Healthy Homemade School Lunch Ideas


The key to healthy homemade school lunch ideas is thinking ahead. Kids are easier to please than adults, but even they can get a little tired of peanut butter sandwiches. The real key to making most any meal or dish into a school lunch is that you make it the night before.

So when you’re putting the kids’ lunches together in the morning, all you have to do is add a little fruit or raw veggies, toss it in the cooler and you’re ready to go.

Healthy Homemade School Lunch Ideas

Getting kids to eat healthy food can feel overwhelming, particularly when they’re surrounded by ultra-processed “food” everywhere: marketing, school, parties. As a parent to two children, I know the struggle. Today, let’s take a look at 9 food swaps that will help you create a healthy school lunch all year long.

Why Pack a Healthy School Lunch?

School requires a lot of energy and focus. And it’s hard to have both when you’re hungry or running on nutrient-less food.

Food plays a key role in a child’s ability to focus and have the stamina to make it through the day (along with getting enough sleep at night, movement throughout the day, etc.). As a former teacher, I’ve seen the effect food (or lack thereof) can have on a child’s mood, behavior, and ability to focus. And I’m sure you have, too. This is why packing nourishing (real-food based) lunches is important.

What Does a Healthy School Lunch Look Like?

Everyone has an opinion about what’s “healthy.” So how do we determine what’s “healthy” and what’s not?

Knowing what’s healthy is very easy when we look at how healthy people for generations (before the age of ultra-processed food) prepared and consumed foods. Here’s what real, traditional food looks like.

  • Grass Fed, Pastured Meats: Animals that have been raised and fed as they were intended when created, with grass underneath and the sun overhead. We use all parts of the animal, including the bones for nourishing broth. Chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and wild game.
  • Eggs: From chickens that have been raised on pasture, roaming free with lots of sunlight.
  • Fats: Naturally-occurring fats that have nourished healthy families for thousands of years, such as: butter from grass-fed cows, coconut oil, ghee, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, tallow, and lard. Learn more about fats and oils 101.
  • Grains, Nuts, and Seeds: Whole grains and minimally-processed with an emphasis on ancient grains and variety: spelt, kamut, einkorn, even whole wheat. Also, ancient practices, such as sourdough bread, if possible. Also: beans, nuts, and seeds.
  • Fruits and Veggies: Preferably in season and grown as local as possible, using organic practices. Including lots of fresh herbs. Cooked, raw, and fermented. While organic produce is encouraged, I don’t always buy organic produce. I use the EWG list when shopping at the store. And if purchasing from a local farm or market, many farms aren’t “certified organic” but use organic practices.
  • Dairy: Raw or pasteurized and full fat from grass-fed cows, or goats or sheep. I only recommend purchasing raw milk if you know the source and have checked out the farm for cleanliness and safety. Pasteurized milk can be found in the store. I recommend avoiding ultra-pasteurized milk, since this milk has been heated to such a high degree that it kills everything. Anytime you see the words low-fat or fat-free you know a lot of junk has been added to compensate for the loss of nourishing fat. Dairy includes: milk, cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, yogurt, kefir (a fermented yogurt drink), cottage cheese.
  • Salt: Real, unrefined salt that hasn’t been stripped of its nourishing minerals. I use Real Salt.
  • Seafood: Raised in the wild versus a fish farm.
  • Sweeteners: As close to the natural state as possible, such as: raw honey, pure maple syrup, and minimally-processed sugars. Learn more about Sweeteners 101.
  • Beverages: Water and beverages made with real ingredients: tea, coffee, kombucha (a fermented tea), milk (from nuts, seeds, or dairy). For the lunchbox, water is usually the best option. If your child is obsessed with juice, wean them off by diluting juice with more and more water in a reusable water bottle.

Getting kids to eat healthy food can feel overwhelming, particularly when they’re surrounded by ultra-processed “food” everywhere: marketing, school, parties. As a parent to two children, I know the struggle. Today, let’s take a look at 9 food swaps that will help you create a healthy school lunch all year long.

 Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love

These healthy school lunch ideas are quick and easy to make! Your kids will love them, and honestly, we’re sure you’ll love them, too.

