Our Back to School (Lunch) Routine

We’re finally getting into the swing of things this school year, including all the extracurricular activities my girls are participating in. I have been slowly figuring out what we need to do in advance vs. the morning of to make sure things run as smoothly as possible on those hectic weekday mornings and afternoons.

My kiddos both ride the bus in the mornings (it came way too early to take it in elementary school), and my own childhood recurring dream about missing the morning school bus seriously came back to me in the middle of the night last week. It certainly is a lot more pressure getting everyone out the door by a deadline (at the same time) compared to leaving in your own car one-by-one when everyone is ready. Can anyone else relate??

Our Back to School Lunch Routine on 100 Days of Real Food
Photo Credit: The Beautiful Mess

So while things, of course, vary from week to week, here is our loose back to school lunch routine that’s currently keeping us organized…

THURSDAY (the week before): Add some lunch ideas and items to the grocery list for the following week.

Grocery shopping happens on Fridays around here. While I don’t regularly follow a specific school lunch meal plan, I do put a little thought into items that I’d like to have on hand to easily add to the lunch boxes. I usually make sure I add at least 3 or 4 items to the list specifically for lunches that will hold up well, and that I think my kids will eat. Some examples are grapes, apples, blueberries, yogurt, fresh fruit, veggies, hummus (for a dip—or ingredients to make a different dip), sliced cheese or cheese sticks, crackers, organic sandwich meat (if we haven’t had it in a while—we usually do deli meat 1/month or so), ingredients for something like a pasta salad or pimento cheese, or even doubling ingredients for a dinner I have planned so we can pack the leftovers.

EVERY DAY: During lunch or dinner, we meal prep (or at least start packing) lunches and school snacks for the next day.

I rarely go into the kitchen and get out all the food just to make lunch. I almost always throw something together when we have a bunch of food out already for lunch or dinner that day. No matter what though, we always start the lunch packing process the day before! If you need inspiration for what to pack, you can browse through hundreds of lunches I’ve sent.

EVERY NIGHT: Clean and fill water bottles.

My girls have both picked water bottles they love for school that are hand wash only. UGH, does anyone else loathe something you can’t throw in the dishwasher with everything else? As a result, they are constant fixtures on our countertops waiting to be washed. We have tried to put this responsibility on them, but, as if it’s a big surprise, they often forget and end up frantically trying to do everything the morning before school and asking us to wash and fill their water bottles so they don’t miss the bus. And I don’t want anyone to miss the bus (because we all know who their “driver” is, LOL)! So asking them to do this task the night before makes all the difference. I also like to ask them to think about what they’ll want to eat for breakfast the next morning, so they can do any possible preparation (like getting a homemade breakfast burrito out of the freezer to defrost).

EVERY SCHOOL MORNING: Assemble packed lunch.

This is one that has not changed much over the years. The morning of, my kids are responsible for getting their lunch out of the fridge and adding it to their insulated lunch bag with ice packs, any necessary silverware, and a napkin (see this post about the latest school lunch supplies we are using). They also get out their filled water bottle (if we remembered to make sure it was done the night before!) and add it to their backpacks. Of course, if they are running late my husband or I help with this. On Wednesdays (see below), they have to heat up part of their lunch (or ask for help with this) as well. Here’s the latest on fun lunch supplies we use.

TUESDAY: Defrost soup for lunch on Wednesday.

I usually send a soup lunch on Wednesdays (although, as I am typing out this post I realize it is Wednesday, and we didn’t do it this week—oops). We got into this habit years ago, so I usually do remember when they get home on Tuesday to ask them to pick a soup from the freezer so it can defrost overnight in the fridge for the next day. I have a collection of soups I’ve made in the weeks and months prior that I freeze in individual portions for this purpose—it’s usually soups I’ve made for dinner and doubled the recipes for leftovers. We heat it up in the morning and add to an insulated Thermos. I then only have to pack a smaller lunch container of “side item” type foods, and it feels a lot easier than filling the bigger lunch boxes. A good way to break up the week, in my opinion!

