Preview: If you need back to school lunch box ideas, you’ve come to the right place. This post shares lots of recipes and ideas to help you solve the lunch packing dilemma.
School will be starting soon and that means its time to get back in the groove of packing lunches. Whether your kids take their lunch every day or just occasionally, you probably need some ideas to help with the morning rush, especially when you are brain-dead in the morning. (Or am I the only one?)
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Why Pack a Lunch?
There are many reasons that it is a good idea to pack your child’s lunch instead of relying on cafeteria food. First, you will most likely pack foods your child will eat. I can’t tell you the amount of food I have seen thrown away from cafeteria lunch trays.
Secondly, packing your child’s lunch will probably be cheaper than purchasing the school lunch. (Unless of course, your school provides free lunch.) Thirdly, a packed lunch from home is usually the healthier option, unless of course you’re packing chips, sodas, and candy everyday.
How to Stock Your Pantry to Make Packing Lunches Easier
While we try to utilize re-useable containers for lunch, there are the occasional days, where we use disposable. We try to limit these days, but for field trips where disposable is required or for days you are in a hurry, it is a good idea to keep a few things in your pantry to make packing lunches easier. We keep:
- juice boxes or pouches
- individual fruit cups or applesauce cups
- fig bars or granola bars
- peanut butter, nut butter, or sunflower seed butter
- beef jerky
Printable Lunch Box Ideas Sheet
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You can post this list on your refrigerator or keep it in your planner to help you on those days when you have no idea what to pack. I try to pack at least 3 items from 3 different categories on this list, though some things like a sandwich cover two or more (bread-grain, sandwich meat-protein, lettuce-vegetable).
Protein/Main Dish Choices
- chicken cubes
- peanut butter, nut butter, or sunflower seed butter
- hard boiled eggs
- beef jerky
- beans or chickpeas
- pasta salad
- cheese sticks
- mini quiches
I like to include a dipping sauce when I send vegetables to school. Hummus, ranch dressing, french onion dip, or honey mustard dressing all make great choices. I like to use a small container like these to put the sauce in so it doesn’t leak.
- snap peas
- cherry tomatoes
- mini peppers or pepper slices
- fruit cups
- oranges or clementines
- raisins or other dried fruit
Other Fun Items to Pack
- trail mix
- fig bars
- roasted chickpeas
- fruit leathers
I use the term “recipes” loosely here. Some of these are more ideas than recipes And while not everyone always has time to make a bunch of recipes specifically for the lunch box, mixing up something fun on the weekend to have for lunches throughout the week can make taking lunch to school a bit easier. These are some great recipe ideas that I have come across.
- Real Mom Nutrition’s Ham & Cheese Pinwheels use crescent rolls to make a quick main dish for the lunch box.
- No Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Balls from Tshanina Peterson look so delicious and only take 5 ingredients. They also can be mixed up in less than 10 minutes (but allow an hour of chill time).
- Cheapskate Cook has a great recipe for Apple & Oat Mix-in-the-Pan Bars. I made these for breakfast and my kids devoured them. However, they would be perfect for the lunchbox too. Or if you don’t have apples, try her Mix-in-the-Pan Fruit Oat Bars. Both of these recipes make a great, healthy lunch box dessert.
- If your kids are tired of turkey and ham, mix up a batch of my Meal Prep Chicken. You can season it so many different ways and its definitely more frugal than lunch meat.
- Cheapskate Cook also has a great method of how to freeze sandwiches so you’ll have them ready when you need them. I had never even thought of doing this but you can bet I’m trying it this year!
- These mini ham and cheese quiches from Momables look delicious and would be super easy to pop in the oven while you are eating supper. You could easily swap the ham to any kind of meat your child prefers or even leave it out altogether.
Gear to Make Packing Lunches Easier
Since we really try to limit disposable products, I have used various containers over the years to pack lunches. I especially love the 3 compartment trays that help make packing lunches easier. With just one lid, they are easy for little hands to open.
I love the Ziplock 3 compartment container, though they aren’t as sturdy as some and may have to be replaced occasionally. (However, we had some that we used for almost 2 years before they started cracking.) They are definitely the most affordable option for divided compartments that I’ve seen. They are fairly leakproof, but really liquidy foods might spill out. I wasn’t able to locate them on Amazon anymore, but you may be able to find them at your local Walmart, Target or your regular grocery store. They were discontinued for a few years but after much public outcry they have been brought back.
