Coming up with and packing school lunches can be a challenge for seasoned and new parents, but this guide will cover ALL of the most common challenges— lunch ideas, gear recommendations, peanut-free snacks, kindergarten tips, packable recipes, and answers to FAQs. Yes!
School Lunch Ideas
Whether it’s the start of the school year or a random Tuesday in the middle, packing school lunches for the kids can be daunting—no matter if it’s your first year with a kiddo in kindergarten or later down the road.
It can be hard to come up with healthy foods they actually will eat, and then there’s the challenge of packing food that will taste good hours later.
Factor in food allergies, picky eating, short lunch periods, and not wanting to waste food and sheesh, it can be downright overwhelming.
The good news? I have SO many tips for you to take the stress off your shoulders with this collection of kid-friendly lunch ideas for school.
Sanity-Saving Kids’ Lunch Guide
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I also want to say that going with the lunch the school offers, even if it’s just sometimes, can be a really great way to both streamline your routine (no packing needed!) and expand the foods the kids are regularly eating. We started with 2 days a week with meals my daughter knew she’d like (such as pizza) and then as she saw more meals during lunch, she became more confident to try them.
School lunch now offers her the chance to try dishes I don’t regularly make at home, which is also true of day care food. (My middle kiddo learned that she loves lasagna and summer squash at day care.) If you have any questions about school or day care food, reach out to the food services director.
School Lunch Ideas for Kindergarten
If you have a kiddo starting kindergarten this year, yay! But also, welcome to the world of school lunch. My best tip for packing lunches for kindergarten include:
- Keep the foods simple. They are navigating a LOT of new, so their food should be easy to eat and familiar.
- Talk to them when they bring their lunch box home to gather any feedback so you can make adjustments. (Lunch periods are short—they may not have time to chew all of those cute baby veggies you packed! I say that in all seriousness. My oldest repeatedly tells me not to pack baby carrots because they take too long to chew. Sigh.)
- Practice packing and having them eat lunches on the weekend before school starts if you have concerns about them doing it on their own.
- Make a physical list of foods they like to eat for lunch and stick it to the fridge so you can avoid reinventing the wheel every day.
- If your child has a food allergy, be sure to discuss the lunchroom setup with their teacher. If they’ll be eating at a special table, make sure they will always have at least one friend with them so they don’t feel left out.
TIP: Check out my 50 Kindergarten Lunch Ideas for lots of easy meal ideas to pack.
School Lunch Ideas for “Picky” Eaters
Despite the social media pressure to pack perfect, rainbow-hued lunches, one of the best things you can do for “picky” eaters is to keep their lunches simple. Pack an assortment of foods, including something from most of the food groups, and try to avoid packing foods they’ve never seen before.
Aim to pack at least 2 foods you know they like to ensure they have something to eat. Consider packing all foods you know they enjoy and save exposures to other foods for home—and remember they’ll see other kids eating other foods, which counts as exposures, too!
How to Pack School Lunches Step-by-Step
Here’s a cheat sheet on packing an easy lunch for kids.
- Make a list of the foods they like to eat for lunch and physically hang it in the kitchen where it’s easy for everyone to see.
- Choose foods from each (or most) of the food groups most days for a balanced lunch that will help them stay full until the next eating time.
- Include a mix of protein (lunch meat, nut/seed butter, meat, beans, tofu), complex carbohydrates (bread, crackers, pasta), produce, dairy (yogurt, milk, cheese), and healthy fats (coconut, avocado, nut/seed butters) as you can.
- Aim to include 1-2 items of produce every day.
- Make sure to pack a drink if needed, or remind the child to get milk at school.
- Know your school’s rules about peanuts and follow them!
TIP: It can be helpful to have a few veggies for lunch that you reserve for school only such as baby bell peppers, mini cucumbers, baby carrots, or whatever your child prefers.
How much food do I need to pack?
That is often such a tricky question to figure out, but I love this post from Real Mom Nutrition on the subject. And remember to adjust if your child says they are hungry or need more food, and to talk to them about whether or not they have enough time to eat the food you send.
Lunch periods are short so some kids may have a hard time finishing food that needs to be chewed a lot, such as baby carrots and other raw veggies. Keep an open dialogue with your child to troubleshoot any issues.
Best Lunch Gear for Kids
I’ve tried out a LOT of lunch boxes, bags, thermoses, and more—and I’ve narrowed down the best ones for durability, ease of use, smart design, and ease of cleaning. You’ll find options that are stainless steel, BPA-free plastic, and bento box style.
- Best lunch boxes for kids
- Best lunch bags for kids
- Best kids thermos
- Favorite bento boxes
- Favorite thin ice packs
Best Nut-Free Alternatives to Peanut Butter
Since most schools and day cares don’t allow peanut butter (though some still do), there are a few alternatives to consider for simple sandwiches and rollups.
- Granola Butter (it sounds odd, but it’s SO delish!)
- Sunflower seed butter
- Almond butter (works for a peanut-free school, not if all tree nuts are excluded)
- Tahini (works well if mixed with honey or maple syrup to balance the slight bitterness)
TIP: I recommend you try these at home before you send them in a lunch box to make sure the kids like them.
Nut-Free Snack Ideas for Lunch Boxes
These Peanut-Free School Snacks are great options should you be looking for simple, nut-safe snacks to add to a kid’s lunch. For more of my favorite store-bought options, these Healthy Snacks for Kids are available, too.
Easy School Lunch Recipes
I put together my go-to recipes for lunch so we can always reference them quickly and easily. These recipes for school lunches are easy to make ahead and pack (both chilled or warmed in a thermos).
- 50 Healthy Kids Lunch Recipes
- Bento Box Ideas
- No-Cook School Lunches
- Cold Lunch Ideas (That Work at Room Temperature)
- Hot Lunch Ideas
- Wraps for Kids
Top Ten School Lunch Ideas
To give you a specific place to start with what to pack, here are my top ten kids lunch ideas.
This post was first published August 2019.