If you find yourself eating the kids’ leftovers for lunch or never stopping to eat a real meal, these super doable tips for how to meal-prep lunch are here to help. Use these ideas to feed yourself and to get ahead with making lunch for the kids.

quinoa salad and strawberry yogurt lunch prep

Meal Prep Lunch

Lunch can be the hardest meal of the day, as it can sneak up on us and so often we scramble for something to eat. So to help you get ahead with making healthy lunches for kids and to make it easier to feed yourself in the middle of the day, these lunch meal prep ideas are here to help.

I almost never do full “meal prep” on the weekends because I simply don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen cooking, but I am always looking for smart, efficient ways I can meal-prep in the slivers of time I do have. So you can plan to use these tips for lunches that are best as hot lunches or cold lunch ideas, but the goal is to make it easier for you to feed yourself and your kids when lunch rolls around.

To get some expert tips, we spoke with Talia Koren, founder of Workweek Lunch. Her site and meal-prepping program geared for people who want to eat well, save money, and use their time wisely when it comes to the midday meal. She’s a wealth of information about how to meal prep for lunch (and just meal prepping in general).

“I was sick of spending $12 a day on lunch,” Talia says. “I could totally make this at home for half of the price.” She started to batch-cook and it worked—she saved a ton of money. Plus, you can customize meal components exactly how you like when you make your food at home, whether for yourself or as toddler lunch ideas.

(You may also like my Kids Lunch Ideas, cold lunch ideas for kids, tips for Reducing Food Waste, Breakfast Meal Prep, and How to Store Strawberries.)

Sanity-Saving Kids’ Lunch Guide

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meal prepped lunches in containers on countertop

How to Meal-Prep Lunch Step-by-Step

This approach can feel like a lot of work, but if you keep a few simple tips from Talia in mind, it’s doable for anyone. (And I say this as someone who’s only ever hard-cooked eggs ahead for my lunches—the weeks when I’ve actually made a real meal ahead have been so enjoyable!)

To start, know that you don’t need any fancy equipment. Just the basics you already have in your kitchen. From there, these tips will help. Pick one to try or use a few. You can always do as much or as little as you prefer.

1. Keep Things Simple

Think pasta, burrito bowls, sheet pan meals, sandwiches, snack lunches, cheese and crackers, and other super simple meals are an awesome way to start since they don’t always require a ton of cooking or ingredients.

You do NOT have to prep 7 meals at once (unless you really, really want to). Even just packing your midday meal one day of the week is a great place to start.

Or freezing simple sandwiches and cutting up a few portions of fruit at once is perfect, too.

2. Think of What You Usually Buy for Lunch

What do you like to get for takeout? You can totally make a burrito bowl or sandwich or soup at home, especially if you stock the pantry with the basics you need.

3. Do it for the Kids AND You

If you’re already packing lunches for the kids, take a few extra moments to pack one for yourself, too. We parents need to eat, too, and this way, you’re more likely to actually eat a real meal than just grabbing the leftover crusts while you wash the dishes.

4. Make Sure It’s Satisfying

Combining the basic food groups will help you stay satisfied until the next meal or snack, so aim to include them so there’s some protein and fat—but also include dessert, something crunchy, a seltzer…whatever you need to feel like the meal is checking all the boxes for your personal preferences.

5. Add a Sauce

Try adding salsa, tahini sauce, peanut sauce,, cucumber sauce, garnishes, mustard, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, guacamole, and other toppings to mix it up and add flavors to basics. These can be a great way to add flavor to meals you make for the kids but eat yourself, too. Buy or make these yourself, however it works best for you.

6. Pick Recipes That Store Well

Some recipes work better than others to make ahead. Anything that’s meant to be crispy won’t hold up (like baked chicken tenders—though maybe you don’t care!), or foods like some Asian noodles (like soba) can stick together when stashed in the fridge). And salads are great but hold better with the dressing on the side.

7. Prep in Small Batches

Whether making food for yourself or the kids, try not to make a giant volume of any one thing unless A.) you know everyone loves it or B.) it works as a freezer meal. Most of us won’t want to eat the same thing day after day, so simply acknowledge that and cook accordingly.

8. Make Good Use of the Freezer

You can make a big batch of beloved chili, soups, stews, muffins, pizza rolls, and more and stash them into the freezer for future weeks. You can also cook twice as much rice or quinoa each time you make them and freeze them for easy lunches in a future week.

cheese and crackers lunch in lunch box

Investing in glass containers is a great way to plan for years to come—they last forever! Glass also won’t absorb flavors or food stains and is super easy to clean. Ceramic is also a nice option, or durable plastic can work too. Some of my favorite meal prep containers include:

TIP: Find my favorite kids lunchboxes and Bento Boxes for the whole family.

Tips for Prepping Food to Share with Kids

I am always a fan of cooking the same food for the entire family, so here are some tips for making it palatable for everyone at the table.

  • Omit the salt if sharing with a baby (and salt your own portion).
  • Make the meal less spicy and add hot sauce to your serving.
  • Include produce they like—or keep the pieces of less preferred produce larger so they are easy to pull out.
  • Deconstruct the recipes so they’re easier to eat by placing the foods next to each other instead of all mixed together.
  • Serve your portion over baby spinach or shredded romaine to turn it into a salad.
  • Add a simple side of fruit, applesauce, avocado, or a cheese stick to round out the kids meal.

