I have a love/hate relationship with packing lunches in my house, I love knowing that I am sending my kids to school with nourishing foods for their growing bodies, but I also get super burnt out on packing them day in and day out. I have found that the easiest way to send nourishing lunches, that don’t burn me out is to streamline the process.
In this post, I’m going to share how to pack a nutritious lunch for kids, how to simplify the process, and my favorite (realistic) bentgo lunch box ideas for kids.
If you’ve ever followed me on Instagram you know I used to snap photos of our bentgo lunchboxes every day (I did this for a long time!) You can find the saved highlights on @elementnutritionkids Instagram page (under lunchbox and lunchbox 2) if you want to check it out. You can also find a list of ideas with photos toward the bottom of this post.
If you would like to have this information (plus more) in a printable PDF guide, be sure to check out my full e-guide “Super Simple Lunch Boxes.”
Please note that I am an affiliate for some of the linked products. If you click my affiliate link and make a purchase, I may earn a percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Table of Contents
What is a bento box?
I’m going to guess you might already know the answer to this, but a bento box is just a lunchbox that has multiple compartments for food. There are many benefits of sending lunch in a bento-style box. A few of the biggest ones: it keeps food separated (helpful for kids/picky eaters), it’s easier to keep food cold (food safety) and it makes it easy to include various food groups, one in each section.
There are a TON of different bento boxes on the market for kids and they all have their pros and cons. Ultimately, the lunchbox you choose will depend on your child’s specific food preferences (hot vs. cold foods) and also on the amount of food you need to pack (some have smaller sections.)
For young kids (preschool through elementary school) my favorite bento box is the bentgo kids lunch box. I’ll share more about why I love this box, however, you can use the information in this post for any lunchbox you have/choose. So, if you have a different box, you will still find this post helpful. Also, this post is not sponsored, I just really love this lunchbox and it’s the only one we use for school.
Best bento box for kids (top 5)
The best bento box for your kids is going to be the one that best fits their personal needs, there is no one-size-fits-all. A lot of people have an opinion about which box is best, but ultimately what is best is going to vary from child to child. Below are 5 of the more popular bento boxes.
- Bentgo Kids Lunchbox (my favorite, and leakproof)
- Omie Lunch Box (best for warm foods)
- Planet Box (stainless)
- Lunch Bots (stainless & various sizes)
- Yum Box (also leakproof)
We have the Bentgo Kids lunch box, the Planet box, and one of the smaller lunch bots boxes, I like them all for different reasons, but the Bentgo Kids lunch box is by far my favorite. This is the one both kids use every day for school. I also use our (small) lunch bots box for quick on-the-go snacks, but find it works best for simple items like a PBJ sandwich, crackers, and fruit that won’t drip or leak.
Bentgo kids lunchbox
My personal favorite bento lunchbox is the Bentgo Kids lunchbox. I’ve tried several and this one is my favorite for kids in daycare through elementary school who are okay with having their food cold (both my kids are fine with this.) I’ve been using this lunch box for 3 years now personally and have recommended it to many clients over the years.
- It is easy to open. Most daycares and schools have many kids eating at one time and they prefer kids to be able to open their lunchbox. This box is super easy for little hands to open on their own (be sure to practice at home.)
- It’s leakproof. I’ve sent everything from jarred fruit (drained but still wet) to yogurt to pasta with sauce, to trail mix, etc. The top of the box has rubber gaskets that keep food in their section. In other boxes, I have tried leak, and I hate having food juice all over.
- They fit perfectly into a Pack-it. The pack-it is my FAVORITE, cooler/insulated carrier. You put the entire thing in the freezer and the walls/top/bottom of the bag freeze, then you just set your lunchbox inside (no more random ice packs!) It keeps their lunch cold all day and it’s still cold after pick-up, which is nice if you want them to eat the rest of their lunch as a snack either at school or after school.
- Keep your routine simplified. I have two bentgo kids lunch boxes for each kid and one pack-it for each kid. You could get away with just one box per kid if you stay on top of washing. I like to have two so I can have one washing while the other is in use if needed. Each day after school I empty their lunch box, put the pack it into the freezer and we are ready to go for the next day of packing.
