Never used a thermos for your child’s school lunch, or need some ideas on what to put in a thermos for lunch?
Making hot lunches for Little J seemed difficult at first, but I soon realized those were almost some of the easiest ones after I did some weekend prep.
Do your kids enjoy eating hot lunches at school? Or are they the rare types who eat what you send regardless of it being hot or cold?
If you’re new to thermos lunches, here are some tips on what to look for when buying a thermos, and some kid-approved hot lunch ideas to get you started!
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. That means if you click & buy or sign up for a service through my link, I will receive a small compensation at no additional cost to you.
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. See my Disclosure page for details.
Choosing a Thermos
1. What size do you need?
Consider the amount of time your child has to eat lunch, how slow/fast your child normally eats, and how much food they normally eat at lunch.
We like to use a Funtainer Thermos for the main course, either this one or this one. Then one of these Sistema containers is the perfect size to hold a few sides (and it’s easy to open), and he’s all set! Since he doesn’t have a very long lunch, that’s really all the food he can eat.
If your child needs more to eat (like those growing tweens and teens!), I would suggest getting a larger thermos.
Consider how wide the thermos mouth is and think of what foods you’ll put in it.
If your child doesn’t have enough time to eat more food, then consider packing more protein and fiber filled foods to keep him/her fuller longer.
2. How long should your thermos keep food hot?
The food shouldn’t be scalding hot by the time they eat it, but you don’t want it to be lukewarm either.
The “Danger Zone” temperature range is between 40F and 140F. Bad bacteria can quickly multiply if the temperature is in this range. Keep in mind what time your child eats lunch and compare that to how long the thermos says it can safely keep food hot.
The 2 hour rule says that perishables will only last for 2 hours once they aren’t kept at their optimal temperatures. If you aren’t sure that the more “solid” foods will keep their heat, you may want to do a test to make sure their temperatures will hold until lunchtime.
Related Posts: Back to School with Food Allergies [FREE Checklist!]
How To Pack A Lunch for School [That Your Child Will Eat!]+FREE PRINTABLES
3. Does it fit your child’s lunchbox?
If you’re thermos shopping in person, bring the lunch box with you. If you’re shopping online, you’ll need to do some measuring and compare them to the thermos specifications listed.
4. Can your child open it without assistance, and without spilling anything?
Make sure your child can open it on their own without spilling anything. The lunch time is so short as it is, you don’t want them to struggle with opening their food or cleaning up spills.
5. Is it easy to clean & made with safe materials?
Check how many parts there are to the thermos and read the recommended washing instructions. Make sure it’s BPA free, made from food grade stainless steel, and check for any inner seams to make sure they’re smooth.
Using a Thermos for Hot Foods
- Preheat the thermos before use to keep it hotter longer: Pour in boiling water and close it. We leave it sitting for around 10 minutes. Read the directions that come with your thermos, as they may specify how to preheat it.
- While the thermos preheats: Heat up your food to steaming hot- it’ll be in there for several hours, you don’t want it to creep into the danger zone!
- When they’re both ready: Dump out the water and add your food, closing it tightly, but not too tight! I like to loosen it a little after closing so that it won’t be too tight for Little J. Then turn it upside down to make sure it doesn’t leak!
Thermos Tips & Hacks
- If you’re sending crunchy foods like chicken nuggets, dry out the thermos and line it with a paper towel before adding the food. I get a paper towel large enough to cover the top of the food too, so that the lid doesn’t drip condensation on them.
- I’ve packed 2 foods in a thermos, and it seems to work okay depending on the foods. I pack in 4 egg bites on the bottom, then heat and wrap a double chocolate muffin from Garden Lites with parchment paper and add it on the top.
Another time I added mashed potatoes on one “side” of the thermos and meatloaf on the other. They mixed together somewhat, but Little J was fine with that.
- Use it for cold foods too! But check the instructions on how to prep it ahead of time, it’ll probably take longer than a preheating.
- Batch cook and freeze smaller portions to fit the thermos. Take them out as needed and add to lunch boxes.
- Label your child’s thermos and lunch box items. Lunch bags can be easily mixed up or misplaced, so labeling everything helps them make it back home. Since Little J has several food allergies, it’s even more important for us that his items are labeled.
We LOVE Mabel’s Labels and have used them for over a year now to label all of Little J’s lunch items. They last for a super long time and go through the dishwasher great too! Take a look at what they have to offer- a variety of labels for everything, and items like tags, ID bracelets, and stamps!
Don’t forget- Mabel’s Labels also offers FREE standard shipping within the U.S. & Canada!
