What should I pack my kid for lunch? It’s a question we ask ourselves every school day. From preschool to college, our children are inundated with questions about what to take for lunch. Sandwiches, salads and wraps may be easy to prep and fun to eat, but we all want something different sometimes.
What Should I Pack My Kid For Lunch
My youngest son is starting kindergarten this year. As a dietitian, I know that a healthy lunch will provide him with the energy he needs to thrive at school. But as a mom of two, I realize that sending children out the door with a kid-approved meal can be a challenge. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few strategies to make this parenting milestone a bit easier.
Get the right gear
For kindergarten-age kids, I recommend bento-style lunch boxes. These kits are fun—once the lid is open, everything is accessible—and they make it possible for you as a parent to whip up a Pinterest-worthy meal (if that’s your goal!). Silicone baking cups make colourful dividers if you need more compartments. A leak-proof water bottle that is easy to open is a must. Twist caps are challenging for little hands, so I recommend a pop-up lid and a straw, like the Thermos FUNtainer.
Practise at home
Start serving lunch in their lunch boxes in the summer. Try out everything that they will be using at school—the containers, snack packs, water bottle and lunch bag. Set a time frame for the meal. Most schools provide 15 to 30 minutes for lunch. The goal is to make sure your kids can unpack and open their food as well as tidy everything up at the end of the meal by themselves. Working on these skills at home will go a long way to help kids feel confident and eat better when they are distracted, have limited one-to-one adult support, and are time-crunched.
A weekly lunch and snack schedule eliminates the stress of wondering what to pack the night before or during the morning rush. Many kids don’t love opening their lunch box to a “surprise” meal, so having a planned menu may increase food acceptance. Bonus points if you involve your child. Even young kids can brainstorm lunch and snack ideas. Having them help with simple food prep on the weekend—like portioning snacks, washing fruit and cutting up vegetables—not only makes packing lunches easier but encourages them to interact with the food ahead of time, which, in turn, may lead to them actually eating these foods when they show up in their lunch box.
Keep it simple
Parents often ask me how much variety they should be providing. For many kids, the simpler, the better. It is OK if you offer pretty much the same lunch regularly, just try and mix up some of the sides or snacks. Always include one favourite food item your kid will eat if hungry. Focus on whole foods that are minimally processed as these will have more staying power. Ideally lunches are made up of 1 to 3 ounces of protein (tofu, dairy, meat, fish, legumes), 1 to 2 slices of bread or 1/2 cup grains, some fat (avocado, yogurt, pumpkin seeds, mayonnaise, margarine), and a few pieces of fruit and/or vegetables. Try not to get too hung up on what your kids “should” be eating.
Avoid these foods
- No peanuts or tree nuts. This restriction is pretty universal due to food allergy precautions. Some schools have further allergens that are not allowed, based on common food allergies within their student population.
- Don’t pack anything that goes against school rules. This might include things like juice, pop and candy.
- Avoid foods that your kids don’t like. Kindergarten school lunch is not the time to work on encouraging adventurous eating.
- If your child can’t yet open individually packaged foods like applesauce, yogourt cups, cheese strings or bagged snacks, don’t put them in their lunches.
- Consider leaving pungent foods at home as many kids are sensitive to strong smells and may react negatively.
- Really messy foods—like yogurt tubes, spaghetti bolognese, any food with a lot of sauce, and items that aren’t packed properly and may spill in the lunch bag—are a recipe for disaster.
- If utensils are a challenge for your kid, stick to finger foods and save meals that require cutlery for home.
30 GREAT PACKED LUNCH IDEAS FOR KIDS
I will be honest with you, lunch is my all-time least favorite meal. I can dominate at breakfast. And while my kids might complain sometimes, I can whip up a mean dinner.
Lunch leaves me stumped. I’m either making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches day after day after day, or I’m tossing lunch money at my kids as they run to the bus.
So in order to cure my own lunch ailments, I did a ton of research on how to make lunch easier, more fun and a whole lot more exciting – and I’m sharing that research with you!
FIRST, LET’S TALK ABOUT A LUNCH SYSTEM
Before we start talking about what to serve for lunch, let’s talk about the “making” of lunch. Shall we?
