back to school

How I Prep a Week of Back-to-School Lunches

updated Aug 19, 2021
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meal prep containers on table
Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

After a whirlwind few months of sun, splashing, and summer fun, it’s time for back-to-school season — and back to lunch. I took a break from meal planning over the summer, but now that our calendars are filling back up, I’m working my way up to a full meal prep schedule. I’m starting slow by tackling lunches only this week. Having a plan for the midday meal helps make mornings run more smoothly. This Power Hour shows you how to plan, shop, and prep for a week’s worth of balanced, wholesome lunches that kids can bring to school and adults can carry to work.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Meal Prep Goals

  • Lunch: Prep-friendly lunches that will delight adults and kids alike for back-to-school and back-to-work season.
  • Nutritional Goals: This week’s plan focuses on preparing balanced meals full of lean proteins and bright produce rather than meeting specific dietary parameters.

Meal Prep Plan Snapshot

  • Feeds: 2 adults and 2 kids
  • Prep Time: About 1 1/2 hours
  • Meals Covered: About 70% of lunches (no weekend lunches)
  • Weekday Cooking Required? No cooking, but assembly may be required.

Meal Plan



Shopping List

These are the ingredients I bought or used to prepare for a week of school (or work!) lunches. Staple ingredients like kosher salt, black pepper, and olive and vegetable oils are not included in this list. Before heading to the grocery store, check the pantry, fridge, and freezer for items on this list that you already have on hand — especially spices and seasonings. 

  • Produce: 1 bunch fresh chives,  2 avocados, 3 pints cherry tomatoes, 2 heads romaine lettuce, vegetables (carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, celery), fruit (apples, berries, mandarin oranges)
  • Deli / Bakery: 1 package sliced deli meat, 1 rotisserie chicken, 8 ounces (1/2-inch-thick) deli ham
  • Meat: 1 package bacon
  • Dairy: Greek yogurt, 1 1/4 cups buttermilk, 1 (8-ounce) container cream cheese, 1 dozen large eggs, 2 (9-ounce) packages fresh cheese tortellini, 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, 1 stick unsalted butter
  • Dry Goods: 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar, 1 (12-ounce) jar fire-roasted red peppers, honey or maple syrup, 1 1/4 teaspoons garlic powder, 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, ground cinnamon, 1/2 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal, 1/3 cup basil pesto, 1 bag pretzels, sweet treats (cookies, yogurt pretzels, bite-sized brownies)
  • Freezer: 1 package whole-grain frozen waffles

Power Hour: How to Get the Prep Done

  1. Heat oven and boil water: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and prepare a standard 12-well muffin pan with paper liners or coat the wells with cooking spray. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. Soften cream cheese: Make the cream cheese easier to spread by bringing it to room temperature before you begin.
  3. Make muffins: Follow these instructions to prepare the ham and cheese lunch box muffins.
  4. Hard-boil eggs: Hard-boil the remaining 10 eggs on the stovetop, in an Instant Pot, or using one of these other methods
  5. Cook bacon: Cook 8 strips of bacon in a pan on the stovetop until crisp. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate. 
  6. Prep produce: Wash and slice vegetables (such as carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, or celery).
    Ranch Chicken BLT Salad: Chop 1 head of romaine lettuce, halve 1 pint cherry tomatoes Pesto Tortellini Pasta Salad: Drain and chop roasted red peppers, then halve 2 pints cherry tomatoes
  7. Prepare tortellini pasta salad: Cook tortellini according to package directions. Once the pasta is cooked, drain, rinse briefly with cold water, and toss with pesto and prepared roasted red peppers and tomatoes. 
  8. Assemble roll-ups: Set up an assembly line to build the deli meat roll-ups. Spread softened cream cheese over the deli meat and top with a single layer of romaine lettuce. Roll up and cut crosswise into bite-sized pieces. 
  9. Make dips and dressings: For the yogurt ranch dressing: Whisk 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon water, 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar, 2 teaspoons finely chopped chives, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, plus a pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Transfer to small resealable container(s). For the sweetened yogurt dipping sauce: Stir 1 cup Greek yogurt with 1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup. Taste and adjust for desired sweetness.
  10. Assemble Monday’s lunch boxes.
Credit: Kitchn
Credit: Faith Durand


Assemble lunch boxes the night before and refrigerate. We prefer divided lunch box containers for easy serving. Pack lunches inside insulated carriers with an ice pack to maintain freshness. 

  • Monday, Ham and Cheddar Lunch Box Muffins: 1 to 2 muffins (depending on age and appetite), berries, cucumber slices, and a sweet treat.
  • Tuesday, Pesto Tortellini Pasta Salad: A serving of pasta salad, peeled mandarin orange, bell pepper strips, and a sweet treat.
  • Wednesday, Ranch Chicken BLT Salad: Arrange chopped lettuce, cubed or shredded rotisserie chicken, crumbled cooked bacon, sliced avocado, and halved cherry tomatoes in the lunch box. Younger kids may prefer ingredients separated rather than assembled as a salad. Transfer yogurt ranch dressing to a small lidded container and don’t forget the sweet treat. 
  • Thursday, Deli Meat Roll-up Lunch Box: Divide deli meat roll-ups between lunch boxes. Dip sliced apples in salt water, then sprinkle with cinnamon. Add celery sticks, pretzels, and a sweet to the lunch boxes.
  • Friday, Breakfast for Lunch: Cut frozen waffles into strips and transfer sweetened yogurt to a small lidded container. Halve a hard-boiled egg and season with salt and pepper. Add berries, carrots, and a sweet treat to the lunch box.


Power Hour Meal Prep is the series where we help you put it all together. We show you how to eat well during the week with an hour or two of Power Hour prep over the weekend. Every plan is different; mix and match to find your own personal sweet spot.