As a parent, you are juggling so much. There are the at-home responsibilities, such as laundry, what’s for dinner, and keeping things organized.
Then, you balance co-worker relationships, expectations, deadlines, and learning curves with software or technology and new to-do items at work. So, the last thing you want is to think long and hard about the grocery list and school lunch ideas.
When in doubt, we have a handy resource for you with school lunch ideas for all ages, tips for keeping food fresh without refrigeration, and even a grocery list.
School Lunch Ideas for All Ages
Toddlers and kindergarteners are very often picky eaters. They haven’t had the long lifespan that our middle- and high school students have had to try new foods.
Our recommendation is not to make lunch the time to try new things. Send them to school with an insulated lunch bag or box full of things you know they enjoy. This is not the time to get them to eat that leftover broccoli they balked at when you served it with meatloaf last night.
Toddler and kindergarten lunch ideas need to be fast favorites that are safe and easy to eat.
- We like Bento-style lunches of finger foods such as pre-cooked pasta, pepperoni slices, rolled-up ham or turkey, cubes of cheese, a pre-peeled clementine orange, and a fun-size M&M pack.
- Other 5-and-under-friendly ideas are frozen sandwiches that thaw out throughout the day, a bag of pretzels, and apple slices. Keep it simple for this age group since they are highly distractable during school lunchtime.
Elementary-aged students can get a little more creative, but don’t push the edges too much. They’re still experimenting with what they like, which can change weekly. Go with the long-haul favorites and try giving them a small amount of ownership.
- First- through third-graders can easily pack small baggies of pre-cut veggies and fruit. Let them have a drawer in the fridge to fill with pre-cut vegetables, yogurt cups, and snack-size bags of grapes or melon, whatever is in season where you live. Other ideas include tortillas that they can fill with various lunchmeat, leftover Rotisserie chicken and cheese slices. Think beyond sandwiches if they aren’t sandwich kids; a roll and a cheese stick with a piece of fruit are just fine. And the more ownership a child has over their lunch, the more likely they are to eat it.
- Fourth and fifth graders should learn nutrition and how to pack a balanced lunch. You can even take them to the store to find new products they’d like to try. Ideas may be DIY pizza if they have access to a microwave or send them with an insulated thermos that contains leftovers of their favorite dinner, the soup they like, or something less traditional, like beans and rice. Even heated mac and cheese can be a main dish if they want to include some rotisserie chicken or pre-cooked meatballs.
Are you wondering how to help your middle or high school students make healthier choices? We’ve got four ideas for you. Get all the ideas and associated grocery lists below to make shopping a snap.
Even though you may not own the packing of lunches anymore, you can still have oversight with your older children. (After all, you buy the groceries.)
Preteens and teens love to be like everyone else. So you might start to get questions about foods your child has traditionally not eaten or products on grocery store shelves you’ve not heard about before.
That’s because they see what their friends bring for lunch, and they want to try something new.
5. Let your older children explore new ideas or revisit foods they haven’t tried lately. Our tastebuds change every few weeks, so trying foods again can be a helpful pattern for older students.
Some ideas might include:
- Seaweed snacks
- Chocolate-covered dried fruits or almonds
- Sub sandwiches
- Protein bars
- Salads with protein
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Outside-the-box sandwiches
- Teach personal responsibility. If your teen isn’t packing their lunch yet, we recommend giving them that ownership at least a few times a week. It helps them think through what will keep well until lunch, how to package foods that don’t travel well and forces them to be problem-solvers and make lunch with what’s in the fridge.
- Food safety is essential. You can also teach your child about temperature control, knowing when a food is past its expiration date, and composing a balanced meal. Some tips to mention are:
- Fruits and vegetables should be washed and dried before packing in a lunchbox.
- Perishables and lunchmeats need to be stored at or below 40 degrees. This is why keeping cold packs in the freezer (and returning them to the freezer after school) is so important.
- Foods that are perishable or could leave leftover residue in their lunch bag should be thrown out at the end of their school lunchtime. This keeps the lunch bag clean and avoids unwanted scents in the halls, on the car ride home, or even in algebra class.
- They should keep in mind who sits near them. Does their school have a nut policy? Is their best friend allergic to dairy? Being sensitive to these guidelines is crucial when packing a school lunch.
- Advise them to think about their favorite restaurant or fast food meal. Is there a way they can emulate it for lunch? Rice/protein bowls, burritos filled with leftover meat, or pasta and sauce are all great options if your students has an insulated container and/or access to a microwave.
- Teach your child about microwave safety. Obvious “rules” aren’t always so obvious to teens; no metal or metal-edged containers can go into a microwave, and all items should be reheated for a short time to avoid burning. Also, students need to remember that microwaved foods should be loosely covered to avoid spilling, but most need a vent source to avoid an exploding mess.