Want to teach your kids to pack their OWN lunch for school this year? Or maybe you just need ideas to make the process easier for yourself? Either way, this school lunch checklist is your complete guide to easy and healthy packed lunch ideas all year long!
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School day mornings can be crazy. There are breakfasts to make, kids who need help taming their seriously impressive bedhead, and missing shoes to find.
In the midst of the morning hustle, it can be hard to make time to pack a healthy lunch that kids actually want to eat.
To tackle the problem, I created a super-simple system to make packing school lunches easy enough that my kids can do it themselves!
How did we do it?
FIRST, we brainstormed a huge list of healthy packed lunch ideas that they like and would be willing to eat for lunch. I divided the list into four categories: main dishes, fruits & veggies, healthy sides, and snacks/extras.
SECOND, I used that list to create a checklist they can follow step-by-step to fill their lunch box each day.
My kids simply choose ONE item from each category (except fruits and veggies…they choose TWO of those) and….VOILA! In just a few minutes, lunch is packed and ready to go.
Even if you’re the one packing lunches, this checklist will help keep you inspired with simple ideas of what to buy and pack all year long!
You can download the “school lunch checklist” for free below.
Healthy packed lunch ideas for kids
Before we get started, let’s be clear about what you WON’T find in my kids’ lunch boxes:
- Fancy masterpieces of food art that are adorable but completely impractical for my family. If you love cutting your kids food to look like their favorite woodland creature, go for it! I don’t have time for that on busy mornings, so the ideas here are meant to be grab-n-go. No cutesy cutting required. Ideally, I aim for things my kids can get themselves.
- Hot foods. My kids do not have access to a microwave at school, so I only pack foods that are meant to be cold or room temperature. I have seen so many lunch ideas for things like quesadillas, chicken nuggets, and pasta dishes. My kids LOVE all those foods, but they only like them warm, so we’ll save them for non-school days.
What you WILL find are packed lunch ideas that are…
- super portable
- easy to prep
Here are the easy things we regularly put in our lunch boxes:
- meat & cheese sandwich
- nut butter & jam or honey sandwich
- DIY lunchable (crackers, cheese, & meat)
- pinwheel sandwiches or tortilla rollup
- bagel & cream cheese
Fruits & Vegetables
- carrot sticks
- apple slices
- small orange
- cucumber slices
- cherry tomatoes
- applesauce/fruit cup
- nuts: cashews, almonds
- dried fruit: fruit leather, raisins, apricots
- cheese: string cheese, Babybel, Tillamook single
- yogurt cup or squeezable yogurt
- protein balls
- granola bar
- mini muffins
- goldfish crackers
- PB crackers
- granola bites
- graham crackers
With more than 30 foods to choose from, there is something for every palette (even the picky ones!) and enough variety to keep you going all school year long.
Helpful Tips for Packing School Lunches
TIP #1: Pre-portion foods.
To make it easier for your kids to pack their own lunches, set aside a little bit of time once a week to portion out lunch foods. Items like grapes, raisins, pretzels, Goldfish, etc. can be placed in plastic bags (reusable ones if you have them) and kept in a basket or a specific place in the fridge so they’re easy for kids to grab when it’s time to make lunches.
Get the kids involved in this process if you can. It allows them to preview what will be available for lunch that week and helps them develop responsibility for their own meals.
TIP #2: Freeze sandwiches.
Last year, my middle son asked for a cheese and mustard sandwich EVERY day for school. (I have no idea where he got his love of mustard, but it works for him.) After weeks of making a new sandwich every day, I finally decided to work smarter instead of harder. So, I bought an extra loaf of bread that week and make a whole stack of sandwiches, bagged them, and put them in the freezer. Every day after that, I simply grabbed one out of the freezer, tossed it in his lunch box, and it was thawed and ready to eat by lunch! Perfect!
This works equally well with meat and cheese and PB&J sandwiches. Just don’t add veggies to sandwiches that are going to be frozen (they’ll get slimy). If you want lettuce or tomato, just put those in a separate bag and keep it in the fridge instead.
TIP #3: Buy a lunchbox with divided sections.
A few years ago, I found these Bentgo Fresh boxes on clearance at my local grocery store for seven dollars! I have no idea why they were so cheap, but sometimes you don’t ask. You just thank your lucky stars and hurry through the check-out before someone can tell you it was a mistake.
These boxes are AWESOME! They have three built-in divided sections (plus a removable divider to make four sections if desired), they’re leak-proof, and they’re super sturdy. Ours look just as good today as when we first bought them. And if we ever do lose one, I’ll totally pay full price to replace it. They’re worth the investment.
My 4-year-old has the smaller Bentgo Kids box that’s designed for younger kids, and it’s great, too! It has more, smaller compartments and is perfect for preschoolers.
If you’re on the fence between the two, though, I’d get the bigger Bentgo Fresh box simply because it’s a little more versatile. Older kids may find they can’t fit enough food in the Bentgo Kids box to fill them up, but the Bentgo Fresh box will last for many years to come.
If Bentgo boxes just don’t fit your budget right now, try one of these bento-style lunch boxes. They aren’t as heavy duty as the Bentgo box, but you can buy a bunch, prep a week’s worth of lunches in them, and then just grab-and-go each morning.
TIP #4: Use silicone muffin cups to create additional dividers.
If you find you need MORE dividers for your lunch of choice, try using silicone muffin cups to corral your food. I’ve had a set of 24 for years, and they get used all the time for various reasons. We use them for packed lunches, sensory bins, science experiments, pretend play…and occasionally even for baking muffins.
Want more back-to-school ideas? Check out these posts!