Back to School Lunch Ideas

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It’s back-to-school season and that means lunchtime packing! If you have picky eaters, your child has allergies, or you are simply trying to work within your school’s requirements and limitations, you know this can be a daunting task. Fear not, I’ve got some great ideas for you on how to manage this daily task!

Picky Eaters

If your kiddo is picky about food or tends to not eat anything that you pack, take them to the grocery store with you and let them pick out things for their lunch. I didn’t understand that my kindergartener didn’t like thin sliced deli ham until I took him to the store and he pointed out that he liked the thick-cut ham, now he eats every bite. It turns out that the texture was his objection.  At his age, he can’t verbally articulate that kind of objection.  Being together, in the store, made it a breeze for him to show me what he likes and get to the bottom of things!

Encouraging Independence

In an ideal world, my children would rise at the first sound of their alarm, dress themselves and quietly pack their own lunches. This, of course, is not my reality. I’m teaching my 4th grader and kindergartener how to pack their own lunches. We set up an “assembly line” system. Everything is decanted and put into clear containers. Each morning, the kids go down the line and grab their prepared food, from each food group,  and throw it into their lunchbox. It gives me time to shower and gives them some freedom, within limits, to choose a lunch they will actually eat. This saves stress, money, time, and food waste. The counter and the fridge have a designated “lunch making” section for this exclusive purpose.

Supplies

Having the right supplies on hand can make all the difference. Our lunch-making station is well-equipped to make things fun and easy. Here are the supplies that have been game changers for us:

  • A step stool so everything is within little ones’ reach. 
  • Clear containers or these dollar store hacks, for organizing the assembly line. 
  • Small containers, perfect for packing just enough of a sauce or dressing without making a big mess. Think nut butter, hummus, salsa, ranch, soy sauce, aioli–anything to get them to finish their veggies!
  • Thin ice packs to ensure that carrying lunch is not too heavy.
  • Washable lunch boxes I end up washing our lunch boxes nearly every week. Sometimes they get left in the hot car or in the cubby at school other times they come home filled with sand, mulch, or worse.  Either way, these have stood the test of time.

Groceries

Whether your family has allergies, is committed to a whole foods lifestyle, or is just looking to mix it up, these stores have the best variety for packing lunches. 

  • Your local whole foods store. Here’s where you can find all of the funky stuff. While trying to get my boys to eat more veggies we discovered pickled carrots, cauliflower, radishes, and more. While they would never finish a head of raw cauliflower, they will when it’s pickled! These stores can be pricey.  We like to try new things and then figure out how to make our favorites at home. 
  • Thrive Market. Our family is grain free and, in addition, my son is allergic to most of the typical flour substitutes like almond or coconut. This was really overwhelming at first. Thrive has been great for rounding out our lunches to include snacks in addition to our fruits, veggies, and meat. They basically make lunch fun! If your family has allergies of any type, I highly recommend it! They offer teacher and military family discounts. 
  • Amazon. This is where we subscribe and save for those hard-to-find staples.
  • Meijer. They have an amazing produce selection and the best gluten-free aisle around. 
  • Big box stores. We prefer reusable containers but nothing beats the convenience of individual packaging that stores like Costco can offer. Cheese sticks, hummus, applesauce, fruit cups–I especially love to stock up here when we are grabbing food for a classroom party in addition to our lunch boxes. 

Resources and Planning

No matter your reason to pack lunch, it’s one more thing to plan.  In our case, because of allergies, we do it daily. While I’m a creative person, even I’ve run out of ideas a decade in! Here’s who and what I’m digging into right now for support.   

  • Health Care Providers. Our pediatrician has been such a great partner, even in planning lunches. She helps me understand what’s “normal” about my picky eater and where to shop for my son with severe food allergies. If you feel stuck in a rut ask yours for ideas at your next well visit.  
  • Kids Eat in Color. Jennifer is great to follow on social media. She offers encouragement and education on all things food! 
  • 100 Days of Real Food. We have to pack lunch for at least 180 days but this site is great for recipes and ideas all year long. “Real food” basically means anything not highly processed and containing only five or fewer whole ingredients. It means mostly avoiding ingredients you would not cook with at home. 
  • Real Plans. For a small monthly fee, you can plan all of your meals here. No matter your preferences, they cover it all–kid-friendly, quick, vegetarian, paleo. The most amazing part is that after you build your plan, they send your list to Instacart and you can finish your shopping at the same time.
  • Us! Indianapolis Moms shares lunch ideas, weekly dinner recipes and so much more. 

When I help my kids pack a healthy lunch, I know they will have the energy to face whatever comes their way in school. I also hope that involving them in the planning and preparation will help them build an appetite for adventure, a good relationship with food, and skills for life.

What are your tips and tricks for packing a lunch your family loves?

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