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Better School Lunchbox and Snack Menus

When my oldest first started “real” school, I got an email from the teacher telling me I was sending too many options for my 3 year old to pick from. I would jam his Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box filled with small containers of beautifully cut vegetables and gourmet options for lunch. Typical chef problems. But since then I have really paired back and thought about the science and process of lunch box making.

  • What is appropriate to send for your child at their age?

  • What food groups?

  • And of course, as the parent, what do I have time for?

The last question is extremely important. Is it practical for you to be making lunch every single day? Maybe packing lunch should not be the extra thing to do that you add to your list. Maybe you need to compromise on buying school lunch 3 days and sending lunch from home 2 days a week. Throwing applesauce and a water in a lunchbox does not make a balanced lunch. So find an option that works for the whole family. In our house I do lunch 4 days a week and we do school lunch for 1 day (pizza Fridays!). But I only have one school age child. I’m not sure if my decision will change when my baby gets a little older.

What Food Groups to Send:

All kids lunchboxes should be balanced. It is important to realize that they need balanced nutrition to function at their best throughout the day. When packing lunch for your child you need to keep in mind to build a balanced bunch of options:

  • Vegetables

  • Fruit

  • Wholegrains

  • Protein

  • Dairy

What Food To Put Where:

I generally like to put only the lunch items in the lunch box. If your child will be getting an extra snack for later in the day or after school club, make a designated spot where to keep the snack. This way the child knows what food he/she is supposed to be eating during lunch time, and which is for later.

How Much Food To Send:

This will vary depending on the age of the child. Please note- these are approximations. If you find that the lunch boxes are coming back completely empty and your child is coming home famished for more, maybe you start sending more food daily to school.

  • Ages 2 & 3 year olds1 core/main item, 1 vegetable and 1 fruit. Here the child will see 3 simple items in their lunchbox. This is very manageable but also necessary for a child doing work all day. Just a plain sandwich is not enough sustenance. Balance is key. In my child’s school they also provide an extra healthy fruit snack during the day, but if your child has a long day and your school does not, feel free to add another easy to eat packaged snack. (i.e. Apple sauce pack, fruit leather, granola bar)

  • Ages 4- 7 - 1 core/main item, 1 side, 1 vegetable and 1 fruit. This way when the child opens the lunchbox, they see 4 items. This is a very manageable amount of food to eat in their lunch time slot. I also find that I am stuffing the fruit and vegetable containers filled to the top as opposed to the younger children who may not be getting as much. Example- My 3 year old would eat spinach ravioli one day a week. I would send him 5 cooked pieces. But now, as a 5 year old he is eating 8 raviolis in the same container. So not only do you have 4 items in the box, but it is 4 very filling items. On pizza day in school I buy him two slices because I know that even though he won’t finish two he will still be hungry after one. For a child in this age group add 1 extra snack to their backpacks.

  • Ages 8 and up - For a child in this age group concentrating on how many items isn’t always the right guideline. I would say it is a minimum of 4 items- maximum of 5 items. Having two mains here is very often a good idea- soup and half a sandwich with a fruit and a vegetable, or a full pita sandwich with a veggie burger and sliced avocado inside. Think bigger, think hungrier. Don’t forget to include a fruit or even two in the lunchbox. Try a whole banana and some cut strawberries in a container. I find when planning for a child who is really growing- especially one going through puberty, you need to think of your own appetite. Think big. For a child this age add an extra 2 snacks in their bag for later.

What Food To Pack:

Main/Core Item Options:

Note- If your child is very particular feel free to stick any food in a thermos, otherwise my rule of thumb is if it has melted cheese or if it is a soup then I put it in a thermos.

1. Sandwiches-

Inside the sandwich:

  • tuna

  • lox (love Daniel Boulud's brand best. so tasty and the packages are small)

  • cream cheese

  • cheese

  • avocado

  • seed butters or nut butters (try this sunflower seed butter)

  • egg salad

  • guacamole

  • scrambled egg and ketchup

  • hummus and vegetables

Outside the sandwich: try for things that are whole grain, whole wheat, or don’t have added ingredients you can’t pronounce.

2. Soups (serve hot in a thermos with a straw in the lunch box for clean eating):

  • The Greenest Pea Soup

  • Red Lentil Soup with Cumin

  • Yellow Pea Soup

  • Tomato Pasta Soup

3. To Buy Already Made:

  • Dr. Prager’s Flounder Fish Sticks

  • Dr. Prager’s California Veggie Burger (5g protein!)

  • Cheese or spinach ravioli (drizzle olive oil and a sprinkle of salt)

  • Golden’s potato blintzes (simply baked)

  • Delicious potato/cheese pierogi (I serve just boiled with a little oil and salt)

  • Van’s organic waffles- you must pair with a protein (like sunflower butter and a small yogurt on the side) but this is a fun way to get kids to eat lunch.

  • Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Classic Oatmeal with flax and chia individual cups- this is for an older child (probably high school only, but I love this so much I had to include it). You just add hot water and in three minutes you have delicious hearty oatmeal. Alternatively, you can cook steel cut oats at home and send in a thermos for your child to enjoy. I also send a side of raisins with 1 tablespoon of maple syrup to mix in. P.S.- I linked you to amazon to see them but they are usually 2/$4 at your local big box grocery stores. Amazon price is too high in this case.

  • Vegetable sushi roll- you can buy this the night before. They stay better if they do not contain avocado

4. Other Homemade Options:

  • Full sized yogurt with smart granola (containing protein, low sugar, high in fiber)

  • Rice and black beans

  • Protein packed plain pasta drizzled with olive oil and salt

  • Buttered pasta with cooked chickpeas

  • Spinach Frittata Muffins

  • Baked ziti

  • Mac and cheese

  • Sweet potato fries

  • Baked whole sweet potato

  • Cottage cheese with fruit, low sugar granola or even Mary’s Gone Crackers

  • Chopped salad with veggies and a protein- like tuna salad or egg (this is surely geared toward an older child)