We use Easy Lunchboxes now. They are sturdier than the Ziplock ones but they are most definitely NOT leakproof. They work fine to keep sandwiches, and food that doesn’t contain much liquid like grapes and carrots.
However, don’t even think about putting applesauce or yogurt in one of these. I don’t recommend pasta salad in these either unless you can be sure that the container will stay flat all day. These are dishwasher safe and hold up well. I just realized we have had ours for 4 years already.
We occasionally use the Rubbermaid LunchBlox kit. It works well, but it can be a pain to open each individual container. However, when I send pasta salad or applesauce, this is my preferred kit since it doesn’t leak.
A couple other containers that have been highly recommended are the Sistema containers, Yumbox and PlanetBox. I may purchase a set of the Sistema to try out this year, but the Yumbox and PlanetBox are both quite pricey (especially for 3)! However, a friend of mine is still using her PlanetBox 6 years later, so the cost per use is quite reasonable.
I have a Thermos for each child so they can take leftovers or soups to school. On a cold day, a warm lunch is a welcome treat and none of the 3 schools that my boys attend allow students to warm up lunches. My younger two are just fine with the smaller version, but my oldest uses one similar to this larger one.
These small containers are perfect for salad dressings or to hold a dip for fruit or vegetables.
Cold packs are a must if you are sending anything to school that is perishable. Yogurts, cheese, or any kind of meat should be kept cold until lunch time to ensure food safety. I recommend having two per child that way one is always cold or if a child forgets their lunch box at school, you have an extra.
I also think it is best to purchase an inexpensive set (or two) of stainless steel silverware per child. It can go right in the dishwasher each evening and be ready for the next day. This saves from constantly purchasing plastic ware that goes into the garbage each day. I purchased mine from Walmart but Amazon has a few sets too.
We have used Lands End Lunchboxes for years and I really like them, except for the fact that they aren’t easily washable. They are insulated and keep things cold (with a cold pack) until lunch. The zippers are sturdy and easy for young children to use. The inside does wipe clean, but I really like ones that can be thrown in the washing machine to get all the outside yuck off them. I have actually washed these, but the insulating foam inside bunched up. ? Otherwise, this would probably have been my first choice.
My favorite lunch box is an Arctic Zone lunch bag that I have found at Walmart. For around $10, these are excellent bags. I love the fact that they have a hard plastic insert that catches small leaks and is easy to wipe clean. I have also washed these bags in the washing machine and they have held up extremely well. The only downside to this lunch box is that there is no water bottle pocket on the side, though there is a rather large zippered outside compartment that you can put the water bottle down in.
There are so many types of water bottles on the market today it can be hard to choose. We used these Contigo water bottles for several years, but I had one child who kept chewing the spout. ?The fun designs are great for smaller kids, but older ones will probably think they are silly.
Then, we upgraded to these auto seal water bottles since they didn’t have cutsey designs on them. They are great for smaller kids. Last year, I used these for my kids and we love them. They have a locking feature on the bottle that keeps the cap from accidentally opening. These water bottles NEVER leaked. I am keeping these as a back up in case someone loses the new ones we bought or leaves it at school.
Since my kids have gotten older, they have wanted larger water bottles. We recently purchased these insulated water bottles so they could have cold water to sip on all day. They go from school to sports practices with ease. They are a little dented now, but they still work great.
How to Know How Much to Pack
It can be hard to determine how much to pack in your child’s lunch box. That’s why we have a rule that if it isn’t eaten, it comes back home. This allows me to see how much of the food actually is being eaten each day. After the first few weeks of school, you can abandon this rule if it bothers you, but since appetites can frequently change, I prefer to see what’s being eaten.
If You Are Really Tired of Packing Lunches
If you are really tired of packing lunches, Real Mom Nutrition has a great post about setting up a lunch packing station so kids can pack their own lunches. This takes this chore off of your plate and allows your kids to make choices regarding their lunches. She even has a 5 day email course to walk you through getting your kids to pack their own lunches.
For more lunch packing ideas and a complete 2 week back to school meal plan check out this Back To School Meal Plan. And if you have any other lunch box ideas, please drop them in the comments below.