10 Tips for Packing Healthy School Lunches

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I have several friends who have kids going into kindergarten. Many of them have asked me for ideas about how to pack healthy lunches for their kiddos without going insane from the time and effort it takes to make lunches every school day.

10 tips for healthy school lunches

I have been packing lunches now for six years, since my youngest was in preschool. My kids are now in fourth and first grade, so I've developed a pretty good system for getting their lunches made quickly, and relatively painlessly. Here a few tips for moms about to embark on the whole lunch packing journey (let's start by calling it a journey instead of a tedious chore).

1. Buy a lunch box with compartments.

When I first started packing my son, Iain's lunches, I used a regular insulated lunch bag. What I noticed is that he would usually eat his sandwich, which was zipped into the bottom of the lunch bag, and he wouldn't eat the fruits and veggies and various snacks that I had packed in the big compartment of the lunch bag. After several years of lunches coming home partially eaten, I started to think about presentation. At the time, Iain had a little divided plate that he used for lunch and dinner at home, which got me thinking that he might be more likely to finish his lunch if he could see everything at once.

various lunch boxes with little compartments
various lunch boxes with little compartments

I decided to get a stainless steel PlanetBox, because it was easy to open and close—with no tricky Tupperware-type lids—and it seemed really durable. I have been packing lunches in the PlanetBox for the past three years and I love it. However, the PlanetBox is quite expensive, and there are many compartment-style lunch boxes out there that I'm sure would work equally well depending on the age of your child. What I like about divided lunch boxes is that soft foods don't get squished or beat up, and the different compartments force you to think about packing a balanced lunch with lots of variety.

2. Have lots of fruit and veggies cleaned, prepped and ready for lunches.

carrot and jicama sticks in water
carrot and jicama sticks in water

I do a lot of preliminary lunch box prepping during the weekend. I usually shop for fruits and veggies at our local farmers market on Saturday, and make sure to wash and organize everything before putting it away: Lettuce and greens get washed and spun dry, root veggies get scrubbed, and most fruit gets washed and put on the counter. It's easy to pack carrot sticks if they are already cleaned, peeled, and sliced. Crispy veggies such as carrots, celery, and jicama can be sliced and stored in water all week (cold water will keep the veggies fresh and crunchy). Cherry tomatoes and grapes are also easy to throw in a lunch box if they are rinsed, dried, and ready to go. And what could be an easier snack to pack for your kids than an apple or a banana, which are both perfectly packaged by nature?

3. Whenever possible, prepare food in bulk and in advance.

a big batch of homemade granola
a big batch of homemade granola

If you know your kids will eat certain foods, keeps lots of them on hand. Just as with fruits and veggies, prep food in advance whenever possible. I like to mix my own trail mix and store it in a big glass jar. The kids and I love granola, and I often make batches big enough to last us for a month. Pre-slice or cube cheese, gather it into a small brick, and wrap in waxed paper—it's much cheaper and has way less packaging than individually wrapped cheese sticks. Freeze mini muffins and pop them into a lunch box the night before to thaw. Hard-boiled eggs will keep for a week in the fridge; you can peel them in less time than it takes to make a sandwich. A big batch of tuna salad turns into several lunches for both mom and kids. Cold grilled meat or veggies or tofu are the start of a nice lunch of small bites.

4. Whole-grain tortillas are your friend.

whole grain tortillas
whole-grain tortillas

Whole grain tortillas are great for school lunches. You can make quesadillas, oven-baked taquitos, pizzas, roll-ups, and wraps with tortillas. Usually a whole sandwich is too much food for smaller kids, but those same sandwich ingredients wrapped in a tortilla will be just right—and often easier to eat. I put all sorts of food in tortillas: peanut butter, Nutella, bananas, spinach and marinara sauce, fried rice, traditional taco fillings…you name it.

5. Be creative with leftovers.

leftover veggie tofu taco filling rolled up taquito style for lunch
leftover veggie tofu taco filling rolled up taquito style with avocado and cheese for lunch

Kids are smart. They can smell leftovers a mile away. The key is to repackage those leftovers into an exciting new presentation. I turn a lot of leftovers into quesadillas and taquitos (see tip #4). You can deconstruct parts of dinner and turn them into a snacky lunch with some cheese and crackers. Toss leftover meat/fish/tofu with cooked pasta/noodles, crunchy veggies, and a sweet and tangy dressing to make a kid-friendly salad.

