Plus a 2 Week Lunch Plan, Shopping Lists, and Printables that will make the necessary task of packing lunches waaay less daunting!
As summer's coming to an end and families everywhere are gearing up to send their kids back to school one big (and frankly, quite daunting!) task is: how to keep our kids eating healthy food while they're at school?
Or let’s be honest, in some cases get them to start eating healthy food in the first place!
(BTW, even if you're homeschooling, doing virtual school, or working from home, prepping a “lunch box” in advance and having it ready to go in the fridge is guaranteed to help your day run smoother--so these tips still apply to you!)
The challenge to feed ourselves nourishing food is hard enough at times, but the pressure can be extra-intense when we have to pack our kids’ lunch boxes everyday with stuff that we *hope* we won’t be unpacking again--in a slightly soggier form--at the end of the school day.
Not only that, school day mornings tend to be extremely hectic with the whole family rushing to get out the door on time. It can be tempting to throw a bunch of packaged food in a lunchbox and call it a day when it comes to packing kid’s lunches...I’m not judging you here--I’ve definitely done it! But along with the convenience of packaged foods also comes the cringing mom/dad-guilt about feeding our kids stuff that we know isn’t very good for them--even if it does happen to be the only thing that we think they’ll actually eat!
So how can we make it easier on ourselves and pack healthier lunch boxes that aren’t super-boring for our kids?
Well, I recommend starting with a solid plan for how and when you’ll tackle packing your kids’ lunchboxes (and maybe your own while you’re at it) as well as what you’ll put in there. Having a daily plan doesn’t mean that you can’t be flexible and switch things up as needed, but it will take a huge heaping load of stress off your shoulders. And won't that feel nice?
In this article:
I’ll outline what elements a “healthy” lunch box should contain
Provide lists of food options in each category
Offer some general food-prep tips to save you time
And finally give you a 2-week school lunchbox meal plan and shopping list that you can put into practice right away
In the printable guide below, you’ll also get a blank template that you can fill in yourself to create your own plans in the future.
What makes for a “healthy” lunch box anyway?
I’m glad you asked! With so much conflicting dietary advice abounding it can be really confusing to figure out what we “should” be eating each day. I am a big believer in keeping things as simple as possible. Whatever diet type you follow, I recommend that each meal or snack contains 3 basic elements: Protein, Healthy Fat, and lots of fiber. (You can read more about that in this article: 8 Simple Eating Habits that Will Make You Healthier, Happier--and Maybe Even Holier)
What this translates to in terms of packing a healthy lunch box boils down to including at least 1 food item from each of the following 4 broad categories:
Now, you would probably be able to get a protein, fat, and fiber from just the first 3 categories, but everybody needs a little fun and variety in their life and if your kids are used to eating less-than-optimally (otherwise known as perfectly normal children!) then they may just mutiny if you try to pack nothing but mega healthy foods in their lunches. Don’t worry, I have a few tips below to help nudge them towards better nutrition!
Ideas for Each Category
Here are some ideas of what you can pack in each category. (These lists are also in the printable at the end of this post).
Please note that the ideas listed below can all be easily made gluten-free (with the use of gluten-free bread, crackers, or wraps) but if your kids don’t have any problems with gluten, feel free to use normal versions.
I try to bake a loaf of gluten-free bread to use for sandwiches because it's more nutritious than what I can buy in my local stores, but you definitely don’t have to do that if you don’t want to, or if your stores carry good gluten-free breads...or again, if your family doesn't have a sensitivity to gluten! (If you would like to bake your own gluten-free bread, here is the bread recipe I use).
Turkey and provolone sandwich
Ham and cheddar
Nut butter and strawberry jam
Nut butter & banana
Cream cheese and cucumber
Tuna salad (add lettuce between bread and tuna salad to keep bread from getting soggy)
Homemade “Lunchable” with Ham, cheddar, and crackers
Homemade “Lunchable” with turkey, provolone, and crackers
Salami and cheese roll-ups
Turkey and provolone wraps
Ham and Cheddar wraps
Grilled chicken salad (mini cucumbers, grape tomatoes, matchstick carrots, salad greens, oil and vinegar dressing on the side)
“Chef’s Salad”: mini cucumbers, grape tomatoes, matchstick carrots, boiled eggs, diced ham
Ants on a log (Celery sticks with nut butter and raisins)
Celery with cream cheese
Banana peanut butter tortilla roll ups
Hard boiled eggs
Gluten-free Veggie pasta salad: pasta, olive oil, Parmesan, peas, and carrots (this is the veggie pasta I use)
Gluten-free Pasta with pesto and peas & cheese stick
Turkey and cream cheese rollup (spread cream cheese on turkey slice, then roll)
Chicken salad on lettuce
Cream Cheese and jelly sandwich
Ham, Cream cheese and spinach roll ups (spread cream cheese on ham slice, layer spinach on top, then roll up)
Black beans with cheese, avocado cubes, and whole grain tortilla chips
Curried chickpea salad on lettuce (salad: chickpeas, mayo, diced celery, curry powder, salt and pepper)
Hummus with feta and Crackers
Mediterranean quinoa salad (quinoa, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, feta)
Cherry or grape tomatoes
Bell peppers strips
Berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries)
Melon (cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew)
Peeled Clementines/mandarin oranges
GF pretzels/pretzel sticks
GF Granola bars or bites
Homemade cookies or muffins
Keto chocolate peanut butter cups (otherwise known as “fat-bombs” these are typically sugar-free and full of healthy fats that are much better than just giving your kids candy--though they probably won’t be able to tell the difference!)
