RachaelRachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

Here are some school lunch ideas to keep your kid eating the entire school year. 

I pack my kindergartener’s school lunch almost every day. Lunches available for purchase at school are reasonably priced, and I do let her buy a few times a month as a treat. Yet I save money by packing lunches. I also enjoy packing my daughter’s favorite foods each day. It’s a way to send a little bit of home.

Before the school year began last fall, I thought it might be a challenge to pack good lunches with a variety of nutritious foods every day. How many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can a kid really eat? I have discovered that I’m up to the challenge, and I have fun thinking about how to pack the lunch bag.

School Lunch Ideas

Heather C. recently wrote a post about what she packs in her diaper bag. Perhaps it’s a little gross to mention diapers and school lunches in the same post. Still, I thought I might unfold the paper bag – or unzip the insulated tote – and offer a peek at what’s in our lunch bag on any given day. I generally try to pack healthy foods. Or at least I balance healthy items with foods that are more of a treat, like Ramen noodles with a piece of fruit on the side, or cookies with homemade tomato soup as an entrée. We’re all about eating everything in moderation.

What follows are foods that have appeared in my daughter’s lunch bag this school year. I’d love to hear about your own school lunch ideas in the comment section.

Cold entrees:

  • Egg salad sandwich
  • Triscuits with a small container of homemade tuna salad for “dipping” (I make tuna salad with one can of tuna, a spoonful or two of light mayo, and about a tablespoon of minced fresh onion.)
  • Chicken salad sandwich (I use store bought chicken salad.)
  • Peanut butter and low-sugar jelly sandwich
  • Peanut butter and honey sandwich
  • Tortilla chips and salsa (Sometimes the salsa is store bought and sometimes it’s homemade.)
  • Lunchables (I buy them occasionally when they’re on sale for a dollar.)

*Note: Lunch meat sandwiches don’t appear on this list because our family decided several years ago to limit our intake of lunch meat because of concerns about preservatives. In the past, my husband took lunch meat to work five days a week. Now, he’s a fan of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I sometimes buy him Hormel preservative-free lunch meat, or I set aside leftover chicken, turkey, or ham to make sandwiches.

 Warm School Lunch Ideas

Hot entrees in a thermos:

  • Leftovers (The possibilities are endless. We’ve packed homemade tomato soup, chili, taco soup, spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni and cheese, and chicken tortilla soup.)
  • Ravioli
  • Spaghettios
  • Ramen noodles
  • Frozen burritos (I cut them into bite-sized pieces.)
  • Campbell’s chicken noodle soup
  • Canned clam chowder

Side Items for School Lunches

Side items (I pack two):

  • Fresh fruit (This includes bananas, cut strawberries, apple slices, blackberries, raspberries, grapes, peeled oranges, peaches, plums, and nectarines.)
  • Goldfish crackers (We like all the flavors, but I buy the cheddar whole grain variety most often.)
  • Cheez-Its
  • Wheat Thin crackers
  • Teddy Grahams
  • Animal crackers
  • Vanilla Wafers
  • Dry cereal (My daughter likes Cheerios and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.)
  • Granola bars
  • Yogurt cups
  • Popcorn
  • Baked potato chips
  • Chocolate-covered pretzels
  • Homemade no-bake cookies
  • Homemade banana or pumpkin bread
  • Oatmeal cookies
  • Fruit Roll-Ups
  • Fruit snacks
  • Pudding cups
  • Fruit cups
  • Fruit and Jell-O cups
  • Fresh broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots with a small container of Ranch dip
  • String cheese
  • Semi-sweet chocolate chips

Drink:

  • Water (I pack this 99 percent of the time.)
  • Apple cider (This is a treat during the fall.)
  • Juice (This gets packed when the grandparents buy special drinks for the kids.)

A few of my favorite school lunch ideas

Some of these school lunch ideas I’ve listed require special containers. My favorite is my daughter’s thermos. It provides us with limitless hot lunch choices that rival any hot fare the cafeteria ladies can dish up. I purchased this thermos on sale at Target last fall after reading online reviews to make sure I was getting one that would actually keep food hot. Before adding hot food to the thermos, I fill it with hot water and let it sit for about 10 minutes. This “preheats” the thermos and helps it keep food hotter for longer. After 10 minutes, I empty the hot water, dry the thermos a little, and put in the hot food for that day. My daughter has never complained about her food being cold.

As for other food containers, one of my priorities is to use reusable containers as much as possible to eliminate or cut down on trash. I stocked up on a variety of plastic containers with lids in all sizes and shapes. Some are small and perfect for Ranch dip. Others are larger and good for tortilla chips. Others are flat and broad for sandwiches. I wash and reuse plastic spoons and forks.

I also have a set of Lunchskins, which are reusable, washable food bags. I don’t use them as much because they fasten with Velcro and are not airtight, so they aren’t as good for keeping crackers crisp or preventing juice from strawberries from leaking. Their advantage is that they take up less space in a lunch bag compared to bulkier plastic containers.

I also avoid buying individual packaged servings of food like chips or crackers if I can buy a large bag or box and divide the food into servings at home. It costs less and produces less trash. Finally, I use reusable bottles filled with water for my daughter’s drink. Water is the healthiest drink, and the cheapest.

One last important item when it comes to school lunch ideas is to include a small ice pack to keep cold foods cold. I only use the ice pack on days when I pack a cold entrée. On days when I pack hot food in the thermos, I pack side items that do not need refrigeration because sticking an ice pack next to a hot thermos just doesn’t sound like a good idea.

Packing School Lunches: Worth the Effort

It does take some planning and work to pack a school lunch every day. There are a few things I do to make it easier. I pack the lunch bag as much as possible the night before to minimize the morning rush. I store the bag overnight in the fridge if it has a cold entrée, and I pop the ice pack in right before we leave. When I pack a hot entrée in the thermos, I pack the rest of the lunch the night before and let it sit on the counter, and I heat food and fill the thermos right before we leave. I also try to always keep my pantry and fridge filled with a variety of easy items to pack like crackers or fruit cups. If I have a good variety to choose from, it takes only a few minutes to pack the lunch bag.

Despite some of the work, I’ve found I enjoy packing my daughter’s lunch every day. I know exactly what and how much she is eating, and I know what she likes and doesn’t like. Most of all, it’s gratifying to know I am sending a little love from home each day. Except, of course, on days when the cafeteria serves rectangle-shaped pizzas. Those are worth loading up the lunch money account for.

Still need ideas. Check out 111 School Lunch Ideas from the site Homesthetics.

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Category: Recipes

Tags: food