Struggling with how to pack a healthy school lunch that will actually get eaten? Keep reading for genius tips and hacks, plus a free printable that will help your kids pack their OWN lunch!
Back-to-school means back-to-packing-school-lunches, and we have to admit, it’s one of our least favorite tasks. But however time-consuming it may be, we think it’s important to send our school-aged kids off with a healthy, nutritious meal to fuel their brains and bodies while crushing their reading, writing and arithmetic.
The time and energy it takes to pack a balanced lunch day after day after day can certainly be draining, so in an effort to make your life easier, we’ve partnered with one of our go-to grocery stores, Stop & Shop, to bring you 10 helpful tips to make preparing a healthy school lunch a breeze.
And not only will these tips result in less time spent making nutritious meals for your kids, but they’ll also come home with empty lunch boxes (we know all too well that just because you pack a healthy lunch, doesn’t mean that your child will actually eat it!).
But wait, there’s more! We’ve also created a “Build Your Own Lunch” printable that will help your kids pack their OWN healthy lunches…the ultimate goal! (see tip #9 to download it for free).
So stick with us and read on to learn the tips to nutritious-lunch-packing-(and eating!)-success:
PIN to have on hand when you’re ready to pack a healthy lunch your kids will actually eat!
#1 STOCK YOUR FRIDGE WITH HEALTHY FOODS
First things first, you have to have healthy food in order to make a healthy lunch. So you could say, healthy lunches start at the grocery store.
Luckily chains like Stop & Shop are making it easier than ever to buy better foods for our kids (and ourselves!).
Stop & Shop’s ingenious “Guiding Stars” program can help you quickly find foods that have the most nutritional value. Products are assigned either 1, 2 or 3 stars based on their nutritional content. The more stars an item gets, the more beneficial nutrients, and the fewer unbeneficial ingredients, it contains. All you have to do is look for the Guiding Stars rating beneath each product at the store in order to make an informed choice. Easy, right?
In addition to nutritional value, we like to choose clean foods that are made from whole ingredients and are free from unnecessary artificial additives. Grocery stores are starting to carry more organic products (Stop & Shop carries hundreds of Organic and “Free-From” choices with their “Nature’s Promise” line that are more affordable than ever), so after hitting the Produce section, we always head to the Organic/Natural aisles next so we’re sure to grab the best options available.
#2 …AND KEEP IT STOCKED!
As busy moms we know how hard it is to keep your fridge stocked with enough food to pack a healthy lunch every day. With busy schedules, somedays it’s just not possible to get to the grocery store. But we’re happy to say that there is a solution: online delivery or pick-up services.
When we started using Stop & Shop’s Peapod delivery service, it was a complete game changer. All you have to do is submit your order online, pick your requested delivery time and date, and your groceries will be dropped off on your doorstep! Or opt for their pick-up service where you simply drive to the designated pick-up area outside the store, and they’ll bring your food right to your car. That means no unbuckling any young kids, or interrupting a much-needed car nap.
#3 MAKE HEALTHY SWAPS
Really examine the food you’re packing for your child and ask yourself “is there a better option?”. A few instances where a swap could improve the health and nutritional value of their lunch includes:
- Swap white bread for organic wheat bread
- Swap deli meat to nitrate-free deli meat or organic grilled chicken/turkey breast
- Swap Peanut Butter with additives like oil and sugar to one made with JUST peanuts
- Swap juice boxes or chocolate milk for water (infuse it with fruit if they need a flavor boost)
- Swap sugary yogurts for organic ones with no (or less) added sugar/sweeteners
Try and limit foods with:
- Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Glyphosate and other pesticides
- GMO crops
By making these small swaps and better choices, you’ll be making a big difference in your child’s daily nutrition intake.
#4 MAKE A LUNCH PACKING STATION
In order to save time and frustration when packing your child’s lunch, create a lunch packing station that has all of your lunch containers, lunch bags, utensils, napkins, and other supplies together in one spot. This could be a drawer, cupboard, or even just a large basket you can bring to your countertop when it’s time to pack.
If you’re low on supplies, check to see if your grocery store has a back-to-school or homeware section to save time hitting up another store (editor’s note: I was able to get everything I needed for my lunch packing station at my local Stop & Shop – lunch bags, ice packs, stainless steel water bottles, fun bento boxes…and I didn’t have to make a special trip anywhere…I just grabbed everything during my weekly food shop.).
#5 PRE-MAKE GRAB ‘N’ GO PORTIONS
Spend a little time one day a week (we like to do it on Sunday so we’re ready for the school week ahead), making pre-portioned sides and snacks that will be ready to grab in your pantry and fridge.
In the fridge, consider having a selection of pre-cut carrot sticks, cucumbers, celery, oranges, melon, grapes, berries, snap peas, pepper strips, cherry tomatoes, cheese sticks and yogurt in stock.
For the pantry, keep small baggies or containers of foods like trail mix, crackers, pretzels, popcorn, granola bars, nuts and dried fruit at hand.
Then when it’s time to pack lunch, everything is easy just to grab and stick in their lunch boxes – no chopping or searching required!
