Every year right around September, my phone starts to ring like crazy. Kids are headed into the doctor’s office for their back to school physicals and the referrals start pouring in. There is nothing quite like summer to throw kids off their meal and snack routine and parents want back to school lunch ideas.
Between school lunches, sports practices, weekend games, and after school snacks, parents are overwhelmed! I always love this time of year though because I feel like, for many parents, it’s a huge motivation to get a plan in place. I have discovered that the key to the best school lunches is having a plan and being prepared.
If you need some school lunch ideas for your kids, follow the steps below to ensure your child has a balanced, nutritious lunch box that they actually want to eat.
Table of Contents
5 tips for stress-free school lunches
1. Have a plan
If your child eats lunch at school on any specific days, get a copy of the school lunch calendar. Go through and circle the days they plan to get lunch at school. Then, in your lunch planner, write the word SCHOOL on those days. On all the other days write in the items you plan to pack in their lunch. You can also use your lunch planner to add items you need to your shopping list each week.
2. Make ahead & keep food safe
It is super stressful to be scrambling in the morning when you are behind and the kids are running late. Don’t wait until the morning to pack lunches. Spend some time the night before putting everything into a cooler bag. Grab an ice pack in the morning out of the freezer and throw it into their lunch bag to keep things cool. Food safety is very important for kids. By packing lunches in an insulated bag with an ice pack (or using a thermos for hot items), you can ensure things are staying fresh for lunchtime.
- A general rule of thumb is that food can stay safe unrefrigerated without an ice pack for two hours or less. Most kids do not get to eat their lunch within two hours of packing it. Play it safe and include an ice pack!
3. Include at least 3-4 meal components
The best way to make a balanced school lunchbox is to include as many meal components as you can. Each component contains important nutrients that help fuel the body and mind. The 4 food components include grains, fruits, vegetables, and protein-rich foods. It is also good to include healthy fats within these categories. For specifics on what is included in each of these groups, you can refer to The Lunch Guide.
- Here are two examples to get you started:
- Whole wheat bread slices (Grain) + Almond Butter (Protein/Fat) + Clementine (fruit) + bell pepper slices (vegetable) + milk/alternative OR water (milk/milk alternative-calcium rich protein).
- Whole grain/seed crackers (Grain) + Tuna salad (protein) + green apple (fruit) + baby carrots (vegetable) + water.
- The beverages I recommend sending are water or milk/milk alternatives, with no added sugar. Things like flavored milk or juice are okay on occasion but shouldn’t be a regular part of your child’s lunch.
- Dairy isn’t a required food group by any means. If your family chooses not to consume dairy that is ok. You can use dairy alternatives such as soy or pea milk, yogurt alternatives-like almond yogurt or cashew yogurt, etc. for calcium and protein.
- Keep in mind that beverages such as almond milk, coconut beverage, and rice beverage have very little fat/protein and are not very satiating, so I generally don’t recommend those as a beverage.
4. Plan for leftovers
Make lunches easier by planning dinners to include leftovers. During dinner clean up pack up the extras into containers and put them into the lunch boxes at the same time. For days you don’t cook a full dinner, use simple items that are easy to throw together (like the two examples above). Again, you can find my full list of ideas in the lunch packing guide linked above.
5. Involve your kids (when possible)
Starting around preschool (maybe even before), kids can learn to help pack their lunches. Have them put food into baggies or containers. Then, when they get older the routine will be second nature and can eliminate some extra stress for you.
If your kids are already older, have them go through the guide and plan out their meals. Once they learn the lunch packing foundation (and the 4 meal components they need to include), it’s easy for them to mix and match items for their lunch box.
You might be surprised at just how well your kids take ownership of this task.
If you are looking for a great lunch box for your kids, this one by Bentgo Kids, is my personal favorite. I love the individual compartments and it fits well into lunch pails with an ice pack added. Bonus that it has never leaked on me! This box is especially great for school-age kids and younger ones.
Healthy after school snacks for kids
After school snacks are not technically part of packing lunches, but they are a huge challenge for many parents. I remember getting home from school ravenous and wanting to raid the pantry the second I walked in the door. If this sounds like your kids, having some nutritious snack ideas on hand can help.
10 balanced snack combinations for kids
Here are a few of my go-to snack ideas when it comes to my own daughter. Some of these might need to be adjusted based on the age of your kids.
- Whole-grain (lower sugar) cereal + yogurt or milk
- Fruit+ nut/seed butter
- Veggies + cheese
- Veggies + dip
- Smoothie with fruit + yogurt
- Yogurt + fruit
- No added sugar energy bites (combo of whole grains, fat, protein)
- Snack platter (include a combo of fruits, veggies, crackers, cheese) perfect for when friends are over after school
- Whole grain muffin + yogurt
- Nutritious snack bar (low added sugar + healthy fat)
Back to school can be stressful. There are so many things that have to be purchased and planned from school supplies to carpooling. Try to keep lunch packing low stress by having a plan and being prepared.
I hope these tips help your family plan ahead, reduce some stress and get some nutritious school lunch ideas in order. Remember, things don’t have to be perfect every day, we don’t live our lives on a Pinterest board. 🙂 Do what works for YOUR family.
If you use this guide and find it helpful, snap a photo of your child’s school lunch while you pack and tag me on Instagram or Facebook! I love to see what you all are doing.