher safe).
- You simply open it up and refill each container or square with the exact same foods for tomorrow.
It’s not gross if it’s the same person eating the same thing and it’s all stayed cold the whole day! (You would want to make sure that anything perishable that left residue WAS in fact cold. We add extra ice packs for this purpose.)
One caveat that I’m sure I’ll have to enforce with this 11yo boy who would never shower unless I forced him to: you can’t do this over and over ad nauseum. Literally on the Latin.
A double lunch, not a triple, quadruple, hat trick or home run.
Need More Ideas for School Lunch?
I’ve written about this topic often before!
- Over 70 ideas and tricks for packing easy school lunches!
- gluten free lunch ideas
- 10 Tips to Pack Brilliant School Lunches and Avoid Wasting Food
- Can you Pack a No-Waste Lunch?
- If I was in charge of school lunches…
- 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 (to be updated soon with a few more brands and a huge #fail of longevity on one brand!)