School Lunches: Your Survival Guide

healthy lunch ideas fruit vegetables pizza muffinsIf you’re like me (and most other parents I know) the process of packing the kids’ daycare or school lunches is a bit of a drag. Sometimes it’s The Worst. Maybe you have some strategies to make it easier, or maybe the kids do it themselves (this has pros and cons for sure). Maybe your end-of-the-year coping strategy is to have really low standards. The kids aren’t going to starve, and you can catch up on nutrition later!

I admit that I do all of these things from time to time. If you need a few ideas to drag yourself through the last month of school lunches then you’ve come to the right place for your school lunch survival guide!

Lunches in our house tend to be low sugar and pretty healthy, and my kids are pretty great eaters. Our school is nut-free, and once we had a classroom that was sesame-free. Be mindful of any allergies when using these ideas! We parents worry about having a good amount of protein in lunches, and for some kids this is important. For others though, they can get that at breakfast and dinner and be a bit more flexible during the day, so as long as they’re getting enough to stay full then don’t stress too much about the balance during the school day.healthy lunch ideas muffins peas pineapple pizza

Standbys like muffins and wraps

A staple in our house is mini muffins . Do some math and see how many batches you’d need to make to finish the school year, make them, toss in freezer. There’s a good chunk of your lunch packing done, for the rest of the year.

Do your kids like wraps? Wraps can be filled with all sorts of things. I used to buy the small flour tortilla wraps but they’re more costly than the bulk pack of regular ones from Costco. My kids watch and laugh as I trim 1” around the edge of a big one with a pair of clean scissors. Sometimes they like to eat the trimmings with their breakfast, or sculpt it into interesting shapes.

healthy lunch ideas much variety

Wrap ideas

  • Beans, cheese, lettuce, ranch dressing
  • Breakfast burrito with scrambled egg, ham or bacon, hot sauce or ketchup
  • Seed butter or nut butter fakes (or the real thing if allowed!), jam, and banana or apple
  • Leftover cold cooked meat (cubed chicken breast, shredded pork, sliced steak) with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and salad dressing
  • Meatballs, cheese, and tomato sauce

healthy lunch ideas wraps muffins strawberries peppers

Just the filling

If your kids don’t eat wraps or sandwiches then just pack the filling. Cut up cold, cubed meat and pair it with a dipping sauce. Or cook a few extra meatballs and send with some tomato sauce. My youngest likes cooked chicken breast with some BBQ sauce, or plain depending on how it was seasoned when we cooked it. Both kids have taken recently to hard boiled eggs. I usually peel them before packing them to avoid them making a mess of shells at school but they’ll just eat a hard boiled egg plain, or make them into devilled eggs. Concoct a dipping sauce of mayo mixed with a squirt of mustard or hot sauce for something of an egg salad sandwich flavour, without the bread or bother.

Lunch doesn’t have to be lunchy

The ‘main’ of lunch doesn’t have to be very lunchy. It can be breakfast, repeated. Granola and dried fruit, with a side of yogurt? Breakfast burrito in a thermos to stay warm (cook one for breakfast, make a second and pack it for lunch), or oatmeal in a thermos, just send a spoon long enough to reach the bottom. If there’s a favourite nutrient-dense cereal you could send that in a bowl with milk in a separate container.

My kids have never taken to having cheese in their lunch, because it’s not cold enough for their liking, despite these awesome lunch bags that have side walls made of freezer gel. Put the whole bag in the freezer overnight, and it keeps things cold all day long (except, apparently, cheese). They’ll have cheese on or in things, but not as a pile of slices or as a cheese stick. They’ll do cream cheese on crackers though, and like to spread it themselves so the crackers don’t get soggy. Pick nutrient-dense crackers and make sure they have something to spread the cream cheese with (and that they’re allowed to have a small butter knife in their lunch). Costco usually has a great selection of seedy or legume-based crackers.

Lunch packed and ready to go

Energy balls…little nuggets of nutrient-dense goodness

Energy balls are another way to pack a lot of nutrition (and energy) into a tidy packet. Recipes abound for different options that require little prep, and no cooking. Any that call for nut butters can usually be adapted with seed butter instead. If your kids turn their noses up at them or look suspiciously in their direction, try dipping one side in melted chocolate. Chocolate is usually enough to overcome any hesitation!