Hot School Lunch Favorites
Here are some of Little J’s hot school lunch staples:
1. Egg Bites
I love these mini egg muffins with bacon and cheddar from Blackberry Babe! They are super easy to make, and you really can add whatever you want!
We like to use low sodium turkey bacon, and don’t actually add any salt or pepper to them. They freeze really well too and are easy for Little J to eat at lunch.
2. Mini Turkey Meatloaves
The cooking time goes down to about 20-25 minutes (depending on your oven), and you can sub Italian seasoning for marjoram. Little J can spot an onion at 10 miles away it seems, so I end up using onion powder instead. (Do what works, right?)
One mini loaf is about how much Little J can eat at lunch. Just pop one in the fridge the night before to thaw out, and it’s ready to heat up in the morning.
3. Walking Tacos
Our version of walking tacos is ground turkey meat seasoned with taco seasoning, mixed with refried beans in the thermos, Baked Tostitos scoops, shredded cheese, and lettuce. Little J then mixes everything together in the thermos to make a taco salad of sorts.
Other options are shredded seasoned chicken, rice, tortilla pieces, different types of beans, guacamole/avocado, tomatoes, or sour cream. Use what your child will eat!
4. Chicken Cheesy Rice
We call it chicken cheesy rice, but it’s really chicken and wild rice casserole from Weelicious. Thankfully this recipe is very delicious, forgiving and simple!
Since a.) I’m not a cook, b.) I simplify things when I can, and c.) I have a picky child, I modify this recipe a bit. I use onion powder instead of onions, sometimes cook the mushrooms in with the chicken (or don’t add the mushrooms at all if Little J says he doesn’t like them this week), and use the fast cook wild rice.
Dump everything in an 8 X 8 inch baking dish and mix it in there together, then sprinkle more cheese on top before baking.
I’ll divide it up into lunch serving sizes and freeze it in glass containers. Then put one in the fridge a couple of days before to thaw it out, and heat it up for Little J’s lunch that morning.
5. Chicken Nuggets
Chicken nuggets are normally a kid-friendly favorite. If your child is not a fan, you can try pizza rolls, or veggie nuggets. To keep them crispy, use the paper towel method mentioned above.
If your child likes to dip them, include a dipping sauce. Put those extra to-go ketchup/sauce packets to good use, or get a small leak-proof reusable container like the ones below.
6. Tortellini & Meatballs
Make this as simple as you want to! Buy your favorite fresh or frozen tortellini and frozen meatballs, cook them at the same time (not together), then put them together with some sauce.
You could even make half with alfredo sauce and half with marinara sauce to add some variety. You’ll have several individual servings that you can freeze for future lunches.
Oatmeal is super simple and filling for a hot school lunch. Let them choose their add-ins and have fun with it!
Some ideas for easy packing add-ins are: granola, dried fruit like raisins, cranberries, cherries or apples, fresh or frozen fruit like blueberries, peaches or strawberries, and chocolate chips (these dark chocolate morsels or these mini chips would be amazing!).
With a side of yogurt, your child will be good to go for lunch!
More Hot Lunch Ideas
8. Frito Pie
9. Rotisserie Chicken Pieces- Could add a layer of mashed potatoes in.
10. Pizza Rolls
11. Soups, Stews & Chilis
12. Macaroni & Cheese- With or without meatballs, cubed ham, crumbled beef or turkey, tuna or chicken mixed in.
13. Baked Oatmeal Cups- Check out my Pinterest account for some of my favorites!
15. Meatballs- Could add a layer of mashed potatoes in.
16. Meat & Cheese Pinwheels or Crescents
17. Pigs in a Blanket
18. Grilled Cheese Sticks/Squares- Fix the sandwich as usual, then cut it into strips or squares. Wrap it in a paper towel first so that it doesn’t get soggy, then you could wrap it in foil if you’re concerned about it staying heated.
19. Homemade “hot pockets” like this Chicken Pot Pie Pocket.
20. Mini Corn Dogs
21. Chicken Alfredo Pasta
Don’t forget about leftovers! Leftovers from dinner out or at home from a night or two ago make for great lunch box additions.
Planning Out Lunches
Just like meal planning for dinner, I recommend planning out kids’ lunches for the week too. It makes your week less stressful and allows some additional variety in your child’s meals.
Keeping single servings in the freezer can also save you a lot of time. No extra cooking during the week, and if you’re in a bind and forgot to prep lunch the night before (we’ve ALL been there!)- you can quickly defrost one in the microwave in the morning while getting ready.
These hot lunches are so easy to incorporate into your lunch meal rotation with just a little planning.