What I Wish Someone Told Me About Trying to Pack the Perfect School Lunch

updated May 2, 2023
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

Spoiler alert: The perfect school lunch doesn’t actually exist. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to making sure our kids are well-fed at school. What works for one kindergartener doesn’t also work for a preschooler and a third-grader.

I’ve been packing school lunch for my now first-grader for six years, ever since she started preschool as a toddler. Just this year, she’s taking baby steps to pack her own lunch, and I’m curating everything I’ve learned and passing the baton to her.

These are the things I wish someone had told me when I first started packing school lunch.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

The First Thing You Need to Know About School Lunch

There are lots of reasons you might need or want to pack lunch for your school-aged children: your kids go to a small school that doesn’t provide lunch, your child has a food allergy or aversion, or you don’t like the options provided by the school for lunch. Reasons you shouldn’t be packing school lunch? Because you feel like you have to!

I admit it hurt my ego a little bit when my daughter first wanted to have lunch from her school’s cafeteria, but she loved it! I was comfortable with the meals provided, so at least one day a week we let the school do the work. Cafeteria lunch gets a bad rap sometimes, but not every district is serving unCrustables and pizza every day.

And take comfort in this: You’re Doing It Right: School Lunch

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Next, Make Yourself a School Lunch Toolbox

Packing school lunch is a thankless task — by the time the lunch box arrives home empty, your kiddo has likely forgotten what they even ate to thank you for. Between the jam-packed weekends and the early mornings of the school year, it’s going to take a fair amount of energy to plan and pack 180 lunches every year. A toolkit, both real and figurative, will make the job easier.

A physical tool kit should include the following:

  • Lunch boxes and bags (if you can swing it, multiples of each will make your life much, much easier)
  • Thermos (ditto multiples)
  • Zip-top or reusable bags
  • Ice packs

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More on Lunch Boxes, Bags, and Other Lunch Tools

It also helps to have a more figurative toolbox that includes things like the hot lunch menu from the school cafeteria (just in case!) and a list of your kids’ favorite lunch foods and go-to grocery items.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Shop Smart for School Lunches

One of the major benefits of packing lunch for your kids is that it can be less expensive than cafeteria lunch and helps eliminate food waste in your kitchen —especially if you plan for leftovers. Some lunch-specific shopping will save you time when it comes to packing lunch. Many school lunch staples are also everyday pantry and freezer staples too.

Knowing What to Pack, When

School lunch is full of booby-traps — some real, like food allergies — and some imagined (like “fruits you should never pack”). Forget all that. You can pack breakfast for lunch, chia pudding, or ramen noodles. A nutritionist would advise you to get a protein, carb, and a serving of fruit and vegetables in there, but more importantly, you need to know what you can pack in advance and how long lunch fodder can be kept in a lunch bag.

Learn More

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Keeping the Lunch Box Love Alive (or Not)

This is probably the biggest thing I wish I knew when I started packing lunch: It’s okay to pack the same things often, like even every week. Most of the school lunch experts I’ve talked with say that having a short list of foods their kids love and a template for packing lunches saves their sanity and time, and keeps their kids happy.

We’ve got more than a few ideas and templates for every type of lunch box you’ll need over the years.

Lunch Box Ideas for Every Step

What advice do you wish you were given about packing school lunches? Share in the comments!