- Great for picky eaters. Many kids, especially picky eaters, don’t like their food touching. This box makes it easy to send a variety of options while keeping them all separated. That way if you send a less preferred food item, it isn’t going to touch the more preferred item.
- Not ideal for hot or warm foods: everything in the box needs to be the same temp so it’s better for foods that you serve either room temp or chilled. For hot foods, I think a thermos works best to keep food at a safe serving temp.
- The compartments are fairly small: as your kids age, it might not hold enough food for them. However, I think for most kids through elementary school it works great!
My lunch packing system
People always ask me what products I like to use to make lunch packing easier and more fun, so I wanted to share a complete list here. I keep it very simple. You don’t need as much as you might think to pack a great kids’ lunch.
- Bentgo Kids lunch box
- Pack-it cooler bag (put the whole thing in the freezer and pull it out in the morning)
- Yeti kids water bottle (I have two for each kid so I can wash one while the other is in use, they’re super durable and don’t dent easily which is nice for kids who tend to drop their water bottle.)
I also have a few “extras” that you don’t need, but make packing lunches a little more fun/eye-catching, if you want to invest in them.
- Colorful silicone cups
- Fun food piks
- Simple sandwich cutters (can also just use cookie cutters)
- This “uncrustable” sandwich maker
How to pack a nutritious lunch box for kids
Kids have very specific nutrient needs for growth and development, but thinking about all the vitamins and minerals they need can feel overwhelming (and it’s not necessary to think about day-to-day).
If you’re providing a good balance (of food groups) in their lunchboxes (or any meal) you can generally feel pretty confident they are meeting their needs.
Protein is important for building and repairing tissue and muscles and is needed for every cell in the body. Because kids are growing and developing rapidly, they need adequate protein. Luckily most kids get plenty of protein from the foods they eat, even if they are picky eaters.
Foods that contain protein also have more “staying power” meaning they help to keep kids feeling full and satisfied longer. If your kids are constantly asking for snacks, they might not be getting enough protein.
Start with a protein source (either animal-based (including eggs or dairy) or plant-based protein). Protein-rich foods provide many key nutrients kids need like iron, zinc, and B12.
Dairy/fortified dairy alternatives also provide a key source of calcium/vitamin D, which kids need for growing bones. Be sure to include calcium-rich foods daily when possible.
Protein for kids lunches
- Hardboiled egg
- Peanut/Almond/Sunflower seed butter
- Chilled cooked meats like diced chicken, ham, turkey
- Lunch meat (turkey, chicken, ham, pepperoni, salami)
- Chilled diced tofu
- Cottage cheese
- Cheese (slices, sticks or cubes)
- Yogurt (full fat, low sugar)
- Nuts (whole, sliced, pieces* based on age)
- Seeds (chia, hemp, flax, sunflower, pumpkin)
- Peas (cooked/cold OR freeze-dried)
- Crunchy snap peas
- Crunchy chickpeas
- Milk (carton)
- Beef jerky/sticks (chomps)
- Dinner leftovers
Need some extra help getting more protein into your kid’s meals and snacks? Download the protein-rich snack guide below!
Many kids also get a good chunk of their protein needs met through grains since carbohydrates make up 50-60% (or more) of their diet. If you have a carb lover and fear they don’t get enough protein because they don’t eat meat/beans or because they are a picky eater, don’t overstress. Focus on the best quality carbohydrate sources you can.
Protein content of common carbs kids love
- O’s cereal/other whole grain lower sugar cereal (3.5 g/cup)
- Oatmeal (6 g/cup)
- Pasta provides(~8 g/cup)
- Bread (2-3 g/slice)
- Rice (4.3 g/cup)
If you need more help with protein for a picky eater, be sure to read this blog post “high protein foods for picky eaters” which you might find helpful.
2. Fruit and/or a vegetable (ideally both)
Fruits and veggies provide a ton of nutrition for growing kids, particularly micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. Focusing on improving fruits and veggies packed in lunch from home is something I always encourage parents to do. Some research suggests that lunches brought from home are lower in fruit/veggies and higher in simple sugars than school lunches. Packing at least 1 fruit/veggie each day helps!