TIP: Find my go-to 50 Recipes for Kids Lunches.

chicken meatball lunch box

Favorite Meal Prep Recipes

In addition to the recipes mentioned above, here are a few more of my favorite lunch recipes to make ahead for easy lunches for parents and kids.

Sweet Potato Chicken Bowls (Easy Meal Prep)
You can meal prep this recipe to have ready for future lunches or dinners to share with the kids or you can make it as a family dinner. Add flavor to your bowl with the optional ingredients.
Sweet Potato Chicken Bowls (Easy Meal Prep)
Mini Egg Muffins with Cheese and Veggies
These tender Egg Muffins are packed with protein and vitamins—and can be made ahead of time! Add any veggie you like, whether carrots, butternut squash, broccoli, or spinach.
Mini Egg Muffins with Cheese and Veggies
Favorite Pizza Rolls (with Veggies)
This Pizza Rolls recipe is packed with nutrition—and even greens!—but the cheese, and silly spiral shape makes them much more appeal to toddlers and big kids. Be sure to grease your pan well and roll the dough up fairly tightly around the fillings for best results. (But it's okay if they don't look perfect when they go into the pan!) 
Favorite Pizza Rolls (with Veggies)
Homemade Hummus (Without Tahini)
With just 5 minutes and basic pantry ingredients, you can make the yummiest Homemade Hummus without tahini. This means that it's nut-free, so it's an option for school and allergy families, and it's just perfect for dunking crackers or spreading on bread.
Homemade Hummus (Without Tahini)
hummus without tahini on plate with dippers.
Easy Baked Zucchini Fritters
We bake these Zucchini Fritters since they are easier to cook and easier to clean up. If you have a lot of zucchini, you can double the recipe to make a full muffin tin's worth!
Easy Baked Zucchini Fritters
healthy zucchini fritters
Easy Pesto Pasta Salad Recipe
This is an easy family dinner or lunch. I like to use Spinach Pesto for this, but any will work if you prefer to buy it pre-made from the store.
Easy Pesto Pasta Salad Recipe
Pasta Salad with Chicken
This simple Pasta Salad with Chicken works well anytime of the year, but the flavors are particularly great in summer. Try it for dinner, a potluck, or to meal-prep lunch.
Pasta Salad with Chicken
pasta salad with chicken in bowls.
Easy Mediterranean Quinoa Salad
Mix up this grain salad to have lunches prepped for the week for yourself, or to have a dinner side or vegetarian main dish to share with the family.
Easy Mediterranean Quinoa Salad
mediterranean quinoa salad on two plates
Easy Veggie Muffins
Serve up veggies in a kid-friendly form with these SO-good Veggie Muffins. They have broccoli, carrots, protein, and kid-approved flavor!
Easy Veggie Muffins
veggie muffins on gray towel
Favorite Yogurt Muffins
This is an epic of a basic muffin recipe that you can then add flavor to in all sorts of ways—from fruit to veggies to chocolate chips. The batter is packed with protein too, so the muffins are great for breakfast or snack. (The allergy-friendly substitutions are listed in the Notes section at the bottom.)
Favorite Yogurt Muffins
4-Ingredient Baked Chicken Meatballs
With just four simple and affordable ingredients, you can make tender Baked Chicken Meatballs to share with the kids. Bonus: You can tuck a veggie into the mix, and they are perfect to batch-cook and stash in the freezer!
4-Ingredient Baked Chicken Meatballs
baked chicken meatballs on cookie sheet.
Easy Pinwheel Sandwiches
Change up the usual sandwich lunch for these easy and fun pinwheel sandwiches. With easy options for the filling to please a variety of eaters, this is a great kids lunch for home or at school. (And yummy for adults, too!)
Easy Pinwheel Sandwiches
Pinwheel sandwiches in lunch box and on plate with sides.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the proper way to meal prep?

Spoiler alert: There isn’t one proper way to meal prep. You can do it however works for you. You can meal prep vegetables, you can prep full meals, you can prep anything that helps your life be a little easier when things are busy.

How long do meal preps last in the fridge?

Meal preps can usually store in the fridge for 3-5 days in an airtight container. You’ll want to add salad greens that might wilt in dressing right before serving and chop any produce that will brown when cut soon before packing if possible.

What do meal prep lunches do?

Meal prep lunches allow you to get ready for a meal whenever you have the time, then be able to feed yourself (or the kids) when you are in a busy stretch and need a fast meal. It’s a great way to cut down on fast food costs and to have food ready when you are.

Best Tips for Success

  • Pack lunch for yourself while you make lunch for the kids.
  • Include a mix of food groups, as well as a drink and dessert, to make the meal satisfying.
  • Keep it simple and don’t feel like you have to prep all of the food for the week. Even one meal can help.
  • Staples like hard boiled eggs, chickpeas, store bought chicken salad, hummus, cooked chicken breast or sausage, black beans, baked tofu, whole grain crackers, and cheese can form a satisfying base to start a lunch. Buy any precooked options at the grocery store to help ease your load.
  • Start with a base of rice or quinoa, then layer on food groups in a range of textures to make meal prep bowls for yourself or the kids.
  • Pack hot lunches in a thermos if there’s not a microwave available for reheating.
  • Pick easy meal prep ideas on Sunday so you know the plan for the week. Even just one may help a lot.
  • Hummus bowls with tomatoes, corn, chickpeas, feta cheese, shredded lettuce, and pita chips is a delicious lunch.

Please comment below with any comments or questions!

This post was first published January 2020.

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