12 ways to make school lunches easier to prep
Easy to make. Easy to eat.
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If you’re all out of school lunch ideas and the thought of packing lunch for another school year is applying a kind of pressure akin to saving for college, you’ve come to the right place. We understand the agonizing that’s happening in homes everywhere.
What to pack? How to pack it? Will your kid actually eat it? These are the questions stressful grocery shopping trips and Monday mornings are made of. But not anymore.
The uncertainty stops here. Whether you need tips to shake up lunch offerings, or ideas for what to pack those lunches in, let’s get this situation under control with 12 school lunch ideas and tips that will set you (and your kid) up for success.
1. Do as much in advance as possible
This is the one tip you probably want to hear least, but need the most: Pack lunch ahead of time (no eye-rolling, please). Whether it’s the night before, or over the weekend, or right after you go grocery shopping while everything is out and still fresh in your mind—pick a time and schedule it.
Get as much of the prep work done ahead of time and leave minimal assembly for the morning. The lunches you pack will be more intentional and your mornings will run smoother. Win-win!
2. Create sandwich kits
Nobody likes a soggy sandwich, or stale bread, which makes it really hard to assemble sandwiches ahead of time. Instead, make sandwich kits. By stacking deli meat, cheese and other sandwich “guts” together, you can grab one stack, slap the bread around it and go!
Use storage containers to assemble your deli items into this configuration as soon as you bring them home and they’re ready to go for whoever needs lunch.
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3. Get the kids involved
The age at which kids can independently pack their own lunch obviously varies, but getting them involved in the process early helps to ensure they’ll eat what you’re packing. That adds up to better nutrition and less food waste. Let young kids choose between two options for things fruit, protein, and a treat, and have them place it in their lunchbox.
4. Make the switch to bento boxes
This compartmentalized style of lunchbox has been gaining popularity for a while now, and with good reason. They’re designed to keep food fresh, organized, and separated—three things that might seriously increase your child’s food intake at lunch.
Bento boxes are also geared toward variety, allowing you to pack a little of this and a little of that, which best suits the shorter lunch periods now seen in most schools.
A reusable container like a bento box also eliminates the waste of plastic baggies, and many have built-in ice packs to keep food cold (and safe to eat). Find a cute one that will get your kid excited about lunch, or try my personal go-to from Cool Gear.
Aside from the expandable container and built-in cold pack tray, my favorite thing about this bento box is the covered containers. I can put a sweet treat in one with a note on it that says “open me last” in hopes that my son will eat the rest of his lunch first. Does it work? Only he knows!
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5. Don’t fear the snacks
Whether you put them in a bento box or collect individual packages in a standard brown paper bag, snacks make a perfectly acceptable lunch. While Goldfish and fruit snacks alone may not provide enough nutritional value, you can add something like granola bites and a cheese stick for well-rounded snacking.
Homemade energy bites are also a great snack option that’s easy to eat, yummy, and, as the name suggests, gives you energy. Invest in a small cookie scoop and make a few batches of energy bites not only for the lunchbox but to keep on hand for everyone in the house. You can use this one base recipe with 10 flavor variations for endless variety and inspiration.
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6. Serve breakfast for lunch
We all do it for dinner now and again, but who says breakfast can’t also be for lunch? Egg bites and waffle sandwiches make fun and nutritious lunchtime options. Substitute leftover pancakes for bread in your child’s next PB&J and you may be hearing a lot of “thank yous” when they get home.
I recently fell in love with the Dash Egg Bite Maker for its quick and easy ability to turn a few ingredients into a healthy meal. I whip my eggs in a blender with a scoop of cottage cheese for a fluffy texture that’s delicious warm or cold.
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Master the kitchen.
7. This is the apple trick you never knew you needed
If apple slices are your kid’s fruit of choice but oxidized (harmless but brown) apple slices keep coming home in their lunchbox, you need this trick. Use an apple slicer and push it almost all the way through the apple, then wrap a rubber band around the entire thing (core and all) to keep it together before fully pushing the slicer through.
You can even sprinkle cinnamon on the interior of the slices before gathering them into the rubber band. No more brown-apple complaints again!
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8. Turn leftovers into lunch
Got leftovers from taco Tuesday? Send them in a make-your-own taco configuration or DIY nachos. You may even start making extra with this strategy in mind.
Turn leftover pasta into pizza-pasta-salad by adding cut up pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, raw veggies, and dressing with a little tomato paste mixed in. And give leftover pizza a new life by cutting into bite-sized pieces, which are much easier to fit into a lunchbox and rarely need to be reheated to be delicious.
9. Stick with cold food as much as possible
Yes, you can use a thermos if soup is an absolute must, but trying to send a hot lunch to school can be complicated. Plus, is heating and packing hot food really how you want to spend your morning?
Instead of trying to pack hot food, save hot lunches for weekends or give kids the go-ahead to buy hot lunch at school. Some school lunches might have a bad rap, but updates to the USDA’s National School Lunch Program ensure that lunches are healthy and well-balanced.
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10. Don’t underestimate the power of baked goods
There are lots of recipes out there for healthy muffins that are both sweet and savory, and veggie-filled quick breads that can pack beautifully into lunch boxes, are easy for kids to eat, and likely to disappear before the bell rings.
Grab our winning muffin tin and make up freezable batches of muffins to have at the ready. Try to avoid the heavily processed and sugar-laden packaged varieties that are more likely to cause your kid to crash than give them the energy they need to finish the day strong.
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11. Get into shapes
If you’ve got young kids who are excited by fun shapes, this might really get them to eat their sandwich. But don’t go crazy cutting cutesy shapes yourself–go for a set that’s meant for lunch foods.
12. Stock up on grab-and-go options
It’s inevitable. There will come a time when you’ve run out of all the regular lunchbox staples, and even the peanut butter jar is empty. That’s when it’s important to have a stash of healthy packaged foods on hand that you can throw together to get you to the next grocery shopping trip.
Cheese sticks and yogurt pouches are obvious go-tos, but even cookies like those from Made Good can have a place in the lunchbox and give kids the calories they need to continue on with their day. Along the same lines as snacks-for-lunch, this method may miss the traditional main dish but it may be a welcome change of pace and can really save you in a pinch.
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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.