Keep your child’s midday meal tasty, nutritious and fun with these smart strategies for packing school lunches. (Bonus: Our tips will save you time, money—and sanity.)
Use divided lunch boxes
These bento box-style lunch boxes help control portions and cut down on the use of ziplock bags. (A good thing, since the Sierra Club estimates that American families spend about $85 per year on plastic baggies.) The plastic containers pictured here are by Easy Lunchboxes (4 for $14). Need something smaller to send snacks to school?Lunchskins work well.
Build a no-fail sandwich
For a turkey-and-cheese that really holds up, start with sturdy whole-grain bread. Spread a thin layer of mustard or mayonnaise on each slice—the condiment acts as a barrier to keep meat, tomatoes and even lettuce from turning the bread soggy. Keep the layers as even as possible so the sandwich remains level. Lastly, cutting the sandwich on the diagonal helps hold its structure.
Pack drinks in a reusable container
Drinks packaged in paper boxes can be full of added sugars, so why not send kids to school with a healthy beverage in a reusable container? The innovative, BPA-free Drink in the Box ($12) is made of Tritan, a durable plastic that won’t get crushed in a backpack. Fill the 8-ounce container with fresh juice, milk or a nondairy milk alternative.
Pack frozen grapes as an edible ice pack
The night before you’re packing lunch, place washed grapes in a sealable plastic bag and pop the bag in the freezer. The next morning, place the baggie in your kids’ lunch box to help keep perishable foods cold. By the time lunchtime rolls around, the grapes will have thawed to a cool, fruity treat.
Use a cookie cutter to make lunchbox shapes
Brighten your scholar’s day by adding unexpected fun shapes to his lunchbox: Use a cookie cutter (or a paring knife) to carve a letter or shape into slices of deli meat or cheese, the wax shell of Mini Babybel cheese, and even vegetables, such as bell peppers. Here, we used a small letter “A” cookie cutter, and carved the plus sign out with a paring knife. Other great options? Your child’s initials, hearts, stars, animals…whatever cutters you have on hand will do the trick.
Decorate baggies with adorable funny faces
Want an easy way to put a smile on your kid’s face? Put a smile on her sandwich! Make a silly face with eye, nose and mouth stickers—they lend an instant expression to a wrapped sandwich or snack bag. Oriental Trading sells rolls of stickers—one roll entirely of eyes, and another of mouths and noses—for a mere $7 for 1,000 stickers.
Make your own versions of kid favorites
While this one doesn’t fall into the time-saving category, it does fit the bill for moms who prefer to limit preservatives and questionable-sounding ingredients in their kids’ lunches. Our recipe for homemade fruit leather only has 4 ingredients and cost just 26 cents per serving.
See recipe: Peach-Strawberry Fruit Leather
See step-by-step video: How to Make Peach-Strawberry Fruit Leather
Guard against crushed chips
Ever notice how a bag of chips, pretzels or cookies is full of (sometimes mostly) air? In industry-speak, it’s called slack fill, a move intended to keep the food from getting crushed. Take the same tack when packing delicate or crunchy items in a baggie: Before you seal the bag, fill it with a little air.
Prep as much as possible on Sundays
Before the week gets started, make a plan: Put together a rough lunch menu (it’s not a bad idea to plan out breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the week). Prep Monday’s lunches as much as possible the night before, and think about ways to get ahead: Slice fruit; cut enough carrots and celery for the week; and store veggies in the fridge in an airtight container filled with water.
Go wild with sides
It’s easy to fall into a crackers-and-baby-carrot rut when it comes to rounding out the lunchbox day after day. Keep things interesting by subbing in uncommon options, like hard-boiled eggs, clementines, air-popped popcorn, edamame, or even a whole-grain granola bar, which can double as dessert. Chloine, a nutrient in eggs, helps memory development (hard-boil a batch and refrigerate for up to a week). A single clementine more than fulfills the recommended daily requirement of vitamin C for children ages 4 to 8. Air-popped popcorn is high in fiber and antioxidants but low in calories, and one cup of edamame contains about 12 grams of protein.
The Anatomy of a Healthy Lunch Box
Try to channel these guidelines as you piece together the meal: You need five main components: a protein, a fruit, a veggie, milk and at least one serving of grains.
• Protein: Roughly 2 ounces. Think: 2 ounces lean deli meat (or cheese), 2 eggs, 24 almonds or 2 tablespoons nut butter.
• Fruit: ½ cup for grades K–8; 1 cup for grades 9–12. A 1-cup serving could be a large banana, 8 large strawberries or 32 grapes.
• Veggies: ¾ cup for grades K–8 (9 baby carrots); 1 cup for grades 9–12 (12 baby carrots, 10 broccoli florets, one large sweet potato or one large ear of corn).
• Milk: One cup. Consider low-fat or fat-free—regular or chocolate—or offer soy or almond milk instead.
• Grains: At least one serving, half of which must be rich in whole grains. (Suggestions: 2 slices of whole-grain bread or ¾ cup whole-wheat pasta.)
Think beyond the sandwich
Variety is the spice of life, right? Some days, a sandwich will be perfectly satsifying, but on others, your kids might crave something different. These pizza pies are actually mini bagel halves, topped with marinara and cheese. (Cool completely before packing.) You can apply the same idea to a cheese or vegetable quesadilla—send it with some Greek yogurt as a sour-cream stand-in. Another idea? Roll cheese, meat and lettuce tightly in a tortilla and secure each pinwheel with a toothpick.
Save time with these store-bought goodies
These days, it’s possible to automate part of the packing process without sacrificing nutrition. Here are a few of our favorite picks, clockwise from top left: Applegate’s Half Time lunch kits ($5 each, at supermarkets) are free of antibiotics, preservatives and artificial ingredients. Siggi’s low-fat yogurt tubs ($4 for a box of 8 2-oz. tubes, at supermarkets) have 6 grams of sugar or less; the yogurt’s made with just 5 ingredients.
BelGioioso’s bite-size cheese snacks contain 70 calories worth of fresh mozzarella, made with hormone-free milk. And Bolthouse Farm’s Veggie Snackers ($4 for 4 2.25-oz. bags, at Giant Eagle) package baby carrots with little flavor packets, such as ranch or chili lime.
Who doesn’t love a good dip?
Pack hummus for your protein and surround it with plenty of delivery methods, like crackers and cut-up raw veggies to keep things interesting. Other protein-rich options include nut butter, or a dip made with Greek yogurt. Looking for even more options? Check out our 29 top dip recipes and explore the cracker and chip aisle next time you’re at the supermarket.
Add notes instantly with these cheeky jokes
Our free printables make stashing a note inside your child’s lunchbox a no-brainer. You don’t even need to write anything! Print out our sheet of 6 cute food- and school-related jokes, and cut one out for a lunchtime laugh every now and then.