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What to Pack for Kids’ Lunch – Make the BEST School Lunches!

Aug 29, 2023 | Meal Planning | 0 comments

What to Pack for Kids' Lunch

Figuring out what to pack for kids' lunch is hard! It's got to be healthy, easy, and something they'll actually eat. We've got you covered!

Meal Prep Meal Plan

Key Takeaways

  • Investing in good containers will enable you to pack both hot and cold options for your kids lunches.
  • When in doubt, pack leftovers! I love doubling a couple of dinner recipes each week to use for healthy lunches for my family.
  • Involving your kiddos in choosing at least some items for their lunch is a great way to encourage them to actually eat their healthy lunches.

Whether you're reading this hot off the presses in the midst of back to school season, or in the middle of the school year when your kid declares they're “done” with PB&J, I've got some creative ideas for you on how to make the BEST school lunches.

Packed lunches are particularly challenging for a few reasons. First, some children love a certain food at home, but refuse to eat it at school. And can you blame them? What tastes better after all, a freshly made almond butter and jam sandwich, or one that's been sitting with ice packs for hours? Kids have discerning palates too!

Second, there are a lot of distractions at school. Many young kids in particular have trouble finishing lunch during the allotted time. This makes it extra important to fill the lunchbox with nutritious, filling foods so they don't just eat the crackers first and run out of time for the good stuff.

I've tried to address these challenges for you today but I'd love your tips as well! As you likely know, my boys are young. I've got a lot of years of packed lunches ahead of me so I'd love more ideas as well!

Tips for the Best School Lunches

Before we get to the food, I wanted to share a few tips to keep in mind for the best school lunches. From temperature control to balance, I've got you covered.

  • Find hot and cold containers you like. There are many quality stainless steel kids' lunch containers out there for cold lunches. Lunch Bots offers an array of different sizes, perfect for kids and adults alike. They also offer triple-insulated thermoses in different sizes. I LOVE serving leftovers for lunch and there's no reason this can't apply to packed lunches as well, as long as you have a quality thermos. Once you find containers you love, stock up! Having multiples of your favorite containers means you can pack two days' of lunches at a time, which is a game changer.
  • Learn the school rules. Whether based on allergies or nutrition, most schools have at least some rules in terms of what's permissible in lunches for school. Learn the rules upfront to make things easier on both you and your child.
  • Ask for input. Take your child to the grocery store (I know, I love online ordering as well, but just this once!) Remind them of the kinds of items you'll send in their lunches for school and ask them to show you some things they'd like included. You can of course just ask your kids when you're all at home too, but sometimes they have trouble thinking of anything this way. If your kids are really young, you may just want to invite them to choose a couple of fruits and vegetables and you choose the rest.

What to Pack for Kids' Lunches

kids lunches to pack

When it comes to what to pack for kids' lunches, my #1 go-to is leftovers. So when you see salmon or sloppy joes below, I'm generally not making these dishes specifically for kids' lunches. Instead, I make a double (or triple!) batch of one or two dinners during the week and save some for lunches. This allows me to serve great, healthy lunches without a whole lot of extra work. A definite win-win!

As always, I've prioritized nutrition, flavor and ease for lunches that are both practical and delicious. When you find a lunch your kiddo loves, I highly recommend adding it to a running list. This way when February hits and you find yourself in a rut with zero ideas on what to pack, you'll have something to turn to.

Want more ideas for easy-to-pack foods? Check out my article on Healthy Travel Foods! These make great lunchbox items as well.

1. Build Your Own Tacos

Pack leftover ground beef / turkey or beans, a tortillas and all of your child's favorite taco toppings! Shredded cheese, halved cherry tomatoes, sliced avocado or guacamole – have fun with it and mix up the toppings from time to time. If packing ground beef, you'll likely want to use an insulated container to keep it nice and warm.

2. Leftover Stir Fry

Pack leftover rice or quinoa and stir fry in an insulated container. Stir fry is so packed with veggies and protein, all you need to add is a side of fresh fruit and lunch is complete!

3. Salmon with Dill Mayo or Aioli

Salmon makes the best school lunch because it's just as good cold as it is hot. I love serving with a dipping sauce like mayo mixed with a bit of fresh dill, basil aioli, or even homemade ketchup!

4. Meatballs with Marinara for Dipping

I love making a big batch of meatballs and freezing some so I can easily pull them out for the kids' lunches. Pack the meatballs in an insulated container to keep them nice and hot. Provide a small dipping container with marinara. You can add pasta to the lunch or serve “snack plate” style with assorted fruit and veggies on the side.

5. Leftover Bowls

This is kind of a catch-all for one of my favorite approaches to lunches for school. If you have a Protein + Carb + Veggie kind of a dinner, simply layer everything together in an insulated container and send it “bowl-style” for school lunch. This could be quinoa, chicken and zucchini, rice, pork and carrots, etc. Just make sure to cut the protein and veggies into bite-sized pieces so it's easy for your child to eat out of the container at school. Feel free to serve a sauce like tzatziki or whatever matches the flavor profile of the dish on the side.

6. Leftover Chicken w/ Dipping Sauce

Whether you're roasting, grilling, or using the crock pot, it's so easy to throw on some extra when you're making chicken. I love this strategy because leftover chicken is so versatile and makes a great addition to lunch. For the kiddos, pack some shredded or cubed chicken in their lunch box along with a dip like homemade bbq sauce, ranch, ketchup or whatever they love! Add a fruit, veggie and some rice or roasted sweet potatoes and you're good to go.

7. Soup or Chili

If you have a quality thermos, soup or chili make a great packed lunch. Homemade soups are generally quite healthy and they're a good way to pack protein and veggies into the mid-day meal. Try my lasagna soup, slow cooker beef and vegetable stew, or 3 bean chipotle chili.

