** This post was originally posted in 2020 and updated for 2022 **
School lunches. Whether your child is going to school in-person or virtually right now, we still have to provide them. There are many ways to have fun, provide nutrition, and still gets kids to eat. If your school lunches are feeling a little stale and you need some new ideas, you are in the right place. You’ll find here my best school lunch ideas for kids, which includes 5 meal planning tips and ideas for a better school lunch to help make the prep a little less painful.
In my years of working with children I have found that school lunches tend to go one of two ways: some kids thrive with the social interaction of eating with other children and may eat more than they do at home. Other kids are easily distracted during lunch time, and may be too excited to eat their lunch.
My daughter falls into both of these categories (as many do) and it depends on the day as well. Sometimes I will put something into her lunch that she usually won’t eat at home (recently it was a couple pieces of roasted cauliflower) and she’ll eat it. Other times, I give her something I know she loves (turkey and cheese) and she won’t touch it. Don’t despair – if you read my post about meal times, one of my tips is to offer a meal or snack every 2-3 hours (for toddlers and preschoolers) and 3-4 hours (as they get a bit older). So, if lunch isn’t a strong suit remember your child will have another opportunity to eat a couple of hours later. Let’s dive in!
Tip 1: Include a balance of nutrients and food types.
I recommend that a lunch for a preschooler and school age child, to include a fruit, vegetable and main portion that contains protein, carbs and a healthy fat – and a packaged food or snack if you’d like.. An example of my daughter’s lunch might be some frozen mango, roasted carrots (roasted with oil and spices) and turkey and cheese (either “on it’s own” or with bread).
What about including foods like cookies, chips, candy, etc? I have nothing against including these types of foods and in fact believe children need exposure to these foods so they know how to handle them. When including these I recommend the following: don’t include too large of a portion (we want extra tummy room to also fill up on some of the other foods) and allow the child to eat these foods in whatever order they choose. If you haven’t yet read my post on the DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITY I invite you to do so. As a caregiver, we provide the children the food and they decide how much and whether they want to consume that food. No judgement.
Tip 2: Simpler is usually better
I try to follow this rule not only with school lunch, but with our other meals as well. During my introduction to solids class, I always talk about one of my “Pinterest worthy” snacks I made for my daughter without success. I made her quinoa balls with feta and red pepper. The prep time was long, and I thought they were delicious, but she did not even touch them. And she probably would have eaten the quinoa, red pepper and cheese on its own. In fact, recently when I offer her food, her favorite response is “on its own”. Quesadilla? She prefers cheese and a tortilla “on its own”.
Tip 3: Most of the time, be familiar
Lunch time usually isn’t a great time to experiment with something brand new. If your child is in the camp of kids that does not do too well at lunch, try to make the offerings something you know they have eaten in the past. Sometimes parents feel like they are boring their child but kids may thrive on the familiar.
Tip 4: Sometimes, try something new
I would not present my daughter with a brand new entree in her lunch, but like the cauliflower example above, a small amount of something she might eat can go in your favor. But make sure to follow the division of responsibility. You can tell your child you are providing said new food, but no coaxing, bribing or forcing your child to eat it. And at the end of the day if she still has that food in her lunch, you tried (but that’s why it’s good to only provide a small portion). You can talk about it, ask him what he thought, maybe he’d like some the next day.
Tip 5: Use creative Packaging to speed up prep and minimize waste
I am slightly obsessed with some of the new bento boxes, but again, simpler may be better, especially for the younger kids. I use a box similar to what’s pictured here. Three sections. I usually use the top sections for the fruits and vegetables, and the bottom for the main entree. Look for something relatively inexpensive and not too complicated. This also helps when the containers come back!
Now that you are armed with school lunch ideas for kids, download my FREE ultimate school lunch guide – which includes tips for preparing a great school lunch, and SO MANY IDEAS. I can’t wait to hear what you think!