#6 PACK A RAINBOW
Most schools (and moms) encourage kids to “eat the rainbow”, a smart rule-of-thumb where you strive to eat foods from each color group every day. With this in mind, packing fruits and vegetables in bright, rainbow colors in your child’s lunch not only expands the amount of vitamins and antioxidants in their diet, but is more visually appealing – ultimately tempting them to try new foods, and complete their food rainbow.
But remember, eating the rainbow should only include natural, whole foods, not those that are processed with artificial dyes. A bright blue “fruit gummy” does not count…a blue-berry, yes!
#7 MAKE IT FUN
In addition to packing a rainbow of foods, make your child’s lunch fun by using the coolest bento boxes, snack containers, and other neat accessories and tools.
We picked up a plethora of fun bento boxes on our Stop & Shop run, which allow you to portion veggies, fruits, dairy, and grains appropriately. Our kids love them because of the variety of smaller portions they get – so if they’re not feeling the grapes one day, that’s OK because they have 3 or 4 other things they can have instead. This ultimately takes the pressure off your kids having to eat the entire main component of their lunch (like their whole sandwich), which often results in them trying new things.
In addition to using a bento-style lunch box, there’s countless ways to spice up your child’s lunch, including:
- Using small veggie cutters to turn boring carrots, cucumbers and celery into fun animals or shapes.
- Cutting sandwiches into inspiring shapes with sandwich cutters
- Packing foods that can be dipped like pita and hummus or celery sticks and nut (or allergy friendly) butter.
- Packing new utensils like kids’ chopsticks, or a spork – the novelty will have them poking and prodding everything into their mouths.
#8 MIX IT UP
Ever find yourself in a school lunch rut? Trying to pack a different, creative lunch every day can be completely draining, but kids often get bored with the same ol’ foods, and eventually their once-empty lunch bag will start coming home full of food. So do your best to mix it up. Some easy ideas to incorporate a little more pizzazz to their lunches includes:
- Use Leftovers: Purposefully cook extra portions of the dinners your kids love, so they can enjoy it the next day (or two!) for lunch
- Think Snacky: If your kids are anything like ours, they could eat snacks all day – so capitalize on that enthusiasm and willingness to eat, by packing the ultimate “snacky lunch”. Instead of a main course like a big sandwich, pack small portions of different healthy foods. Using a fun bento box makes this even more appealing.
- Add a twist to their favorite lunches: If your child is a Peanut Butter and Jelly lover, try making a different variation using those same familiar flavors. This could include baking Peanut Butter and Jelly muffins, or flattening their usual sandwich, rolling it up and slicing it, to make Peanut Butter Jelly Sushi!
RELATED: To see all our ideas for how to mix up your PBJ, head to: 23 Genius Twists on the Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich
#9 GET YOUR KIDS INVOLVED
There are so many benefits for getting your kids involved in prepping and packing their own school lunches. Not only will it take some of the burden off of your shoulders, but when children have a say in what goes into their lunch box, they feel more empowered to actually eat it.
Depending on their age, give them “this” or “that” options that are both healthy choices. For example, “do you want your sandwich on whole wheat bread or a whole grain pita?”. “Would you like apple slices with almond butter, or celery with peanut butter?”. Or if you’ve done your weekly prep work to make pantry and fridge grab ‘n’ go portions, simply ask them to choose 1-2 items from each.
Having your kids join in on your weekly prep work will also increase their sense of responsibility over the lunch process, increasing the odds of them eating the healthy foods.
The ultimate goal is to have your child pack their own lunch, without much assistance from you, and to make it part of their nightly or morning routine. In order to make this an obtainable task, we’ve created the “Build Your Own Lunch” printable chart seen below.
This chart will help guide your child in the packing process, and ensure that they are including a variety of different healthy foods in their lunch box. It includes ideas for a “Main Course” where you can mix and match proteins, starch and add-ons (think avocado, hummus and cheese), plus Fruit, Veggies and Sides. There’s even a spot where you can write-in if they can have a “Special Treat” and what drink to pack (our suggestion: water!).
We’ve been using this chart with our own big kids, and they absolutely love checking off their choices to create their own customized balanced meal.
Print out several for the week, or laminate it and use a wipe-off marker.
It’s completely free for our What Moms Love readers (that’s you!), just fill in the form below to get your own “Build Your Own Lunch” printable sent straight to your inbox:
Where should we send your printable Lunch Planner??
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#10 BONUS: SAVE SOME $$!
As an additional incentive to keep making those healthy lunches, think of the financial savings you are getting from not buying cafeteria lunches every day (not to mention the nutritional benefits for your kids!).
Yes, you may spend a little extra on groceries, but we’ve found that the cost savings of using our Stop & Shop card (where we can load coupons directly to the card from online or via their app…no need for paper coupons, yay!) far outweighs the cost of cafeteria lunches that aren’t full of the same healthy, clean foods.
In addition, make sure you sign up for any gas reward programs – Stop & Shop’s Gas Rewards is top-notch and awards points for every dollar spent. By using your Gas Rewards at participating gas stations, you can save up to $1.50/gallon!
We hope that these tips have provided you with the extra boost you need to make packing a healthy lunch a relative breeze. Happy back-to-school season!
Thanks again to our sponsor, Stop & Shop, for being a one-stop-shop that makes it easy to save time and money shopping healthy, so it’s simple to provide nutritious options for our kids’ lunches every day.