For many families, back to school means a return to packing lunches. Making sure that your children are well-fed 365 days of every year is hard enough, but adding 180 school lunches can feel downright relentless. I understand and am here to offer relief. Get ready for the most liberating school lunch advice you'll ever receive: Let your kid pack their own lunch box.
Packing Lunch Is Empowering for Kids
No, it's not passing the buck or even punishment — you'll be surprised to see that your kids may even take some joy in being in charge of their own lunch. Allowing kids to pack their own lunch boxes is empowering. They might not love doing it every single day, but they can be in charge of a significant part of their diet, which goes a long way towards a healthy relationship with food and cooking, even when they make less-than-optimal choices.
And, yes, getting your kid to pack her own lunch frees you of the daily task. It's okay to reap benefits while teaching your kid a life lesson. It's smart, even.
Here are seven lunch box ideas that kids can easily make themselves. Get ready to sleep in, you know, an extra five minutes.
The Keys to Help Kids Pack Their Lunch
- Keep the pantry stocked with healthy staples.
- Keep school lunch in mind when you make dinner, because leftovers are lunch box gold.
- Keep a posted list of ideas available for kids to choose from.
1. Peanut Butter and Whatever Sandwich
PB&J is a classic, but with the right ingredients on hand, your kid can change it up for some early kitchen experimentation. Mine love making peanut butter, coconut butter, and banana sandwiches. And sometimes they just go with PB&J, which is fine by me: It's a classic for a reason. (Seed butter works, too, if your kid attends a nut-free school.)
Pair a classic sandwich with classic sides: Sliced apple, a cheese stick, and a cookie make an easy, completely healthy lunch that I'd be happy to eat any day of the week too!
Upgrade a PB&J: 12 Ways to Fancy Up Your PB&J with 1 Ingredient
2. A Leftover Lunch
Most of us cook chicken, salmon, and/or pasta at least once a week. In fact, these three mains may even cover three weeknight meals, and they each make for a great school lunch. Kids can pack leftover chicken with a side of BBQ sauce or ketchup, raw veggies, fruit, and yogurt for a super-healthy and totally kid-friendly meal (pictured). Leftover salmon easily turns into a salmon salad sandwich, and leftover pasta needs nothing more than to be packed and enjoyed again.
3. Lunch in a Bowl
If you've made rice, quinoa, soba noodles, orzo, or any other grain the night before, your kid can easily turn the leftovers into a mouthwatering and super-healthy lunch bowl.
In fact, if they love this idea as much as my kids do, you can divide and freeze a big batch of their favorite rice, quinoa, or grain in sandwich bags that lay flat in the freezer. Individual portions saved this way will thaw quickly for a lunch bowl whenever they want it.
My kids especially love Mexican quinoa bowls with rinsed canned black beans, thawed frozen corn, chopped red pepper, and cilantro. It's probably their favorite because of the flavor, but it may also have something to do with the fact that a quick drizzle of olive oil and a few lime wedges make the easiest dressing ever.
4. DIY Lunchable
Lunchables are undeniably convenient, and it's hard to argue with their appeal, but one look at the ingredient label may have you questioning whether they're worth it, especially given the price and how easy they are to replicate at home.
If your kid's normal lunch box doesn't feel Lunchables enough, grab a few reusable plastic containers from easylunchboxes.com and stock the fridge with the ingredients from their favorite version. They're all so simple! The classic is nothing more than crackers, ham, and cheese.
Make it fun: If your kid likes being in the kitchen, hand over a small, round cookie cutter that's about the same size as the crackers you use. They can use it to cut the cheese and ham to easily stack just like store-bought Lunchables.
5. Breakfast for Lunch
Breakfast for dinner gets all the glory, but who doesn't love a second breakfast at lunchtime? Pack the freezer with your favorite waffles, pancakes, or French toast or — even better — homemade leftovers from a double batch that you make on the weekend, and all your kid has to do is toast and smear for a breakfast sandwich of champions.
My kids like to sandwich cream cheese and jelly between leftover waffles or pancakes, but cream cheese and ham also works for breakfast vibes with a bit more protein. Sometimes my kid will cut waffles or French toast into sticks and mix cream cheese and maple syrup to pack on the side as a dip. Then, for protein, they each grab a hard-boiled egg, which I always keep on hand.
Don't ditch the veggies: Fruit is an obvious accompaniment, but don't forget to have them pack veggies too. We are going for well-rounded lunches, after all!
6. Lunch Dips
Dips are not just for parties; they also make lunch fun! Hummus is a go-to in my house because it's easy to make homemade with little more than the press of a food processor button and it's easy to find at the store too. In other words, hummus is easy to always have on hand.
The best thing about hummus, though, is that my kids will eat nearly any vegetable served with it, which is why I love when they put together hummus plates for lunch: hummus, pita bread or chips, lots of veggies, and a fruit on the side for dessert. It's so easy and satisfying.
Mix it up: If your kids don't like hummus, they can make a similar lunch using another bean dip, artichoke or olive spread, guacamole, or whatever other dip they love.
More Dips to Try: Five 3-Ingredient Bean Dips for Smart Snacking
7. The Cheese Plate
It may sound strange — maybe even a little bit fancy — but a cheese plate is nothing more than a deconstructed cheese sandwich, and it certainly doesn't have to be made using fancy cheese.
Sliced baguette, cubed cheddar (which you may be able to find at the market already cut), hunky slices of Pepper Jack or whatever other cheese your kid likes, some grapes, and dried fruit make an easy-to-pack, protein-rich lunch that any cheese-loving kid will happily make for their midday meal.
Add a vegetable — anything will do — and this is a legitimately well-rounded meal.
We'd love to hear about other great lunch ideas that your kids help to pack!
Tips from One Hungry Mama
We asked Stacie Billis, author of Make It Easy and the writer behind the family food blog One Hungry Mama, to share her tips on putting together lunches kids actually want to eat. From grocery store hacks to thoughts on school lunch as the road to autonomy, this mini series is full of helpful tips to power you through the school year.