It’s all in the presentation

Veg or fruit can take on new life if cut into a shape not normally seen. I don’t mean spending time sculpting carrots into likenesses of your dog, but simple things: instead of cutting carrots into sticks, cut them into discs. Instead of cutting cucumbers into slices, cut them into sticks. My kids won’t touch an apple if it’s browned, but if I douse it in lemon juice first then no problem. Disguise browning even further by sprinkling cubed apples with cinnamon. Offer half a kiwi fruit with a small spoon and they’ll have great fun scooping it out. Same with an avocado. Above all, choose things that will travel well and that kids can eat easily. No one likes soggy vegetables or mushy fruit.

healthy lunch ideas

Bright colours and shapes can sell it

Get ready for summer and popsicle season with fun silicone push pops, which double as mini smoothie containers if you feel confident in the lid staying on in whatever you pack them in. Make a set, freeze, and then wedge securely. They’ll defrost just enough to drink by the time first snack rolls around, and then use them all summer for making popsicles of your choice. Once I made some boozy cocktail popsicles for an adult gathering, so they don’t just have to be for the kids (make sure you keep those ones separate in the freezer, or label accordingly!).

healthy lunch ideas muffins egg smoothie energy bars fruit

Leftovers for the win

If your kids will eat leftovers then take advantage of that, even if they don’t have access to a microwave at school. French toast cut into sticks and dipped in syrup or jam makes a decent snack even cold, as does quiche or frittata. Pizza, whether homemade or store bought, is also a good option. Meatloaf sandwich? Burger? Mine love perogies, so I remember to cook an extra 3 or 4 per kid when we have them at supper, and send them with sour cream to dip in. The options are many!  

Dips and sauces save everything

Adding a leak-proof container to the lunch box opens up a list of options too – for saucy or runny things, as well as for dips. I have used these small round locking containers for six years and have never had a leak, although I do periodically peel off the silicone seal and clean underneath. Kids can open the snap tabs even in kindergarten, which is a rare combination of leak-proof and accessible. Fill them with: yogurt, hummus, salad dressing/dip, ketchup or BBQ sauce, applesauce, maple syrup or jam, sour cream, cream cheese, and more.

Download and save or print the below idea list for those days you just can’t extract any lunch ideas from your brain. Also available as a PDF. Try keeping this printable handy when you’re feeling stuck, or when the kids are having trouble making a decision. Sometimes the choosing is the hardest part!

healthy school lunch idea list
Click the image to open in a new window

Other lunch container ideas

If you need a way to keep food items separated, but don’t want to add the hassle and space of more containers to the lunch box, try silicone muffin liners (also available at dollar stores, although I’m not sure I’d bake with cheap ones). Fun colours can keep apples separate from grapes, or meat chunks separate from cubed cheese.

We only ever send water to school, and are a fan of Kleen Kanteen because the unpainted steel ones can go in the dishwasher and are easy to keep clean, but years ago I found a knock-off set at Walmart and I like those lids better. Whatever works for you, but for me it needs to be easy to keep clean, not have valves that collect grit and mold, and not leak. A surprisingly hard combo to find! The kids’ school has a fountain with a water bottle filler, so although the bottles aren’t overly large, they can refill them easily throughout the day.

Our laptop lunch boxes have seen a lot of miles but the version I have isn’t made anymore – these are similar, and these are working well for us too; I chucked the container lids years ago, and the cutlery didn’t hold up, but the main box and four main containers have had daily use for 5.5 years and are still going strong. They just fit in our freezable lunch bags, along with a water bottle and one or two round sealed containers mentioned above.

These lunch boxes hold enough food for the school day for my kids at age 7 and 10, but I do choose things that I know will fill them up, that they will eat, that are quick to eat, and most of the time all goes well. I also put in a pre-wrapped granola bar or fig bar as a last resort, and the rule is they eat everything else first before they eat that, and most days they follow it.

The end is in sight!

If you have the patience to do it, involve the kids in the packing of the lunches – or at least the selection. Try asking “do you want crackers and hummus or leftover pizza” instead of “what do you want for lunch.” Or maybe you subscribe to the philosophy of “you get what you get” when it comes to lunches. Whatever works. It’s the last month of school and it’s survival mode!

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Jen Shapka

A mom of two, military spouse, domestic engineer, and former teacher (B.Sc., B.Ed.), she has always found herself in the education field but rarely in the classroom.

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