My kids went back to school this week. In the United States at least, that means 180 days of school lunches. Multiply that by my two kids, and we’ve got 360 school lunches to pack. For friends of mine with three or more school-aged children, we’re talking over 500 lunches between now and next summer break. No wonder coming up with lunch box ideas that are easy AND healthy can become challenging.
And that’s before you even factor in kids’ own preferences. After all, if they don’t think it’s “fun” or yummy, they won’t eat it.
That’s why I’m sharing my cheat sheet of lunch box ideas, organized not by complete meals but by components. I’ve found that if you start by thinking of food/nutritional categories, that makes the “what goes in the lunchbox” process easier to break down.
Where to start:
I’m a big fan of the basic approach behind MyPlate: lots of veggies/fruit, some protein, some grains, and some dairy (or other calcium source) for building bones. If you don’t hit every group at a given meal, that’s OK, so long as it evens out over the course of the day.
Thinking in terms of nutritional groups makes it easier to cover your bases according to your family’s (or child’s) specific dietary needs: vegetarian, gluten-free, kosher, vegan, etc. There’s more to the protein group than just meats, more to grains than wheat-based products, and ways to get dietary calcium besides dairy products.
So keep that in mind as you read the rest of this post, and make mental adjustments accordingly.
QUICK TIP: Want to make packing healthy lunches super-easy? Invest in a couple of good bento-style lunch boxes, with separate compartments for different food groups. You can get the fancier ones for $25-$40 each, or more basic ones for $15-$25. They’re an eco-friendly investment you can reuse for years to come, and they’ll save you time and energy when packing up those lunches day after day!
Lunch Box Ideas: A Cheat Sheet For Busy Parents
A) Fruits and Veggies
Did you know that approximately half your plate at every meal should be fruits and vegetables? It’s not surprising that most Americans don’t get enough! But including these healthy, nutrient-packed offerings in every meal is critical.
Fruits and vegetables are high in dietary fiber, which is important for regulating our digestive systems as well as helping us feel “full” for longer after meals. The vitamins and minerals in fruits and veggies can help heal us when we’re sick or injured, regulate blood pressure, and prevent heart disease and cancer. And the fact that they’re low-calorie means that filling up on them can help you maintain a healthy weight.
Fortunately, there are lots of simple options to fill your child’s lunchbox with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Our go-to staples include
- Baby carrots (we buy them in 2- or even 5-pound bags on sale) and baby tomatoes
- Celery sticks, string beans, and the “spears” inside a head of romaine (save those tiny condiment containers from takeout/fast food, and tuck in a little dip or dressing)
- Frozen vegetables (they’ll thaw by the time your kids reach school)
- Leftover salad (my kids love this for snack sometimes, too!)
- Grapes, apple wedges, or a banana (see this great post for tips on keeping those apples and bananas fresh!)
- Sliced cucumbers or colored pepper strips
- Miniature colored sweet peppers, seeds and stem-end removed at home
- Fresh berries
- Clementines/other mini-oranges, which are easy for most kids to peel (or you can peel them at home in a matter of seconds)
- Cut-up mixed fruit chunks
- Applesauce/fruit purees – pouches, cups, or homemade (beware of added sugars, though)
- Broccoli or broccoli rabe (these are also a source of calcium)
- Kale (homemade kale chips are easy to make, way cheaper than store-bought, and my kids love them!)
- Dried fruits can also be a good option, with some caveats. Our dentist doesn’t like them because they tend to stick to teeth and promote tooth decay; the same is true for fruit roll-ups and fruit leathers. Also, many dried fruits are loaded with added sugars.
B) Protein sources
Protein helps your body build muscle and other tissues. It’s important to focus on lean sources of protein, though; protein high in fats, especially unhealthy saturated fats, can lead to excess weight gain, heart disease, and other things you’re better off avoiding.
- Leftover meat from meals, sliced or cut into bite-sized pieces
- Cold cuts or deli meats – my kids love them rolled up (don’t overdo these, though, as they’re usually high in sodium)
- Frozen meatballs (homemade or store-bought), cut into bite-sized pieces (they will thaw by lunchtime) – If you make your own, you can sneak in lots of veggies, too!
- Nuts/seeds or nut butters, if your school allows them (ours does not)
- Beans – Canned beans (preferably low-sodium, or rinse them well) are an inexpensive, ready-to-go staple in our house for quick meals and last-minute protein ideas
- Fish – cooked fish sticks, leftover pan-fried or baked fish, or canned fish (tuna, salmon, etc – if you live in a hot climate, you can swap olive oil and/or spices for mayo when making into tuna or salmon salad) – canned salmon is also a good source of calcium
- Eggs – hardboiled, deviled eggs, egg muffins or egg bites, etc.
- Edamame (which is also a great source of calcium)
- Cooked/seasoned tofu (which is also often a good calcium source)
- Cooked quinoa (this ancient grain is also a source of complete protein)
- Meat jerky or meat sticks
- Roasted chickpeas
- Hummus – great for dipping baby carrots or other veggie sticks into
C) Grain sources
Grains – especially unrefined whole grains – are great sources of lots of vitamins and minerals our bodies need, as well as fiber. Dietary fiber not only helps you feel full, it’s important to keep your digestive system running smoothly.
Our favorite lunchtime grain sources include
- Sliced bread, rolls, pita, English muffins, etc.
- Tortillas (flour or corn), plain or with fillings
- Crackers (whether made from wheat or rice or another grain)
- Corn chips (add a small container of salsa to sneak in more veggies!)
- Graham crackers
- Rice cakes
- Cooked rice, oats, bulgur, or another grain (cooked amaranth is also high in calcium)
- Granola and granola bars
- Cooked noodles or other pasta
- Cereal (Os, squares, etc. make a great finger-food lunch or snack item)
- Leftover pancakes, waffles, or French Toast (cut into sticks or triangles makes them more fun, and egg-rich French Toast adds protein, too)
- Homemade quick breads (banana bread, zucchini bread, etc. sneak in extra fruits and veggies!)
- Homemade muffins (blueberry, banana, zucchini also sneak in extra vegetables & fruits)
D) Dairy and non-dairy calcium sources
Besides the items noted above, you can add calcium to your child’s school lunch with
- Milk, which kids can often buy at school
- Yogurt smoothie drinks and probiotic yogurt drinks
- Calcium-fortified non-milk beverages (most soy, almond, coconut, etc. beverages contain extra calcium, and some orange juices are now also calcium-fortified)
- Yogurt cups or yogurt tubes
- Cheese slices, cheese cubes, cheese sticks, cheese wedges, etc.
- White beans or black-eyed peas
- Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals, including instant oatmeal
- Pudding made with milk or a calcium-rich milk substitute
- Raw almonds, some seeds, and oranges – though not as calcium-rich as other sources listed above, these also score higher-than-average
Do you have favorite lunch box ingredients that I missed? Let us know in the comments! And also see my next post on more hacks to make school lunch prep a little faster and easier!