Quick and Easy Healthy School Lunch Ideas

Planning for your kid’s meals is not an easy task, especially when you have picky-eaters running around the house. So, what can you do to ensure they enjoy what you give them? Well, you have to make eating fun and colorful! In this post, we have over a dozen healthy school lunch ideas which you can use as inspiration to start creating your own recipes. These lunches are simple, vibrant, and can fit neatly in their lunch boxes.

1. Lunch Box Pizza

Lunch Box Pizza | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

Pizza is one of the best go-to meals ever so it only makes sense you put pizza in your kids’ lunch boxes. It’s not the healthiest school lunch idea on this list but considering you have control over the quality of the ingredients, this homemade pizza is going to be healthier than cafeteria pizza. This Self Proclaimed Foodie recipe is pretty easy to follow but to save time, just prepare the ingredients the night before.

2. Chicken Taco Bento

Chicken Taco Bento | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

Let your kids enjoy making their own tacos…at lunch in school! Prepare the ingredients and organize them in a bento box, just like what The Exhausted Mom did.

3. Turkey Colby with Jack Cheese Lunch Box

Turkey Colby with Jack Cheese Lunch Box | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

This healthy lunch idea from What The Girls Are Having is pretty simple. All you need to do is arrange the fruits, crackers, jack cheese, turkey slices, and cookies. The idea behind this is to teach your children the importance of eating food in proportion.

4. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

Peanut Butter And Jelly Waffle Sandwich | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

Make the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich even more special with this recipe by Ready Set Eat! The waffle sandwich, along with some bit-sized fruit, can easily fit into a lunchbox. To make this sandwich healthier, you can use whole grain waffles, natural peanut butter, and organic jelly.

5. Animal-themed Bento

Animal-themed Bento | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

You have to admit–these animal-themed bento by the Marvelous Mommy are super cute. You don’t need to prepare complicated meals to make an attractive bento. What you really need to do is let your creative side shine!

6. Sandwich Kabobs

Sandwich Kabobs Lunch Box Idea | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

Simple As That featured a couple of healthy school lunch ideas but this one, in particular, caught our eye. We find the concept of a sandwich kabob interesting. You just have to prepare the ingredients of a regular sandwich, cut them into bite-size pieces, and put them on a stick.

7. Ham and Cheese Egg Roll

Cast one glance at Noob Cook’s ham and cheese egg rolls and you know it’s as delicious as it looks. These egg rolls deserve to be placed in a pretty lunch box, along with kimchi fried rice, and a few pieces of raw fruit or vegetable. Now that’s a perfect school lunch.

8. Turkey and Cream Cheese Bagel Sandwich

Turkey and Cream Cheese Bagel Sandwich | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

You can make this fantastic turkey and cream cheese sandwich with just three ingredients–whole wheat bagel, cream cheese, and deli turkey. Juggling Real Food and Real Life recommends the use of organic ingredients to make the bagel sandwich even healthier.

9. Pizza Pasta Salad

Pizza Pasta Salad | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

Teach your kids to love vegetables more with this recipe by Laura Fuentes. Toss the pizza pasta salad in a lunch box along with a few slices of vegetables and fruits (like what Laura did) and your kids will have a simple and healthy homemade meal for lunch at school.

10. Black Bean Salad and Tortilla Chips

Black Bean Salad and Tortilla Chips | Healthy School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love | Homemade Recipes

If you want to whip up a high-protein meal for your kids but don’t have a lot of time to make something very decent, then you will really like this black bean salad recipe by Cupcakes and Cutlery. It’s a very simple meal yet filling and healthy.

 Food Swap Ideas for a Healthy School Lunch

Swap 1: The Lunchable

Flip over any Lunchable next time you’re at the store and ask yourself, “Could I buy these ingredients at the store right now? Are they real ingredients?” Nope!

Your kids don’t need to forgo the Lunchable, just skip the ultra-processed one and go for a homemade Lunchable that will sustain and nourish.

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Choose this instead…

  • Crackers, real cheese, and sliced meat (turkey, ham, roast beef) or use shredded chicken (cook a chicken and shred the meat to use for lunches). Using silicone muffin cups will help divide your lunch container (see my favorites here) into small Lunchable-like sections.
  • For a pizza lunchable, make pizza dough (sourdough or quick yeast) and cut the dough into small rounds. Bake the mini rounds for about 12-15 minutes. You can store the pizza crusts in the freezer. Pull out a few pizza crust rounds for the lunchbox and add pizza sauce and shredded mozzarella. My kids also love Applegate brand pepperoni.

