The Essential School Lunch Grocery List

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Omie Life)

Beyond the benefit of a packed school lunch giving parents more control over what kids eat at school, we often don’t talk about the financial benefits of packing school lunch. It’s a point I’m always quick to point out to my husband when the kids request “hot lunch” — the lunch the school serves.

When I fold school lunch shopping into my regular grocery shopping I find that not only do I save money by skipping prepared lunches at school, but I also save my sanity — no last-minute scramble to fill lunch boxes in the morning or trying to hold back dinner portions to make sure that I can pack lunches. When I have this list on hand, packing lunch boxes is way more fun.

Fridge and Freezer Staples for School Lunches

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

1. Eggs

Hard-boiled eggs go into lunch boxes unadorned as part of breakfast for lunch or snack-style lunches, but they can also be turned into egg salad for sandwiches or cracker dipping.

2. Deli Turkey, Chicken, or Ham

These are great for sandwich making obviously, but they can also be rolled and packed on their own or wrapped around cheese sticks as a one-two protein punch.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

3. Cheese

I always just buy blocks of cheese because they are cheaper and more versatile. Then I cut them up for DIY Lunchables, or grate them for melting on flatbread for mini pizzas. Every few weeks I also buy or make veggie cream cheese to swipe on sandwiches instead of hummus.

4. Hummus

Those little snack packs of hummus save me on more days than I can ever admit, whether for packing lunch for the kids or a quick snack-style lunch for myself.

5. Cottage Cheese or Yogurt

Yes, you can pack either of these straight-up or you can turn them into wraps or sandwich additions too. Yogurt makes a great base for a faux ranch dip that actually makes my kids eat fresh vegetables.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

6. Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

This one feels obvious, but try to go beyond just the vegetables you cook for dinner and think about produce that does double duty. For example my kids are big fans of the baby bell peppers for lunch and I can make them part of dinner planning too. Cucumber can be served in slices or grated for sandwiches and dips. I keep apples and oranges on hand year-round, but switch things up with berries, clementines, grapes, and watermelon as they come into season (when they are also considerably more affordable).

7. Frozen Waffles

Another sanity-saver! You don’t even have to thaw these before they go into lunch boxes (although of course you totally can). Serve these on their own as part of breakfast for lunch or use them as bread for sandwiches.

8. Frozen Peas and Corn

Admittedly, I could probably branch out in the frozen vegetable department, but these are the two frozen vegetables I pack and cook with the most. Throw these guys into lunch boxes frozen and they’ll thaw before lunch time.


Pantry Staples for School Lunches

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

9. All the Bread

Think beyond the sliced sandwich loaf and grab flatbread, pitas, or English muffins occasionally to make even the most tired turkey and cheese feel fresh.

10. Dry Pasta

It’s inexpensive, cooks quickly, lasts forever, and can bulk up last night’s chicken dinner leftovers in a flash. It’s also great for pasta salad, which you can make in advance and pack throughout the week.

11. Canned Beans

Chickpeas and black beans are my go-to staples. I can turn chickpeas into a variety of flavorful salads, crisp them up in the oven, or smash them into sandwich filling. Black beans become tacos, salads, or go into the lunch box straight-up as a side.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

12. Tortillas

Tortillas mean you can make wraps, quesadillas, and chips on the fly.

13. Chia Seeds

This is a newish addition to my “lunch pantry,” but my 5-year-old fell for chia seed pudding while I was testing a recipe for it and I’m trying to turn that into a weekday lunch affair.

14. Dried Fruit and Vegetables

You know how some weeks you just run out of fruit before Friday? Well, having a stash of dried fruit will help immensely with that. Ditto for crunchy freeze-dried vegetables, which my kids think are a treat.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

15. Crackers, Pretzels, or Pita Chips

These snacking staples are also excellent lunch box fillers. Crackers can be stacked with cream cheese and vegetables, and pretzels and pita chips can be dipped into hummus or yogurt.