Fruit is usually an easier sell for kids than veggies, which is why I put the focus there for school lunches. Most of the nutrients you find in vegetables can also be found in fruits, so don’t be discouraged if your kids are not veggie lovers (yet).
When serving fruit to your kids, do your best to focus on variety. Try not to serve the same fruit twice in the same day, this will maximize the different nutrients they get which are found in various fruits (and veggies.)
Bentgo lunch box ideas for fruit
- Fresh strawberries
- Fresh raspberries
- Fresh blueberries
- Fresh blackberries
- Peach cup (in its juice)
- Pear cup (in its juice)
- Fresh pear (whole/small)
- Fresh apple (whole/small)
- Plum (whole/small)
- Grapes (red/green)* quartered for kids under 4
- Mango chunks (or dried mango)
- Pineapple chunks/slices (in own juice)
- Oranges (sliced)
- Clementine/mandarine (whole, take off the skin)
- Banana (cut in half)
- Kiwi (cut in half, serve with spoon, or slice)
- Cherries (pitted) *quarter for kids under 4
- Apricot (fresh or dried)
- Melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon)
- Papaya (diced)
- Pomegranate seeds
- Dried fruit (raisins, prunes, dates, etc.)
- Freeze-dried fruit (I love Bare brands or Trader Joe’s)
Veggie lunch ideas for kids
- Baby carrots or carrot chips
- Snap peas (whole/raw)
- Crunchy snap pea crisps
- Fresh green beans
- Corn (from a can or frozen/defrosted)
- Celery (plain or with peanut butter)
- Jicama (sticks)
- Mini Bell pepper OR slices
- Cucumber rounds or sticks
- Edamame (can get this prepackaged)
- Broccoli (raw or cooked leftovers served cold)
- Cauliflower (raw or cooked leftovers served cold)
- Leftover french fries/tater tots (from dinner)
- Cherry tomato *quartered for halved for kids under 4
- Radish slices
- Freeze-dried peas
Veggies are often a tougher sell for kids, so if your kids don’t love veggies yet, don’t let that stress you out, it takes time, exposure, and practice.
Veggies are often more enjoyable with a dip, so don’t be afraid to send ranch, hummus, ketchup, etc. Adding a dip doesn’t take away from the nutrients in the vegetables. Dips with fat might actually enhance the veggies since fat improves the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Helping your kids learn to enjoy vegetables is the most important part.
3. Grain (whole grain when possible)
Grains are an important part of a child’s diet and along with other carbohydrate sources make up about 50-60% of their energy needs. Many kids get a good portion of their daily iron and other micronutrient needs from fortified grain products like bread and cereals.
This is especially important for picky eaters who tend to lack variety in food groups like meats, beans, and vegetables.
When possible, whole grains (whole wheat bread, pasta, brown rice, whole grain cereals, and oatmeal) are the best choice. However, most grains in the US are fortified with key nutrients so if your kids don’t like some grains in whole form that is ok.
Whole grains are also ideal because they are higher in fiber which is one of my favorite natural remedies for constipation in kids.
I like to encourage parents to embrace the carbs and not stress about them so much. It is very natural for kids to gravitate toward carbs because their bodies need the energy for activity and growth. This is easier when you know how vital they can be toward meeting nutrition needs. Focusing on the best carbohydrate sources (whole grains and starchy vegetables) for your child will help.
Whole grain bentgo lunch box ideas for kids
You can find “a whole grain version” of virtually every option on this list, just check the label. Look for the gold “whole grain” stamp to let you know you’ve found it.
- Whole grain or sprouted grain bread (for sandwiches)
- Whole grain waffles (frozen, toasted with nut/seed butter) I love Vans & Kashi brands!