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Swap 2: Fruit By The Foot

Fruit By The Foot (and other similar fruit roll-up type products) are a very popular lunchbox option. Let’s take a look at the ingredients of this popular lunchbox choice…

Sugar, Maltodextrin, Corn Syrup, Pear Puree Concentrate, Palm Oil. Contains 2% or less of: Carrageenan, Citric Acid, Monoglycerides, Sodium Citrate, Acetylated Monoglycerides, Malic Acid, Xanthan Gum, Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Locust Bean GumPotassium Citrate, Natural Flavor, Red 40.

Sugar, sugar, and MORE sugar with some artificial dye (listen to this podcast to learn about the concerns with artificial dye) and the mysterious “natural flavor.”

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Choose this instead…

  • Real fruit leather: Real fruit leather is made by pureeing fruit, then spreading the puree into a thin layer and dehydrating that layer of fruit. The end result is a delicious and naturally sweetened (thanks to the fruit) fruit leather. I love the brands BEAR and Wild Made. You can also make fruit leather.

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Swap 3: Peanut Butter

Most peanut butter options are filled with additives that take this natural, real food from healthy to unhealthy (full of sugar and PUFA oils like vegetable, soybean, and sunflower oil).

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Choose this instead…

  • Peanut butter made with just one ingredient: peanuts. Or, go with the two ingredient option: peanuts and salt. Nothing else is needed. If you’d prefer to make your own, you can easily do that, too.

This goes for all nut and seed butters. Due to nut-free requirements at many schools, sunflower butter has become popular for school lunch. Just like with peanut butter, don’t assume a food is “healthy” or real. Always flip the jar over and read the ingredient list, no matter what the marketing on the front of the jar may tell you.

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Swap 4: Jelly

Everyone loves a classic peanut butter (or sunflower seed butter, if your child attends a nut-free school) and jelly sandwich. The only real option is to make a PB& J at home (Crustables are far from a real food–read the ingredient list next time you’re at the store).

Let’s take a look at the ingredients used to make strawberry jelly….

Strawberry Juice, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Fruit Pectin, Citric Acid

Store-bought jelly is basically sugar, sugar, and MORE sugar. That’s it! This isn’t going to sustain or nourish a child. Instead, what this product will do is send a child on a sugar high and then instant crash after lunch, which makes it hard to learn and focus late in the day.

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Choose this instead…

  • Jam or preserves: Instead of jelly, choose jam or preserves. Jelly is made with fruit juice. Jam and preserves are made using the whole fruit which means you’re getting the fiber to help balance out the natural sugars in the fruit.
  • Low sugar or fruit juice sweetened: Choose a jam or preserves made with fruit, pectin, and either fruit juice or sugar (as a sweetener). I love BioNature brand which is fruit juice sweetened to add just a touch of sweetness to the jam. You can also make your own jam. I have a very easy 10-minute recipe in Simplified School Lunch and there are many recipes online.

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Swap 5: Sandwich Bread

People have been enjoying and sustaining themselves with bread for thousands of years. So why is bread suddenly evil and to be feared? Why are we suddenly having issues with gluten and bread? The answer…

There’s the way we’ve modified wheat today, the way we grow it and how we treat it, the way we strip and bleach wheat to make it more appealing, and the way bread is made today. We’ve cut major shortcuts in a process that was once very natural and beautiful in order to mass produce unhealthy bread products.

healthy lunchbox food swaps

Choose this instead…

  • Sourdough: Sourdough is the way our ancestors enjoyed bread for thousands of years, dating all the way back to ancient Egyptian civilizations. A true sourdough is made with flour, water, salt, possibly olive oil or butter (for a sandwich bread), and a sourdough starter (a natural yeast made from just flour and water and the bacteria in the flour and air). During the sourdough process, the wheat is predigested by the bacteria in the starter, resulting in an easy to digest, nutrient-rich food. You can buy sourdough (find a baker at a local farmer’s market or bakery in your area) or make your own.

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