How to Pack a Healthy School Lunch

Our school offers the option of buying lunch in the cafeteria or packing your own. At first glance, buying from the school seems like a good option. It's only $2.

If you buy the school's lunch, then - as parents- there's really no work or thought involved. Easy. Case closed, right?

Well, no. Our school has 151 school days each year - so buying lunch every day would cost $302. I'm fairly certain that most of my packed lunches will slide in just under $2 (some a little less, some a little more.) If you factor in my time, then the school lunch program becomes a steal. But since I work for free, that's really a moot point.

In the long run, I think we'll save a lot by packing our own lunches. Here's why.

1) The school allots 30 minutes for lunch. After waiting in line for most of that time, children that buy the school lunch learn to scarf their lunch in less than 5 minutes or risk not eating at all. This sets them up for a lifetime of eating too quickly (leading to all sorts of issues later....)
2) The school lunch items are mostly fried, processed meals. I don't want my children to develop a taste for daily chicken nuggets, french fries, pizzas, burgers, and cookies. It's not that we never eat these things, but not everyday.
3) Packing our own lunch allows me to see the amount and variety of foods my children eat each day so I can maximize the amount of nutrition they receive.
4) By packing our own lunches, we greatly reduce the chance of peanut exposure.

All that being said, how does someone pack a healthy lunch? It's easier than you think.

I try to include items that satisfy these 5 categories when I pack a lunch for my children:


Okay, sounds like a lot, but it's not. You need to remember that these categories are not mutually exclusive. For example; if I pack my son yogurt, it is a protein, a calcium source, and if I add fruit - a fruit/veg. It may also be his dessert. Often, the fruit I pack is his dessert. And he couldn't be happier.

In case you're wondering, I pack my son water 90% of the time. I pack him milk or a smoothie the other 10%.

I work from a long list of "acceptable options" when I pack lunches. For the most part, I take a look in our refrigerator and put together whatever we have. But I use this list for ideas/guidance. You can make things fresh each morning or use leftovers from last night's dinner. It's up to you!
I select a main entrée, a side item, and a dessert. I check to make sure I've covered the 5 needs above (protein, carb, calcium, fruit/veg, dessert) before I close the bag and that's it.

Here's the list I work from:

Main entrées

Meat Sandwiches (turkey, ham, roast beef, salami, or chicken) adds: cheese, shredded carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peppers
Alternatives: pinwheel wrap sandwich, insides on a skewer, insides served with crackers
Egg salad Sandwiches adds: celery, cucumber, spinach, lettuce, peppers
Tuna Fish Sandwiches adds: celery, cucumber, spinach, lettuce, peppers
Jelly sandwich adds: chopped almonds, walnuts, ground flax, bananas
Almond butter sandwich adds: bananas, jelly, sliced berries, ground flax
Pasta (spaghetti, fettucini alfredo, pesto/chicken, lasagna, manicotti....)
Soup (chicken, minestrone, beef stew, vegetable....)
Egg Rolls
Salads (lettuce based, tuna/chicken salad, pasta salad...)
Yogurt adds: granola, oatmeal, raisins, fruit, ground flaxseed, berries, cereal
Egg Sandwiches (egg+ham+bagel, egg+english muffin, egg+ croissant, scrambled egg+salsa+tortilla....)
Quesadillas adds: peppers, salsa, lettuce, chicken, beans
Pancakes, Waffles, French Toast adds: berries, breakfast meats, apple bits
Enchiladas, Burritos, Fajitas, Tacos adds: guacamole, lettuce, salsa, tomatoes, beans, peppers
Sloppy Joes, BBQ sandwiches, Burgers (of any kind)
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Pizza, Calzones, Mini-pizzas


Dried Apples, pears, pineapples, kiwi, cranberries, raisins, prunes
Mandarin Oranges
Oranges, Apples, Pears, Bananas, Grapes, Plums, Peaches, Kiwis
Cut up Watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew
Mixed cut fruit adds: coconut, almonds, raisins, walnuts
Sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds
Granola Bar, granola or muesli (oatmeal, coconut, raisins)
Banana Bread
1/2 a muffin - banana, blueberry, apple cinnamon
Jello squares, pudding, yogurt
Cookie or brownie
Trail Mix

Extra Veggies (most of my entrées contain veggies)

Sliced cucumbers
Carrot Spears (with our without hummus)
Cooked Veggies (mashed potatoes, steamed/roasted carrots, green beans, broccoli...)
Cut up Broccoli, cauliflower, celery, peppers
Ants on a log (celery + almond butter + raisins)

Extra Protein (most of my entrées contain proteins)

Boiled Egg
Cheese chunks or String Cheese
Meat and Cheese kabobs
Cottage Cheese
Chunks of cooked meat (chicken, ham, etc)
Beans (hummus, baked beans, refried beans, or add beans into entrées)

Fillers (in case you are coming up low in the carbohydrate category or your lunch is too low on calories)

Crackers + cheese or hummus
Chips + salsa and/or hummus and/or guacamole
Veggies with or without some sort of dip
Fruit with or without some sort of dip
Trail Mix
Rice and Veggies
Biscuit, Bread roll/croissant/slice, corn muffin

Hopefully this list will help you feel confident enough to pack healthy lunches for your kids.

*You'll notice an absence of peanut products in my list. My son is allergic to peanuts.Most of the items in our lunches are homemade and packaged in reusable containers but you can certainly take shortcuts to make it simpler.


Meagan said...

I can not tell you how much I loved this post. My daughter is allergic to peanuts and oats. This just gave me some great new ideas!

Jessica-MomForHim said...

This is an awesome list, even for ideas for SAHM's like me who are making lunches for homeschooled kids! Thanks! :-)

I have a question, though. If you send him soup, enchiladas, or lasagna, does he just eat it cold, or is he able to warm it up somehow? Or do you have something special to pack it in to keep it warm?

Angela said...

I pack the "hot stuff" in a thermos container. It's small and round and seals tight. I fill it with boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes while I make the rest of his lunch.

Then I put dump the water out and put the heated food in the container, close it up, and pop it in the lunch bag. The food isn't "piping hot" but nice and warm when it's lunch time.

rObrak said...

Wow so many list. Thank you! It helps a lot. Indeed, it's important to consider also the food's temperature. For soups, it's best to have it while hot. But don't worry. I have found a very amazing lunch container that you can use at times like this. You might like to try an insulated tiffin bag. It can retain the food's temperature either hot or cold. Moreover, it has 100% BPA free, eco-friendly and easy to stack and re-pack. ;-)

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Thank you for your comments! I appreciate all your tips, advice, and well wishes!


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