Packing school lunches can be a pain sometimes, but I think it’s worth the effort…and, call me weird, but I think it can actually be fun to get creative and see what kind of food and color combinations I can come up with! For the record: I am NOT a crafty mom–much to my daughter’s annoyance–but I feel like THIS is where I can balance things out a bit. 😉
I decided to put together a list of all of my personal favorite lunches that I’ve packed for my kids over the past couple of years. If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you will probably recognize most of these lunches, but sometimes seeing them again can be helpful to provide reminders and new inspiration! (I know it helped remind ME of a few ideas I had forgotten all about!)
Also, we all know what fruits and veggies our kids will eat and enjoy, so I tend to use them over and over again. I feel like I can ask them to try new foods at dinner time…but it’s probably not going to work so well if I send something new in their lunchbox! So, I don’t even bother anymore…because I know it’s just going to come home uneaten and get wasted. And I hate to see food go to waste!
I have twenty lunchbox picture ideas I’m sharing below, but I’ll break them down into five general categories. Feel free to ask me questions on anything you see or are uncertain about!
- Greek yogurt or cottage cheese. This is a “dairy as the protein” option. You can mix maple syrup into the yogurt, cinnamon, and/or you can add fruit. We like to put frozen fruit into the cup first and then add yogurt on top. My kids also like to mix homemade granola into their yogurt (which doesn’t get mixed in until lunchtime so it stays crunchy). If you go the yogurt or cottage cheese route, just make sure to send a spoon along!
- Meat as the ‘star’ of the lunch. You can pack cold shredded chicken (dipped in mustard) or deli meat slices (I buy Simple Truth brand from Kroger). Sometimes I just lay the slices in the slot…other times I get “fancy” and roll them up to make ‘roll-ups.’ And sometimes I even ask for the meat to be sliced THICK and I dice that up into smaller pieces. Many times I add cheese for a good source of fat to pair with the protein. You can also even send a cold chicken leg if your kids are into that! (My daughter would be thrilled if I packed that for her.)
- Crackers can get a little iffy when it comes to being “real food” approved. I don’t strive for perfection…especially when it comes to maintaining my sanity as a mom of young kids. However, sometimes crackers ‘get the job done’ and provide a change of pace. I try to either get whole grain crackers or at least organic. They may be processed, but I at least feel good knowing there is nothing artificial and that the ingredient list is a little better than conventional. You can do cheese and crackers, peanut butter and crackers…or they can stand alone and just be a ‘snack’ to go along with the rest of the lunch.
- Bread…it’s not just for sandwiches! Of course, the sandwich is always a popular lunchbox staple (peanut butter & jam, turkey and cheese, cold grilled cheese, BLT, chicken salad, tuna salad, etc.)…but there are so many other options, too. Quick breads are another great choice: pumpkin bread, zucchini bread, cinnamon bread, etc. You can either serve those plain or spread a little cream cheese or butter in between the layers. Another idea is take whole wheat pita pockets and make little pizza pockets (as shown below). That’s always a big hit for my kids.
- And now for my random assortment of ideas… Pancakes or waffles served cold with either peanut butter or regular butter in between. Tortilla roll-ups with deli meat/cheese/mustard inside…or crunchy peanut butter…or creamy peanut butter with sunflower seeds. Muffins are another easy idea. (And what’s great about muffins is that you can make them ahead of time and store them in the freezer!) Also, popcorn is always a hit in our house! I tend to make sure whatever I pack with it is pretty calorie/nutrient dense to make up for the lack of it in the popcorn. (What I have pictured with the popcorn in the lunch below is sausage stuffed mushrooms…and, yes, my daughter ate those cold last year.)
When I pack their lunches, I always try to make sure I’m covering my basic nutrients. Do I have a protein? Good carbs? Healthy fats? Did I pack a fruit AND a veggie? While I don’t always hit every food group every single day (mostly due to the lack of food variety in our house at that moment OR due to the certain dislikes of the individual child I’m packing for), I try to get as close as possible each day.
You also need to keep in mind that many foods can cover two nutrient groups. Example: beans are a good source of carbs and protein, peanut butter is good for healthy fat and some protein, cheese contains fat and protein, etc, etc. So don’t get too hung up on the nutrient aspect! Hopefully, over the course of a week, they’ll get a good mix of all food groups.
Ideas for each group:
Protein: hard boiled egg, sandwich with meat or peanut butter, cottage cheese, tuna salad, black beans, deli meat roll-ups, Greek yogurt, cold shredded chicken, etc.
Carbs: beans, refried beans spread on a tortilla, granola, cold pasta, whole wheat sandwich bread, whole wheat tortillas, whole grain cereal, etc.
Fat: cheese, nuts, nut butters, guacamole, hummus, etc.
Fruits: apple slices (Honeycrisp don’t brown as quickly), all kinds of berries, half a banana, grapes, cantaloupe, pomegranate arils, orange slices, cherries, etc.
Veggies: carrots, celery, raw broccoli & cauliflower, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. If you want a dip idea besides ‘ranch dressing,’ try a little sour cream mixed with taco seasoning! My kids like that.
Of course, this is only a small sampling of food ideas you could use, but they’re the most common foods you can find in OUR house to pack school lunches! I hope they helped!
And if you’re wondering about the lunchboxes we use, we have three of the PlanetBox Rover lunchboxes and LOVE them! This is my daughter’s third year with both her original lunchbox AND carrying case! I think that says something about how durable they are and I think the initial “investment” is well worth it for the YEARS of use you will get out of them. (It even comes with a 5 year warranty!) And, bonus, since it’s made from stainless steel, there is no concern of plastic chemicals leaching into foods. Can you tell I’m a big fan?? I could go on and on about the benefits of these lunchboxes! I doubt we’ll ever use anything else. 🙂