8. Pulled Pork

This is another dish that tends to produce a lot of leftovers and I for one am here for it! Pack in your child's lunchbox along with a bun so they can build their own sandwich.

9. Leftover Shrimp Sheet Pan

Shrimp make an excellent addition to a packed lunch because it's quite tasty cold as well as hot. Pack the leftovers from this sheet pan meal cold or layer them together bowl-style in a thermos – either way is delicious!

10. Tuna Salad with Grapes

You can pack the tuna salad with quinoa and arugula as the recipe calls for, OR, if your child won't go for that, simply pack with crackers or rice cakes and a veggie on the side. Bonus? This is definitely a recipe your kiddo can help make.

11. Pasta with Pork Ragu

I for one would be thrilled to find this in my thermos at lunchtime! One caveat – you may want to choose a smaller pasta like penne or farfalle to make it easier for your child to eat at school.

12. Sloppy Joes

Trust me, this homemade version of sloppy joes is way tastier (and healthier) than the classic cafeteria standby. For a packed lunch version, pack the sloppy joes in a thermos over chopped roasted sweet potatoes or pack with a bun on the side for your child to build a sandwich if they prefer.

13. Chicken Salad

This chicken salad makes the best school lunch! It's meant to be served cold, is packed with protein, and goes well with a variety of sides like crackers, a tortilla to wrap it up in, or simply fruit and raw veggies.

14. Pecan Crusted Chicken Strips

What kiddo doesn't love crispy chicken strips? The leftovers are quite tasty too. Simply chop and pack hot or cold with a side of homemade ketchup.

15. Grilled Chicken Bites with Yogurt Mint Sauce

In my book, this dish is the perfect solution when you're having trouble thinking of what to pack for kids' lunch. It has an interesting flavor profile without being too spicy or bitter to appeal to kids. Plus it includes a great dip, a major win with most children. It's also quite easy to throw together!

16. Gluten Free Ratatouille Pasta

Ratatouille pasta is delicious hot or cold, making it ideal for a packed school lunch. It's also packed with veggies. If you'd like to include more protein, add chicken, shrimp, chickpeas or white beans. Or, simply use chickpea pasta for a protein boost.

17. Mix & Match Snack Plate

When you don't have leftovers on-hand, “snack plates” are a great choice for lunches for school. Simply pack a variety of items – don't worry about them going well together! Kids don't generally care. Instead, just make sure you include protein, healthy fats, carbs, fruit and veggies. Here are some ideas to get you started but this is definitely the time to raid the fridge and use what you've got!

Bonus – Healthy Desserts for Lunches for School

High Protein Energy Balls

On those days when you want to include a little something special in your child's school lunch, but don't want to overload them with sugar, here are a couple of great choices:

FAQ – Common Questions on What to Pack for Kids Lunches

What should be in a child's packed lunch?

A child's packed lunch should include a mix of complex carbs, protein, healthy fats and fruits & veggies. This leaves you tons of options! Don't feel limited by the typical “lunch foods”. I'm personally a huge fan of packing dinner leftovers. Our dinners tend to be quite nutritionally balanced (thanks to the Prep Dish meal plans!) so it's an easy way to get in all of the goodness I know my boys need.

What are 10 good lunch foods?

Scroll up for tons of good lunch foods for kiddos! To get you started, I love these 10 lunch foods for kids:

  1. Chia pudding
  2. Energy bites
  3. Raw veggies with hummus or guacamole
  4. Fruit w/ nut butter
  5. Greek yogurt w/ a side of homemade granola
  6. Chicken salad
  7. Leftover soup or chili
  8. Salmon w/ aioli for dipping
  9. Meatballs w/ marinara for dipping
  10. Tuna salad

What to pack for kids who don't like sandwiches?

There are SO many excellent options for kids lunches, beyond sandwiches. We get into the habit of thinking of “breakfast foods,” “lunch foods,” and “dinner foods,” but that's really arbitrary. Almost anything you would serve for dinner would make a great packed lunch, as long as you have good containers that will keep food either hot or cold. Leftover chicken with rice, meatballs with pasta or pulled pork with sweet potatoes all make wonderful packed lunches.

Want more tips on what to feed kids?

Figuring out what to feed kids can be challenging! We all want to feed our families well but it can easily become a daily battle, which isn't good for anyone involved. Many of our Prep Dish subscribers are moms and we're always thinking of ways to help make nutritious food approachable and appealing for kids. Here are a few resources if you'd like a little support:

Healthy Toddler Food

There's No Such Thing as Kid Food

I'm fascinated by what kids eat in different cultures around the world! This article explores how we can learn from other cultures in terms of what's considered “kid food.”

Healthy Dinners for Picky Eaters

How to Make Healthy Dinners for Picky Eaters

Do you struggle with whether to make a separate dinner for your child when you know they won't like what you made? This article explores how to make sure your kid gets enough to eat, without becoming a short order cook.

Family Dinner – How to Make it Work at Every Stage

Family dinner is so important to me and is really at the heart of my goal for Prep Dish – making family dinners easier for parents everywhere. It can be HARD at times though. Get tips on how to make family dinners work at different stages.

Beginner Menu Guide


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Allison Schaaf Chef, Prep Dish

Prep Dish is a gluten-free, paleo, and keto meal planning website. Celebrity personal chef & dietitian Allison Schaaf thoughtfully crafts each plan using her own well-tested recipes. Each meal plan allows you, the home cook, to spend only 2-3 hours preparing a week’s worth of crave-worthy, healthy meals using seasonal, whole foods (nothing processed!). We aim to save you time while keeping your family’s taste buds happy.

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