I finally came to my senses a couple of years ago and realized that my kids are DEFINITELY old enough to be packing their own lunches. And I would be frustrated with myself for continuing to pack them for them morning after morning.
Until, duh, it hit me. And we implemented a new lunch-packing system that has been working like a charm ever since.
Yes, your kindergartener can (and should?) be packing their own lunch.
Here’s the lunch system that works for us!
We now have lunch packing on our Sunday routine card, and it gets done every week. (Here’s a link for the routine cards that I get SO MANY questions about. They’re seriously life changing!).
And if your kids want to start spending even MORE time in the kitchen and cooking some meals that they can pack up for lunch, be sure to read these 30 recipes that kids can cook themselves!
AND NOW LET’S TALK ABOUT LUNCH SUPPLIES…
In my house, lunch only happens when we have the right supplies. It shouldn’t be that way, but I only need one tiny little excuse to give myself permission to forgo our entire system and routine and send my kids to school with twinkies for lunch.
Not really. But you know what I mean.
Once I finally just bit the bullet and purchased all of the lunch supplies we need, things got WAY easier around our house.
Here are my suggestions:
I think lunch boxes are such a personal preference, that I struggle to make a specific recommendation. My kids usually pick something they like at the store, and we go with it. I always make sure that there’s plenty of room for their food and an ice pack. And I always like to make sure that it has a separate outside spot to hold a water bottle (like this one).
If your kids are more into Bento Boxes, I have heard amazing things about this one.
And (of course), don’t forget the ice packs. I have a few packs of these that I keep in the freezer so even if my kids don’t get theirs into the freezer after school, I still have one cold for them the next morning.
This was probably my biggest investment, but it’s the one that has meant the most to us. In order for my three kids to pack lunch for four days at a time, that means I need enough containers to hold 12 lunches. But it’s worth it for me to be able to have SO much extra time every morning before school. Here are the containers we love:
→ Like a Bento Box, but without the full-on commitment. These fit in my kids’ lunch boxes perfectly, and we can slip a sandwich in each morning.
→ We also have a plethora of these containers for lunches that don’t need a Bento Box. They’re great for berries, yogurt, pretzels, veggies, sauce, condiments, etc.
→ These silicone muffin containers are a great way to further separate foods within a Bento Box. And I love the variety of shapes that are included in this set.
→ And, of course, don’t forget the thermos. We don’t pack this until the morning of (obviously), but we recently upgraded to this one, and the kids love it.
WATER BOTTLES AND SILVERWARE
I don’t have an official recommendation on water bottles, but you should get at least one water bottle for lunches. We have a drawer full of them that always seem to be lost, but hopefully your house is better at that than I am.
As for silverware, my kids usually grab what they need at school, but here are some other options for you:
→ These have a nice carrying case. Hopefully they make it all back home to you after school.
→ These are probably more up my alley, but I’d need to find a better set for the boys. I like that everything can be tossed into the dishwasher (including the carrying case.)
→ And, of course, you can always go with disposable silverware. I won’t judge you, promise!
DISPOSABLE ITEMS TO KEEP IN STOCK
Even if your goal is to be very green with your kids’ lunches, it might not hurt to have these on hand just in case…
→ Ziploc sandwich bags
→ Fun lunch jokes and notes. (Yes, this makes me the laziest human alive, but last I checked my kids were more excited about getting SOMETHING in their lunch from me than they were concerned that it was personalized.)
Okay, you’ve been patient long enough. Now we can finally talk about WHAT to put in those lunches every single darn day…
Whether your kids are eating at school or at home, I’m sharing 30 of my favorite packed lunch ideas for kids ages toddler to teens. From meal prep tips to ideas for picky eaters, these easy, make-ahead lunches include healthy options and even options for clean eating kids. Enjoy!
HEALTHY CHICKEN NUGGETS
My son went through a phase and refused to eat anything OTHER than chicken nuggets. Luckily, I was able to find a healthy version so I didn’t really care if he wouldn’t eat anything else. I would bake up a massive batch on the weekends, and he would take them to lunch every single day.
TACO BELL FOR LUNCH
If your kids are obsessed with Taco Bell, you will amaze them with these copycat recipes. I’m sharing 15 of the very best Taco Bell copycat recipes. Whip up some for dinner and send the leftovers for lunch.