6. Pack lunches when your kitchen is already a mess.

Image: ViZZZual via Flickr Creative Commons

I don't know a mom alive who has enough hours in the day to get everything done. Packing school lunches needs to be done as quickly as possible, and without creating a bunch of things to clean. For this reason, I tend to pack lunches either while dinner is cooking or right after dinner when I'm cleaning up the kitchen. I already have a cutting board out, and the oven or stovetop is hot, so I can quickly make a quesadilla or a sandwich. Plus, I know I don't have time to pack lunches in the morning, because mornings are insane. Of course, things happen and life is messy: Sometimes I don't have time to pack lunch until ten at night, because I've spent the rest of the day racing around like a maniac. It's okay; you just deal.

7. Buy big containers of plain yogurt and add your own sweeteners.

a quart of whole milk yogurt
a quart of whole milk yogurt

I am a total yogurt junkie. My kids also love yogurt. I tend to avoid buying flavored yogurt, because I'm a chronic label reader and most flavored yogurt is loaded with sugar and various un-pronounceable preservatives. One of the worst offenders are those squeezy tubes of yogurt, which are aggressively marketed to kids and moms. There are clearly worse things you can pack in your child's lunch than a tube of that stuff, but plain yogurt with fruit and a teaspoon of honey or jam is much healthier.

The nice thing about plain yogurt is that it's versatile: You can mix it with any fruit, you can use it as a substitute for sour cream, you can put it in a smoothie, you can add chia seeds and turn it into a thick pudding, you can stir in some peanut butter to make a hearty snack or fruit dip, you can make a parfait with granola and berries, etc.

It's also much more cost-effective to buy quart-sized containers of plain yogurt and to add your own sweet toppings than to buy individual containers of flavored yogurt. It doesn't take that long to spoon some yogurt and applesauce into a small container for lunch. My love for yogurt is a little extreme, and I started making my own yogurt last year. One of these days, I'll post the process for making homemade yogurt. Unfortunately, I have not had any success making non-dairy yogurt.

8. Keep a well-stocked fridge and pantry.

the inside of my fridge
the inside of my messy, but well-stocked, fridge

My fridge and cupboards are a total embarrassment. My fridge is practically a weapon, with small projectiles flying out when you open it. Periodically, I deep clean and organize my fridge, but, inevitably, it ends up looking like the photo above.

No matter. I need to have a well-stocked fridge in order to make breakfasts, cook dinners, pack kid lunches, and make grown-up lunches throughout the week. I try to avoid mid-week trips to the grocery store, because I don't have a lot of time during a packed work/school week to shop for groceries. This requires me to be organized, and to think about what I want to cook during the following week before I do big shopping on the weekend. If you have a good supply of fruits, veggies, milk, pasta/grains, frozen veggies, legumes/beans (dry and canned), jarred marinara sauce, nuts, spices, oil, vinegar, condiments, and kid snacks (whatever they may be) it's much easier to get through the week.

9. Find shortcuts that work for you.

Everyone has her own challenges during the week. For me, it makes sense to pack lunch during dinner prep or clean-up. If you're a morning person or an early riser, you might want to tackle lunch packing before the kids get up. I do a lot of cooking during the week, because I love cooking and find that it actually relieves stress to be in the kitchen. I prefer cooking to watching TV. As a result, I tend to make a lot of school lunches with dinner leftovers.

clockImage: Andres Moreno via Flickr Creative Commons

Not everyone has the time or inclination to do this much cooking; you have to find what works for you. No matter what you pack for your kids' lunches, it's almost certainly better than what they'll get in the school cafeteria if they are in public school in the U.S. (or what you got in your lunch bag if you grew up in the 1970s or 80s).

10. Fruit is beautiful: Put it on display, in easy reach of your kids.

apples on the dining room table
apples on the dining room table

I love to decorate with fruit. I live in California, and am extremely fortunate to have access to amazing fruit year-round. Once I've cleaned all my fruit from the farmers market, if it's okay to store at room temperature, I put it on pretty melamine trays (mostly from Target and Ikea) in the kitchen and dining room. Fruit is always in easy reach of the kids. They can grab an apple in the morning to pack as a snack for school, and they can dig into a big nectarine if they are hungry after school. If kids see fruit all the time, they'll learn to love it. Trust me: You want the fruit out in the open and the Goldfish hidden away in the cupboard.

pears, asian pears and limes
pears, asian pears and limes

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