Simplifying School Lunches

Lunchbox, simplifying school lunches
Image by Dimuth Amarasiri from Pixabay

It’s that time again. The daily push to assemble, send out, and then clean out your child’s lunchbox. If this feel like an onerous task, perhaps is one you are dreading, here are a few tips for simplifying school lunches.

Select A Carrying Container

Everybody has to carry their lunch along in some sort of container. Selecting one might be a fun process for children who have an affinity for a special character or design. Other children won’t care at all, so this is one of those “know what is important to your child” moments. Many bags today are insulated, which is very helpful if you are sending items that you would like to remain cold. They are also easy to clean.

When selecting a lunchbox, keep the big picture in mind. Does your child also carry a backpack? Would he/she like something that tucks inside the backpack, or would the child rather have it clip onto the outside? Some manufacturers offer backpacks with a built-in lunch box, like this one from Bentgo.

Older children may want something that looks more like a purse or tote than a lunchbox. They might also need one that is a bit bigger, especially if they are packing food for a longer day (e.g, breakfast, lunch, after school snacks, etc.). There are many options such as this one from YiQ RiC.

Of course, there are many children who prefer a simple brown bag that can be tossed into the recycle bin once they are finished.

One more note: it is always a good idea to make sure the lunch box/bag is labeled. This can be accomplished with something as simple a sharpie, or as fancy as custom label stickers. A great source for these is Mabel’s Labels.

Establish a “Home” For Lunchboxes

Whichever bags you choose, now is a good time to decide where they will live in your home. Because these objects get moved around, it is helpful to think through where they should be placed at each stage of the process.

  • In the morning, once they are packed and ready to go, lunch bags should be placed in your child’s staging area.
  • When children come home, lunchboxes should be “reset.” This includes throwing away trash, wiping out the bag (an anti-bacterial wipe works well), and placing dirty containers near the sink for cleaning. Getting the bags out and dealt with right away avoids rotting food and/or lunch remnants from attracting bugs. Cleaning out the lunchbox can be done by even young children, and it is a good habit for children to form. At the same time, if your child has a habit of not eating his/her lunch, you may want to supervise so that you can be aware of what has (or has not) been consumed.
  • Once the bag has been wiped out, it will need a place to rest until it is packed for the next day. This can be a handy moment to put in a fresh napkin, as well as any non-perishable food items that will be wanted for the next day.
  • Lastly, on weekends, emptied lunchboxes should be placed in a longer-term storage area. Since they are relatively large items for kitchen cabinets, you might need to get creative. They can be hung on hooks, tucked in closets, placed in cubbies, dropped into bins or baskets, or put just about anywhere that you can reliably find them when the next week rolls around.
Plan Food

Once you have selected lunch containers, and have decided where the containers will be stored, it is time to think about what to pack inside. I am keenly aware that children have very specific tastes, so the first thing I want to say is pack food that your children will eat. I remember that one of my daughters would only eat a peanut butter sandwich (which is no longer allowed in most schools), or a bagel with cream cheese. Of course, on any given day, food may or may not get eaten. The World Wildlife Fund estimates food waste alone in U.S. schools is nearing 530,000 tons annually, and food that isn’t eaten doesn’t help anybody.

Knowing what your child will actually eat may take a bit of trial and error. The internet is literally flooded with ideas for what to pack in school lunches. If you enjoy the process, and/or you have a picky eater, you might want to look for some inspiration. I suggest parents talk with children in a non-emotional moment about what they would like to have for lunch and come up with some ideas that are mutually acceptable. Revisit this conversation a couple of weeks into school in case they have seen some new ideas they would like to try.

If food continues to go uneaten, there may be other factors interfering with eating, such as a short lunch period or social pressure. Avoid nagging or criticizing as you work toward solutions. Additionally, don’t succumb to pressure to make lunches look a certain way; cutting sandwiches into the shape of animals may be a hobby for some, but it isn’t necessary to be a good parent. At the end of the day, the goal is to give your child fuel for the day, period.

Bear in mind that your child may also wish to buy lunch some days. Having a calendar with upcoming selections in an easy-to-see location is a good idea. Once a week, perhaps at the family meeting, ask your children to decide which days they will buy vs. bring a lunch. It is also a good idea to discuss in advance any family policy regarding the purchase of food items at school. Deciding in advance makes grocery shopping easier and helps minimize last minute scrambling and arguments.

Select Containers For Inside the Lunchbox

Once you have some ideas on what you will send, you can select containers to hold the various items.

Some foods come in single-use containers, such as fruit cups, yogurt pouches, and juice boxes. Others may be packed fresh each day. If you want to be environmentally friendly, there are many re-usable containers for lunch products on the market, such as these snack bags, these sandwich bags, and these bento boxes. Small plastic containers with lids also work well for sauces, condiments, hummus, etc.

Remember to include a drink, such as a juice box and/or a water bottle.

If you want to keep the contents of the lunchbox cool, there are a couple of choices:

If your child prefers a hot lunch, such as pasta or soup, consider a thermos. I often sent one of my daughters leftovers from the previous night’s dinner in one with a built-in folding spoon. I would fill it with boiling water, then simply heat the food and drop it in. This was honestly a quick and easy lunch option.

As with the lunchboxes themselves, remember to label all elements that you want to get back!

Simplify Meal Preparation

Preparing and packing lunches can take time. Unfortunately, on busy mornings, time is often in short supply. To ease this burden, do what you can to make the process as easy as possible:

  • Put “grab and go” items into bins. (e.g., granola bars, squeeze applesauce, etc.)
  • Pre-cut fruit and veggies, portion out snacks on the weekend, and put them in a designated “for lunch” location.
  • Use fridge bins to hold like items such as yogurt and cheese sticks.
  • Pack what you can the night before (e.g., insert a napkin, add shelf-stable items, fill the water bottle and put it in the fridge, write a note, etc.)
  • Assign packing tasks to children who are old enough.