PEANUT BUTTER DOGS
My daughter is obsessed with these, and I am too. They are sweet, combine a ton of protein and fruit – you just can’t lose.
CLEAN EATING RECIPES FOR KIDS
My kids completely revolted when I suggested we try clean eating (after I explained what that meant.) They said they were NOT IN AGREEMENT – until I made some of these recipes. And now they’re all begging for more clean eating.
I still don’t understand why kids love lunchables so much, but you’ll love this homemade version because it’s so easy to create (and so much easier on the wallet).
GUACAMOLE, BACON AND TURKEY SANDWICH
I had to work to get my kids to give this one a try, but once they tried it, they all loved it. It’s a sandwich with a twist, and it will quickly top your list of favorite lunch meals.
CHIPOTLE FOR LUNCH
If your kids are obsessed with Chipotle, you will amaze them with these copycat recipes. I’m sharing 15 of the very best Chipotle copycat recipes. Whip up some for dinner and send the leftovers for lunch.
DIY UNCRUSTABLES SANDWICHES
You can whip up a massive batch of these Uncrustables sandwiches and have them in the freezer – ready and waiting to be tossed into lunchboxes.
GRILLED CHEESE AND APPLE SANDWICH
If you have a way to keep this hot until lunch, your kids will be LOVING this grilled cheese and apple sandwich. Serve it with some carrots and popcorn, and it’s the perfect fall lunch.
DIY FROZEN FRUIT CUPS
These frozen fruit cups are just like buying fruit cups at the store except they’re not full of all of the added sugar, and they’re not as expensive. Woo hoo!
CHICK-FIL-A FOR LUNCH
If your kids are obsessed with Chick-fil-A, you will amaze them with these copycat recipes. I’m sharing 15 of the very best Chick-fil-A copycat recipes. Whip up some for dinner and send the leftovers for lunch.
CONEYS IN A BLANKET
These are so good and such a fun way to change up lunch every once in awhile. Your kids can heat them up at the school microwave, or you can send in a thermos.
I really didn’t think my kids would like these pretzel twists, but they LOVED them. And beg for them multiple times a day.
Is there anything more fun than a kabob? Sometimes my kids don’t like a particular sandwich, but when I serve it as a SANDWICH KABOB, they love it. Kids – they’re crazy!
PEPPERONI PIZZA BURGERS
My kids love these as burgers, but they also love to eat them without the bun – which makes this a perfect lunch for a thermos.
TACOS FOR LUNCH
These lunch tacos are super simple to make and super yummy to eat. Your kids will love them!
LEFTOVERS FOR LUNCH
In theory, leftovers for lunch seems like such a great idea. In reality, it can actually be harder than it seems.
This is another recipe that you’re going to want to make every single week so that you always have some in the fridge or freezer to heat up for lunches, snacks or even quick dinners on the go.
VEGETARIAN SAUSAGE ROLLS
Have a little vegetarian in your house? He or she will love these sausage rolls. (Seriously!)
TUNA CHECKERBOARD SANDWICHES
I’m going to be honest. You’re going to make these for your kids, and then you’re going to want to steal them for your own lunch. Just be sure to make enough for everyone in the family!
CHEESY GOODNESS PASTA
How many ways can we spell YUM? You’re going to want to make a triple batch of this. Trust me.
SMOOTHIES FOR LUNCH
My son would eat a smoothie for breakfast, lunch and dinner if we let him. If your kids are interested in taking a smoothie for lunch, here’s everything you need to know to get started. Smoothies 101
MINI SPAGHETTI CUPS
I would have died and gone to heaven if my mom packed these in my lunch for me when I was a kid. (So do yourself a favor and pack some in your own lunch too!)
GRANOLA PROTEIN MUFFINS
I whip up a batch of these every week, and sometimes the kids will opt to take two muffins in their lunch instead of a sandwich or other main course. They love them because they’re delicious. I love them because they are full of protein. Win-Win.
SNACKS FOR LUNCH
My daughter loves having “snacks” for lunch. You can obviously go a variety of ways for this, but here are some great “snacks for lunch” ideas that your kids will love.