When school starts, that means it’s time to start a new school year routine for the family. A big part of our routine is planning and packing lunches for school!
Packed lunches take more time, but are a safer option for us since Little J has food allergies.
In general, packing school lunches are a great option if your child doesn’t like what’s offered at school, your child has food sensitivities or food allergies, or you want your child to have a wider variety of foods, and in some cases packing school lunches can be cheaper.
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Get the Kids Involved in Packing Lunch
To start with, make sure that you and your child work together in the planning and preparation of their lunch. Depending on the age of your kids, they might be able to be more help than you think with getting their lunches ready. (This will also help with teaching them responsibility and life skills.)
Make a list together of all the different lunch options that they like. Include main courses, fruits, vegetables, snack items and desserts. Don’t limit yourself to “traditional” lunch foods either! For example, snack lunches and breakfast for lunch are always popular favorites.
Check Your School Lunch Containers
Take a look at the containers and lunch kits you may already have, and see if they are appropriate for your child’s age and appetite. Also, check if the following:
- Are any containers warped or damaged?
- If applicable, do the containers still have their water tight seals?
- Will the containers you have work to fit in the foods you plan on sending?
- Can your child open all lunch containers without your help? This is important especially for the younger kids, as there might not always be a teacher available to help them.
- Do the lunch containers fit in your child’s lunchbox?
- Does your child’s lunchbox still fit in their backpack?
Then decide what additional or replacement lunch containers you need to purchase.
Our favorite school lunch containers are:
- This Thermos Funtainer and a matching R2D2 Thermos water bottle in this style below that I don’t think they make anymore.
- Sistema food storage containers, on the go cutlery and salad dressing containers (we use them for ketchup). They have so many great options to choose from depending on what you’re packing for lunch. Just make sure it all fits in the lunch box that you’re using!
Make a Shopping List
Make a shopping list of all the foods and containers you may need to buy before school starts. If you don’t have a thermos, I highly recommend that you try one. Check out my post on Hot School Lunch Favorites for Kids for tips on how to keep a school lunch hot, choosing and using a thermos, and lots of hot school lunch ideas for your kids to try! I also share my secret of how to pack chicken nuggets for a school lunch!
A thermos is easy to prep in the morning and will also give you a lot more options for school lunches, so win-win! Add any new lunch containers or accessories (ice packs, water thermos, reusable sandwich bags, etc.) you might need to your shopping list and get your shopping done.
You May Also Like: Hot School Lunch Favorites for Kids
Make a School Lunch Meal Plan
Next, plan out the meals or have your older children plan them out themselves. Be sure to think about how long their school lunch time lasts, and their normal appetite. This way you won’t pack too much and have it go to waste.
You could plan out a week or two at a time- whatever works best for you. I like to meal plan our family dinners and school lunches at the same time so that I can coordinate the meals. For example, if we have tacos for dinner, I can save a little meat to use for a school lunch of nachos a couple of days later. Some dinner leftovers also can make a great lunch later in the week.
It really makes school lunch packing so much easier if you plan them out ahead of time. There are several ways this can be done:
- choose a protein, vegetable, fruit and grain/carbohydrate for each meal (plus dessert if you want),
- choose a “theme” for each meal day, for example: DIY lunchables one day, then pasta, sandwich, leftovers, and breakfast for lunch,
- or choose certain meals and then rotate through them.
The protein, vegetable, fruit and grain/carbohydrate plan is perfect for teaching kids how to choose a balanced and healthy lunch. If it doesn’t always work out like this every single day (which I can pretty much guarantee you it won’t), don’t worry about it!
Before school starts, it will be super beneficial if you can do a “practice run” of their school lunches.
This will help to:
- narrow down what they like the most,
- make sure that they can open all of their containers without help (for younger kids),
- check that all the containers don’t leak,
- find out if the food is being kept hot or cold enough,
- and practice eating it in the time they’ll be allotted for lunch (if they aren’t used to it).
Do Your Meal Prep
Once you have a school lunch meal plan, prep anything that you can the week ahead. For example, wash and bag fresh fruits and veggies, boil up a batch of eggs, organize items in the fridge or pantry together for grabbing quickly, make chicken salad for sandwiches, etc.
Batch cooking works great for school lunches also. Think of what meals on your child’s school lunch list can be cooked in batches. Pasta dishes, casseroles, soups, stews, muffins, and more can all be cooked in batches and frozen for later use.
My son’s favorite school lunch meals that I like to cook in batches are spaghetti, chicken and wild rice casserole, egg bites, and mini-meatloves. I can cook a large batch and then set aside one to be used that week and freeze the rest for future use in individual serving sizes. Then I take one out of the freezer to defrost in the refrigerator a day or two before and it’s ready the day of- super convenient!
Pack School Lunches the Night Before
Who has tried to pack lunches in the morning and enjoys it? Not me or anyone I know. Mornings with kids are normally hectic and busy, so the less there is to do in the morning, the better. Pack whatever you can the night before, and get the kids to do as much as they can to help. Get together things in the fridge or freezer so that they can quickly be grabbed and packed in the morning. Eventually you’ll have a routine down and it’ll be smooth sailing.
Related Post: Back to School with Food Allergies [FREE Checklist!]
Cleaning Out Lunchboxes
After you kids get home from school, have them immediately clean out their backpacks and empty their lunchboxes. This cuts down on the chance that you’ll be unpleasantly surprised by a sticky mess later. It also teaches kids good habits and helps them develop responsibility. If my son has any leftovers, depending on what they are, he might eat them for an after school snack. Otherwise, they get thrown away.
Try to take note though if your kids are throwing a lot of food away. Sometimes kids will end up talking through lunch, don’t know how to manage their lunch time wisely, or maybe they have too much to eat.
Have your kids do whatever washing and cleaning they can and put the items back in a central location. We have an area that we use specifically for lunch packing, and after washing, we lay out all the clean items there for the next day.
School Lunches for Picky Eaters
If you have a picky eater like my child, getting them involved is really the first thing to strive for. Together, make the list of foods they will eat in the categories of protein, vegetable, fruit and grain/carbohydrate. This way you have an easier time coming up with a balanced meal.
You might need to change your mindset on what you think “lunch” should be, and accept that if your child is eating a semi-balanced lunch, then that’s good enough. You don’t have to like it yourself or think that it sounds good together, right? Breakfast and dinner items can also be good for lunch, so don’t limit yourself.
Determine what your child likes or doesn’t like about things by asking questions. Does your child not like food touching? Does your child not like the texture of something one way, but will eat it when paired with something else? Or cooked a different way? Does your child like a particular food only when it’s hot or cold (or even frozen)? Will your child eat a food when dipped in a certain sauce?
Some things can be easily changed, but others might take some time and testing. You can do some of these “tests” at lunch or dinner, by offering them one new item, or one item cooked a different way, etc., along with their regular meal.
Need Some Ideas of What To Pack In A School Lunch?
As the school year goes on, planning and making lunches can get tiring! So if you need a few extra ideas of what to pack for a school lunch for your kids, I have a free printable for you! Just sign up below!
I sorted them into categories to help you out a bit: hot main courses, cold main courses (although many could be hot or cold), fruits and veggies, and sides. Fruits and veggies can also be sides, but the sides category is for basically anything else.
I also have a blank one for you to write down what your kids like so that you can have for easy reference when you’re meal planning. You could also laminate it to use it over and over!