Back to School Lunch Ideas

I can’t believe how quickly this summer has gone by. The first day of school is just a few days away. Uniforms…check, books and supplies…check. Last thing to do is to come up with fresh and new ideas for back to school lunches. This has always been kind of frustrating for me because I have everything from the picky eater, to the vegetarian and everything else in between.

kids eating lunch prepared in bento boxes

I remember giving my mom hell about eating my lunch when I was in elementary school. Actually, I didn’t eat much of anything for breakfast, lunch or dinner and that used to drive her crazy. I was so thin, too thin (those were the days)! I don’t know what was worse, whether it was eating the cold-cardboard-tasting school lunch or the smelly tuna sandwiches that I dreaded finding in my lunchbox. It was pretty bad. We can make it so much better for our kids now…

I have kids of my own to pack lunch for, I find myself saying the same thing I used to say about my first part time job, “I don’t want to!” I struggle coming up with ideas that will keep a balance between packing something healthy and packing something I know they’ll love (and actually eat). I don’t know about you but, for my kids those two things in the same sentence are hard to come by. My challenge with that is, what they want to eat is sometimes not lunchbox friendly or very balanced. If my my youngest, Nicholas, had it his way, he’d pack potato chips and chocolate everyday.

The best way to avoid the school lunch stress

Make a list! Use the one I’m sharing here or modify it to fit your kids needs if you need to but have a list. This is what I did to avoid driving myself crazy about school lunches this year. I started with a list of foods that are lunchbox friendly. That means all the “main meals” had to be easy to make, somewhat balanced and most importantly the kids will enjoy. After all, if they don’t eat it, we spent all that time and money for nothing. I’m going to keep several copies of the list and scratch off combinations as I use them. This will keep the kids from getting bored. Once I’ve used them all, I’ll just start over.

I made this list with foods I know my kids enjoy eating. Everything on the list will keep well in the lunchbox and doesn’t have to be warmed up. I also thought of ways to make the same old boring foods different and kind of fun to eat. Like deli meats and cheese for example. Instead of making sandwiches, putting them on a skewer or making pinwheels makes it different and fun to eat.

My 5 year old loves Nutella and strawberries. I thought, why not make skewers of mini waffles with Nutella and strawberries. When I gave it to him for the first time, he loved it. He’s asked me to make it again several times since. He is really looking forward to having that for lunch when he starts school. Since I have quite the different palettes to please, the list has a healthy variety. I’m hoping your kids will like all or most of the yummy lunchbox menu. I have tested all of them with my kids and they think the combinations are pretty darn good. They’ve given me the thumbs up!

How to make the best list for your family

Keep in mind the ages of the kids. My kids are between 5 and 16 years old. They all have different tastes and are particular about different things with their food. Keeping that in mind is key to making sure list will get the thumbs up from your kids. To make the list easier to read and be able to make as many combinations as possible, I divided the list in three columns to include “Main Meals”, Fruits & Veggies” and “Snack & Treats”.

The only thing left to add to the lunchbox will be a drink. I keep it simple and stick to the organic Horizons individual milk cartons and organic juice boxes. My high schooler usually takes water or iced tea in a drink container that keeps cold all day and she can refill if needed. My cheerleader takes water and and a Gatorade for cheer leading practice.

Bento box lunch with deli meat and lettuce pinwheels on a skewer and cubed cheese, deli meat pinwheels and mini waffles with nutella and strawberries plus fresh veggies, fruits and snacks
Deli sliced ham and lettuce pinwheels on a skewer, Sliced turkey and cubed cheese skewer, mini waffles with nutella and strawberries, deli sliced turkey and lettuce pinwheels on a skewer

For my Kindergartner

The most difficult one in my house is my toddler. He’s still exploring different foods so my options are limited with him. It’s a work in progress that takes a lot of patience and sometimes a little bribery (the promise of getting a toy at Target usually does the trick 😉 ). Right now though, there is little variation from his three favorite food groups including chicken nuggets, mac and cheese and pizza.

Mac and cheese didn’t make it on the list because even though they only take a few minutes in the microwave and they go straight in the thermos, by the time he has lunch they’re not as warm as he likes and they get a bit mushy. Most times I gave him this for lunch last year, at least half came back uneaten. He doesn’t mind eating the same thing a couple times a week as long as it’s something he really likes it. Chicken nuggets keep well in the thermos and I found a way to make pizza, muffin style which works really well.

lunchbox with chicken nugget, mini oreos, doritos
Chicken nuggets, chips and mini oreos

For the middle schoolers

I have found that these school years are tough for them in so many ways. One thing I notice is they tend to be more selective on what they take for lunch. It’s not because they don’t like other things but because other kids tend to criticize or make fun of everything. I keep several specifics in mind for their lunches to avoid this. First and most important for them is that the food doesn’t smell like a tuna sandwich for example. Next thing is, I’ve been told a thermos is NOT cool. That actually keeps within my original guideline of sticking to foods that don’t need to be kept warm or microwaved at lunchtime. Lastly, whatever I pack has to be something they can eat quickly since their lunch time is only 25 minutes.

Italian pasta salad, egg salad pita, tortellini with tomatoes and parmesan cheese, spiral pasta with grilled chicken and parmesan cheese, fresh fruits, veggies and snacks
Italian pasta salad, egg salad pita, tortellini with tomatoes and parmesan cheese, spiral pasta with grilled chicken and parmesan cheese

For the high schooler

On the rare days when my oldest asks me to pack a lunch, I need to be prepared on the spot. She always tells me the morning of and if I’m not prepared it could ruin everyone’s morning. For her, I keep it as simple as possible. She likes deli ham and cheese and I always have that on hand. This year I’ll be making skewers not sandwiches. These are easier to eat and healthier since there’s no bread involved.

She also likes salad. I recently bought a container that is specifically for to-go salads. It also comes with a smaller air-tight container that fits within it for the dressing. This avoids any spills inside the lunchbox and also keeps the salad from getting soggy since she can just pour the dressing when she’s ready to eat. See the pic below for an example on how you can prepare one of these.

Something you may not see in a school lunch box very often, egg salad, made it on the list. Two of my girls love hard boiled eggs and deviled eggs, neither of which they like to take to school. My creamy egg salad was the best way to combine those two. Putting the salad in a pita with butter lettuce and tomato slices sealed the deal for easy to eat, health and delicious.

List of school lunch ideas

Jennifer Lopez

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