Some Tips that Will Make Your Life So Much Easier
Or at least the part of your life that is planning and packing lunch boxes…
Use reusable bento boxes to pack lunches (this is what I’m using for my kids) There are a few awesome benefits to using bento-style containers:
They are super-cute and visually way more appealing for your kids. We eat with our eyes first, so if the presentation is good, your kids will be way more likely to try foods that they may not otherwise eat.
You’ll save money (and the environment) from not having to use a ton of disposable plastic bags everyday
Most kids have a weird thing about food not touching--bento boxes eliminate this problem
It’s easy for you to see if you’ve hit all the categories of a balanced lunch: is each compartment filled? Check.
School lunch periods tend to be short and opening multiple packages takes time--having one simple box to open saves your kid valuable eating time
They’re easy and fast for you to pack
Your child will see and have access to everything in their lunch at one time, which increases the odds that they’ll try something new. For instance, they may never open a snack bag of bell pepper strips in their lunch, but if they’re in the same bento box as their “fun” food, they might actually get curious and try one...dream big!
2. Cut multiple vegetables and fruits at one time. Whenever you get out the cutting board and knife, cut up as many fruits/vegetables as you have time for and that will keep in the fridge for a few days. Having pre-cut fruits and vegetables on hand makes it so much easier to grab and pack healthy options.
3. Keep portions small. If you’re using a bento-style lunchbox, this is almost determined for you, but remember that your child’s appetite is not nearly as big as yours and a huge serving will be a little overwhelming for them.
4. Print, laminate, and post your blank lunchbox plan (printable below) and use dry erase markers to write in your lunches when you make your weekly meal plan and shopping list (if you don’t make a weekly meal plan and shopping list yet, don’t worry, I’ll write a post soon about how you can do that too :)
5. Pack your lunch and/or your spouse’s lunch at the same time as your kid’s lunch boxes. Even if you’re working from home, it's really nice to already have your healthy lunch ready-to-go at lunch time (or if you’re out running errands). And then "you-of-the-present"gets to thank "you-of-the-past" for doing yourself a real solid ;)
6. Let your kids pick a reusable stainless steel water bottle that they really like and pack them fresh water to drink everyday. I know kids like juice, but we can train them from a young age to start drinking more water. If they absolutely refuse water at first, there are lots of flavored water enhancers that are low or no-sugar that you can add as they get used to drinking more water. (this goes for you too, BTW!)
2 Weeks of Lunch Boxes with Shopping Lists
You may be thinking, “This is a huge list of stuff/ideas...who has time for all of this!?” Relax, I’ve got you. Here’s a two week plan to get you started (or to keep you going indefinitely if you just wanted to repeat it every two weeks).
If, on the other hand, you’re like, “Stop telling me what to do, I can make my own plan!” Then go ahead and scroll to the printable at the bottom of this post and you can get a blank plan to fill in yourself--I won’t be offended :)
A few notes on this plan :
I try to bake bread on Sunday afternoon when I have more time to do it, so I front loaded sandwiches in the early part of the week (since homemade bread only lasts a few days)
Similarly, I tend to plan for fruits and vegetables that go bad quickly towards the beginning part of the week (assuming that you grocery shop once per week on the weekend, this will ensure that nothing goes bad before you get around to using it
If following a “plan” exactly stresses you out, then don’t do it! Keeping fresh fruits, vegetables, and simple ingredients on hand will make it easy to throw together a healthy lunch with what you have without getting too wrapped around the axle about doing it “perfectly”
Fridays are meatless in this plan (as per Catholic tradition to keep Fridays a day of penance). While you don’t have to give up meat as penance on Fridays (outside of Lent), you are supposed to be doing something penitential, and I just find it easiest to stick with no meat on Fridays year-round.
Your kids may initially balk when you try to feed them healthier foods--remember that they’re not going to starve (even if they have rumbly tummies for a few days). Eventually, they’ll have to eat something. And because you're the boss around here, you get to choose whether that something is Cheetos or carrot sticks :)
I’m not listing quantities on any of the shopping list/lunchbox items--use your judgement based on how many lunches you need to pack and how much your family will eat. That said, if you find you have a lot of leftover produce/ingredients, you can definitely get creative and make a veggie stir-fry, fruit smoothie, or just slip more fruits and veggies into your dinner meals.
The exact shopping lists that you need for each week of this plan are in the printable below
The Ultimate Guide to Healthy School Lunches
Whew, you've made it to the end of this mega-long post all about healthy school lunches! I hope that it will be a huge help to you this school year and beyond! If you want the printable version of everything mentioned in this post, please fill out the form below and you'll get the PDF in your email :)