- Tortilla (wrap/quesadilla)
- Cereal (target <6-7 g sugar/serving)
- Granola/Granola bar (target <6-7 g sugar/serving)
- Oatmeal (plain unsweetened or self-sweetened with syrup or honey and raisins)
- English muffin (for DIY pizza, or sandwiches)
- Mini bagel or ½ larger bagel
- Pita OR pita chips
- Crackers (wheat/rice)
- Legume crackers (pea, bean, chickpea)
- Leftover/cooked pasta (mixed with pesto sauce, cheese or spaghetti sauce)
- Brown rice cakes (large or mini)
- Popcorn (>4yrs)
- Muffins (these are a favorite!)
4. Dips & sauces
One of the best ways to encourage your kids to eat the foods you pack is by providing things that they might enjoy at home to make them more palatable. Dips and sauces are a great way to do this (especially with veggies!) This category is pretty straightforward and might not always need to be included in the lunchbox, but if it will help a food, be sure to include it. One of the other reasons I love the Bentgo kids lunch box is because it has a small circle in the middle which I use either for dips and sauces (or small sweets.)
Bentgo lunch box ideas for dip/sauces
- Pesto (great for pasta)
- Hummus (for veggies/crackers/pretzels)
- Ketchup (for leftovers like chicken nuggets) (I love the primal kitchen ketchup for kids who like a lot with their food.)
- BBQ sauce
- Yogurt dip (perfect for fruit)
- Cream cheese (they can spread their crackers/bagel)
5. Sweets & fun extras
If you want your kids to love their lunchbox, don’t forget to make it fun. There is room for fun extras every day. This will also help normalize these foods for your kids. The more they see them showing up, the less special they are and the less attention they will get. Remember, a little bit goes a long way!
Bentgo box ideas for sweets
- Energy bites
- Granola bars
- Chocolate chips
- Peanut butter chips
- Chocolate milk
- Animal Grahams
- Banana/plantain chips
- Yogurt covered raisins
- M & M’s
- Holiday candy
- Graham crackers
- Chia pudding
- Fruit leather (we love the ones with no added sugar from Trader Joe’s)
How to plan a capsule lunch box
Fancy lunch boxes for kids seem to be a really hot trend right now. If you look on social media at accounts that regularly post about lunchboxes you’re probably going to walk away feeling like your lunches are not good enough, and that’s not true.
Your kid’s lunchbox doesn’t have to be fancy to be nutritious. You don’t need to make it uber fun with lots of cutouts and fancy shapes. You just need to keep it simple.
One of the easiest ways to keep your lunch boxes simple is to use the concept of a capsule lunchbox. I like to think of lunchboxes kind of like a capsule wardrobe. You only need a few items from each category to make a lot of different combinations.
You can find a one-page printable list pre-filled with ideas for each category inside my Lunch Packing Guide. I also include a blank one that you can fill out yourself and keep on your fridge for easy access. This has made our lunch packing so much easier in the mornings.
Capsule lunchbox example
My daughter is my more challenging eater, so I’m going to share her lunchbox capsule. This whole plan works well for picky eaters, so if you have one at home, use this idea.
My daughter’s capsule lunchbox: (Keep in mind, these do change and evolve over time as they add new foods they like, or occasionally if they drop one. The goal with a picky eater is to add more than you drop or bring dropped items back in.)
- Protein: string cheese, cheddar cheese, hummus, yogurt (tubes, drinks, or cups), cashews, hard-boiled egg (white), milk, beans (if baked into muffins), go macro protein bar.
- Fruit: (she eats most fruits) berries, apples, bananas, clementines, grapes, raisins, freeze-dried strawberries, applesauce.
- Veggies: baby carrots, carrot chips, bell pepper (sometimes), cherry tomatoes, cooked broccoli, inside peas of the snap pea.
- Grains: sandwich (PBJ/cheese & butter), crackers, pita, tortilla (flour), sourdough bread, chips, crackers, granola bars/granola, dried cereal (Barbara’s squares or’s cereal), muffins, banana bread.
- Fun foods: (may also be in other categories) granola bars/balls, potato chips, corn chips, crackers, chocolate, veggie straws, candy, pirates booty, popcorn*, trail mix, cookies, etc.
These are all things I know she will typically always eat, so they make up my main choices when packing. Then I will also rotate in very small portions of new things or things she doesn’t always eat for exposure and to just give the opportunity.
