School lunch 101

How To Actually Pack Your Kid's Lunchbox

It’s a major time suck. These tips will help.

by Yolanda Wikiel
Getty / Scary Mommy
2022 Back To School Issue

There’s so much to hate about the lunch-packing process. On top of the chore of slapping together sandwiches at the crack of dawn, there’s the mental load of trying to figure out what they’ll eat that’s at least kinda, sorta healthy. And then you have to pack it all up in a way that’s not only practical and safe but appetizing enough that the absolute pickiest person on the planet won’t say, “Ew, gross” when they open their lunchbox. It’s a lot.

But there are ways that you can streamline things and prep yourself with an arsenal of lunch ideas so that you won’t have to suffer through frantic mornings (at least where lunch is concerned). These tips can help you pull together a successful lunch for your kid that may actually get eaten this time.

Follow A Formula

It can be tempting to stuff your kid’s lunchbox with carbs — at least you’ll know they’ll get eaten. But if you want to try to create a balanced meal that’s somewhat healthy, try to hit all the food groups outlined in the guidelines. Aim for half of the lunchbox to be fruits and veggies, whether fresh, canned, dried, pureed, or cooked. Dedicate one-quarter of the lunchbox to a protein, like meat, chicken, eggs, seed or nut butter, or beans. Then for the remaining quarter portion, focus on grains in the form of bread, pasta, rice, tortilla, etc. And half of that should ideally be whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, or whole-wheat pasta. On the side, add some healthy dairy — a container of milk or yogurt or a piece of cheese. To break it down at a glance, Anu from the blog Simmer to Simmer has a mix-and-match lunch-packing checklist to make sure you can easily achieve a balanced lunch.

Embrace A Theme

We know what you are thinking: Who’s got time for that? Hear us out. Admittedly this will require some pre-planning on your part. But once you get in a groove, you can coast through the rest of the year on autopilot. The idea of using themes is so that you won’t have to think too hard at the grocery store and what to pack the night before.

Before the school year officially kicks off, start to think about the lunches your kid likes most and then try to organize them into categories. These can be your themes. Is your kid obsessed with pizza? Boom: Monday becomes “Pizza Day” to take the edge off of the first-day-of-the-week slump. And, seriously, the themes can be as basic as Tuesday is sandwiches, Wednesday is pasta, Thursday is soup, and Friday is wraps — or whatever makes most sense for your family.

Take a little time to think about the themes and how you can mix in some variety from week to week. It may help to write a list of lunch options down for each theme to keep on your phone or the fridge so you can just glance at it to pick what to make for lunch that week. For instance, a “pasta” theme can mean a Caprese pasta salad one week, mac and cheese the next, and spaghetti and meatballs the week after. A “pizza” theme can include everything from leftover pizza to pizza ingredients, like pepperoni, mozzarella, and marinara, baked into a quesadilla, crescent roll dough, a bagel, or an English muffin. You can even add some variety to a theme as narrow as PB&J. You could cut the sandwich into squares and spear them with strawberries on a kebab; you can spread peanut butter and jelly on waffles or pancakes; or roll them into a wrap along with a banana and slice into sushi-style rounds.

Level Up The Storage

We’ve come a long way from brown paper bags, that’s for sure. Springing for some better gear can ensure that the food you pack makes it to lunchtime edible and safe to eat. For one thing, Packit makes a freezable lunchbox with a built-in gel liner. It folds flat so you can slip into the freezer at night, and fill it up ice-cold in the morning, without any drippy ice packs melting during the school day.

These days, a bento box has become the must-have of the cafeteria set. With its separate compartments, it’s good for packing those snack-y DIY Lunchables full of lots of little nibbles of fruit, cheese, and crackers and such. There are a ton of brands out there, but Yumbox is great because the dividers are leak-proof so no worries about the Goldfish getting mushy next to the cut-up grapes. The interior tray is removable for easy clean-up, plus you could also swap it for other trays if that compartment configuration doesn’t work for you. For a more budget-friendly version (a lifesaver if your kid is the type to lose their lunchbox every other week), you can opt for these Ziploc food storage containers and hack the bento-box effect by adding silicone cupcake liners to divide it into even more, smaller compartments.

When it comes to a hot lunch, the 10 oz. Thermos Funtainer promises to keep food warm for up to 5 hours. But to ensure contents stay extra hot and safe to eat, try this trick from Shelf Cooking: In the morning, add boiling water to the thermos and let it sit while you get ready, or at least 10 minutes. Just before you are about to leave, drain the water and pack it with food. The heat from the water will help the thermos retain heat. And if you’re packing chicken nuggets or other hot food you want to stay crispy, also be sure to line the bottom of the thermos with a paper towel to absorb any condensation.

Add Some Spunk

It’s all about making lunch appealing to kids. Even if you end up serving the same-old thing, sometimes mixing up the presentation can make all the difference. Try the old cookie-cutter trick to mold sandwiches, fruit, or vegetables into something fun like a heart, star, or flower. You could invest in mini letter cutters and you could carve your kid’s initials or spell out a “yay” or “omg” in their bread, fruit leather, or veggies. But really, even just cutting the sandwich into sticks, rolling it into pinwheels, or turning it into a “dumpling” like Jennifer from Little Love Style does is enough to bust out of a rut.

Zhush Up Your Leftovers

Hey, we get it: Repurposing meals is a lot less work. But your kid opening up their lunchbox to see last night’s dinner is bound to elicit a groan. That’s where some clever repackaging can come in to save the day. Skewer yesterday’s tortellini on a stick along with cherry tomatoes, cheese, and salami, like LalalaLunchbox. Tweak meatballs, chicken cutlets, or slices of meatloaf into a sub topped with shredded mozzarella and marinara on the side. Turn leftover ground meat or steak into a taco salad. And don’t underestimate the power of a dipping situation to make a kid happy. Something as boring as grilled chicken breast can become downright addictive if you cut it into strips, all the better for dunking into ranch dressing. Consider packing a small container of hummus, salsa, barbecue sauce, or honey mustard to magically transform any protein or veggie.

Minimize The Yuck Factor

Kids are sensitive to textures. And nothing turns them off faster than soggy bread and wilted veggies. The optimal way to keep food as fresh as possible is to make sure any wet ingredients are separated from dry ingredients (that’s where a bento box comes in handy!). But there are other things you can do to keep a sandwich from going limp. First off, smear nut or seed butter on both slices of bread and then add the jelly to the middle. Lunch meat or condiments could be layered in between slices of cheese. You can also toast bread first to give it some extra crispiness — but it’s crucial you allow the bread to cool down completely before packing to eliminate steam build-up inside the packing container (i.e. soggy central). If your kid is older, you can pack all the ingredients of a sandwich including a condiment in a bento box and have them assemble it themselves so everything is guaranteed to be super fresh.

As for apple slices that notoriously turn brown? This kid-friendly TikTok hack solves that. Rely on crunchier veggies like celery, carrots, sugar snap peas, cabbage, and cucumbers and try to pack them with an ice pack as close to when they’ll be served. And if your kids still don’t want to eat their veggies, well, that may take some more coaxing.

Yolanda Wikiel is a writer and editor based in New Jersey, where she lives with her son, husband, and cat. She has covered everything from home, food, and life skills to fashion, travel, and consumer goods for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Parents, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Oprah, and Woman’s Day.