*     *     *

As with most tasks, mindfully designing a system will make the whole year a bit easier. Tweak as you go along, with the goal of making both parent and child content.

Do you pack school lunches? Did you in the past? What worked well for you?

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18 thoughts on “Simplifying School Lunches”

  1. We are past packing school lunches as our kiddos are adults now. However, I have fond memories of those days. At a point, I made and packed lunches. However, fairly early on, our daughters wanted to be active participants. They chose what they wanted to eat, prepared their food (usually the night before), and packed their lunchboxes in the morning. In Middle School, we gave them a monthly allowance for eating out. It was up to them to budget how they wanted to use the money, which was good for about four meals per month. The other days they brought lunch. Our older daughter always used the amount we gave her, and our younger daughter typically had some leftover which she saved.

    I love all the options for lunch boxes, bags, and reusable containers. Most days, my husband packs his lunch and snacks. He’s got a whole system going. As long as I do the grocery shopping, he’s good with making his food for the workday.

    1. Before my husband returned to traveling, and because he couldn’t easily pick up lunch during COVID, he got into packing his lunch. It was quite a production, and he did it with gusto. At first, I was tempted to pack it for him, but a friend encouraged me not to set that precedent. I’m glad I didn’t, because he ended up developing a system of his own. He was quite capable LOL!

  2. It’s like a real love/hate thing for me. I love it and I hate it. The kids are old enough to pick out their own containers, and can even really pack their own, but they want me to do it! And school lunch is free in MA (just passed) but they don’t always want it! I struggle with having things all warm (thermos) or room temperature, or having things all cold with an ice pack. I find it doesn’t work if I try to mix and match the temperature foods!
    Tamara recently posted…The Boys of Summer Have GoneMy Profile

    1. Yes, that’s a very good point. Mixing the hot and cold is rough. When I sent the thermos, that was all she would take… no lunchbox or other things. It was easy and cleared out my leftovers. The other daughter never wanted that, though. She tended to buy lunch more often. I sort of cringe to think what she was buying, but she was old enough to make that choice, so I didn’t ask. She’s alive and well now, so whatever she chose must have been ok.

  3. I love this deep dive into lunch. A lunch assembly station is easy to create in your pantry. Use bins for bars, fruit cups, and other kiddo lunch items. Assemble as much the night before too!

    1. I am picturing large families where it literally looks like an assembly line. I was on a mission trip once where we had a large group. All the lunch items were put out by category, and each of us was to come along and assemble our own lunch for the day, and then write our name on the bag. It was a really good system because everyone got exactly what they wanted. Works for families too!

  4. You had me chuckling when you said that cutting sandwiches into animal shapes is not necessary to be a good parent! I packed lunches when we lived in Singapore. With it being so hot, I always put in frozen water and juice boxes. Both my boys were picky about what they had for lunch. I also love what you said about talking about lunch during a non-emotional moment. Great advice! You give so many wonderful options and tips for parents out there who are now packing lunch.

    1. I had a picky eater and I often got discouraged to see what came home. It was a journey to figure out what we could agree on. Life in Singapore – wow! What a terrific experience. I’m sure their lunches were full of great ideas over there!

  5. These are excellent parent-friendly AND kid-friendly tips. I was a super-picky eater, and my mom kept sending me to school with a well-balanced meal and I kept giving the fruit to the lunch lady…but at least it didn’t go to the landfill. People are so much more creative with lunches than when I was a kid, and kids have more sources of inspiration now. Your kids might not be able to think of what they might like, but a quick trip around Pinterest or the lunchbox-esque areas of the internet might yield some fun options.

    I’d add two small tips. 1) Food items wrapped in foil stay colder than items in plastic baggies (as long as you don’t place the foil-wrapped item directly in sunlight). 2) My mom always added a note to my lunch, even long after she’d stopped packing my lunch and I was doing it on my own. It’s a great way to help center kids on rough days to know that Mom or Dad is connecting with them. Schooldays can be stressful, and just a few words, maybe a cartoon, and you’ve made your kids feel nurtured emotionally as well as nutritionally.
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Organize to Prevent (or Recover From) a Car TheftMy Profile

    1. Wonderful additions, Julie! I always put a note in the lunchbox, but not when they were packing their own. Nice to realize it’s an option no matter the age!

  6. These are really great suggestions Seana. When I was a kid I always wanted to stay for lunch at school but mostly I had to go home for lunch at least until high school.
    We had a grandson living with use for two years and at first I was making him lunch in the morning but eventually he started to make his own lunch and I found out he liked the same sandwiches everyday. He also had a basket full of snacks he could pick out.

    1. Such a great point about the same lunch every day. A lot of people love this, children and adults. That’s why it is so important to talk with your child about what they want, and keep revisiting the conversation every now and then!

  7. I like all your ideas and how you separated them by order from picking your box, to the lunch bag, the food and eating cafeteria food.
    I found that taking the kids to the store before school starts will give them more options on what they would like to eat/snack on during the day.
    Thanks for sharing.

  8. Reading this article on simplifying school lunches has opened my eyes to the importance of organization and planning in making this daily task easier. From selecting the right lunch container to establishing a ‘home’ for lunchboxes and planning food wisely, these tips offer practical solutions to streamline the process. Let’s aim for a stress-free lunchtime routine that benefits parents and children!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Amelia Hansen recently posted…Summer Travel Organizing TipsMy Profile

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