I don’t recommend sending your kids to school with a lunch box filled with unfamiliar or unpreferred foods. This will just leave them very hangry and their school behavior will suffer. Save the new foods for your home!
If you follow the plan laid out in this post and include a protein source, a fruit/vegetable, a grain, and something fun, your kid will have a nutritious lunch box that they will love. I recommend coming up with some basic items your kids like from each of the four categories. Make a list and keep it on your fridge. Try to rotate the box from day to day, but it’s OK to serve the same thing within the week.
If you struggle with a picky eater and could use some support from a pediatric dietitian (and mom), I’d love to work with you. You can book a call to work with me 1:1 and we can go through your kids’ preferred food list and come up with a custom plan just for you.
Bentgo lunch box ideas for kids (with photos)
I love to see visual examples whenever I’m looking for ideas, so if you are a visual person, I hope these boxes are helpful! These are a few of the lunchboxes I’ve packed for my kids. For more ideas, be sure to check out the lunchbox highlights on my Instagram page @ElementNutritionKids. Grab my full Lunch Packing Guide, which has 30 days’ worth of ideas plus a printable lunch packing cheatsheet you can put on your fridge.
Bentgo lunch box #1
Turkey, String Cheese, Carrots, Cheese Crunchies (or other chip), Raspberries, Cashew, Cookie
Bentgo lunch box #2
Cheddar Cubes, Pretzels, Blackberries, Pesto Pasta, Cherry Tomato, ½ granola bar
Bentgo lunch box #3
Leftover Mac n Cheese, Crunchy Snap Peas, Grapes, Graham Crackers, Dried Fruit
Bentgo lunch box #4
Crackers & Hummus, Strawberries, Hard Boiled Egg, Orange Bell Pepper, Candy pieces
Bentgo lunch box #5
Whole Grain Pita, Sauce & Shredded Mozzarella (DIY pizza), Blueberries, PB Pretzels, Carrots, Mini Chocolate Chips Cookies.
Bentgo lunch box #6
Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Orange Segments, Pretzel Thins, Snap Pea Segments, Slivered Almonds
Bentgo lunch box #7
Leftover Pizza, Watermelon, PB Pretzels, Raw Green Beans, Raisins
Bentgo lunch box #8
Dried Cereal, Raspberries, Carrots/Snap Peas, Yogurt, Pomegranate Seeds, Chocolate
Bentgo lunch box #9
Crackers, watermelon, leftover mac n cheese, hardboiled egg, broccoli
Bentgo lunch box #10
Yogurt pouch, turkey, cheese, honey pretzel sticks, strawberries, corn
Bentgo lunch box #11
Almond butter & jam sandwich, pomegranate seeds, cherry tomato halves, slivered almonds/raisins, leftover pasta shapes, snap pea crisp
Bentgo lunch box #12
Yogurt tube, strawberries, leftover spaghetti with meat sauce, cut-up string cheese, asparagus
Bentgo lunch box #13
O’s cereal & cashew pieces, freeze-dried strawberries, hard-boiled egg, granola bar, leftover pesto pasta salad with peas, clementine
Packing lunches for your kids can sometimes feel like a never-ending monotonous task, I see you, I feel that way sometimes too.
When I feel this way, I try to re-frame my thoughts around lunches (heck all the meals I make.) I get to send my kids to school with food that will make them feel comfortable, get a piece of home during their school day, and nourish their growing bodies. When I think of packing lunch this way, it’s more of an honor than a task. I get to make my kids feel loved by the way I pack their lunch.
Keep things simple by focusing on providing 1 thing from each of the major food components: Protein (including dairy/alternatives), Fruit/Vegetable, (Whole) Grain & something fun. By creating a capsule lunchbox plan for each kid you can make endless combinations from just a few items in each category. This works great for picky eaters too.
Remember, lunchboxes don’t have to be fancy to be nutritious.
If you want all this information (and more) in a PDF printable guide, be sure to grab a copy of my Lunch Packing Guide, which includes 30 days’ worth of lunch ideas, and a printable components worksheet you can keep on the fridge for easy mix and match lunchboxes.