(Back to) THURSDAY: Kids pack for “make your own healthy lunch Friday” (as I lovingly call it, LOL).

I try to get my kids to help pack their own lunch other days of the week now that they’re older, but they are busy girls that get home pretty late from school! Regardless, by the end of the week, I especially feel like I want them to pitch in, so I usually require them to pack their lunch for Friday, at a minimum. Friday is also grocery day (as I mentioned above), so it is often slim pickings by Thursday, and my kids dig around in our freezer for homemade breakfast burritos, quesadillas, and paninis that we’ve made in advance, along with all those soups (see this post for 10 recipes to freeze for school lunches). It is fine by me because we make those things on the weekend, and they often help!

So, there you have it. I hope this sort of brain dump of what goes on around here helps give you some new ideas for your kids’ lunchboxes. I’d love to hear about your routine (or lack thereof) in the comments!

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20 thoughts on “Our Back to School (Lunch) Routine”

  1. Good writings. There are few things to check when you are preparing food for your children, Your child needs different amounts of nutrients at different ages. According to the latest American Dietary Guidelines, a wholesome diet for your child should provide the following nourishment:
    Grains
    Dairy
    Fruits
    Vegetables
    So its important to add these contents when preparing lunch for your children.
    Source: http://www.aesmc.com/blog/paediatrician-in-abu-dhabi/nutrition-deficiency-detriment-childs-growth/

  2. I am struggling to get my 11 and 8 year old to follow a routine and actually take on the responsibility of packing their own lunch! My 8 year old seems hopeless! 11 year old is getting there. I think doing most of the work the evening before is so key!

  3. We’ve been lunch planning since kindergarten with my twins (Now in 2nd grade). It was a process for sure. I’m not kidding. There were days I wanted to just give up cuz of their whining and what not, lol. But, I kept at it. Now, it goes on fairly smoothly with them without too much fuss to come up with their weekly menu from the list. Problem is, one like something and the other is totally against it….I cannot make everything different for both as we have time constraints….so for them to agree on something themselves is a miracle. But, they do some different stuff and some same. I have a list of lunch items and breakfast items they can pick and choose from for the week. Plus, fruit. I do my shopping Friday for the following week. I try not to be too fancy as we have limited time but, we have a mix of hot and cold foods on the list. Stuff I can pre-make I freeze ahead. It’s been working for far. Kids don’t make their lunches yet, I do. However, we’ve slowly started to let them make their own breakfast the night before (like oatmeal, breakfast bowl etc.) so as to save time etc.. Baby steps…

  4. We’ve started off the year ok. My oldest started middle school and has been making her own breakfast – heating up a waffle with a spoon of almond butter or bacon. My younger has a waffle or english muffin and I cook an egg for her. They used to like oatmeal, but no more. My oldest made her own lunch for the first 2 weeks of school – sandwiches or leftover soup, but she got tired of it and is now buying her lunch every day. My younger has been eating school lunch or ravioli from Whole Foods, with mixed nuts and fruit. She gets stuck on only eating one thing until she is so tired of it that she will not eat it again -like tuna, almond butter or peanut butter sandwiches. They will sometimes eat lunch meat, but I don’t want them eating that all the time. They like leftovers for lunches, but it’s hard to find things they will eat that are specifically lunch food like cheese, hummus, or pimento cheese. And they never like the same thing – except turkey chili and meatballs. I usually shop for dinner for the next 4 days and we sometimes run out of food after that and end up eating out.

  5. For my 8,6 and 3 yo daughters we pack lunches for M-Thurs on Sunday. We have 12 UKonserve rectangle metal boxes and the four of us pack the lunches with different combos. We leave the sturdier choices for Thursday. This has CHANGED my life. I am now able to make hot breakfast before school. I work M-Thurs and it just makes it enjoyable. Friday I happily make the lunches in the AM or the night before when dinner prep is still out.

    The boxes stack so nicely
    In the fridge they have their own designated shelf. It was an investmate for the boxes and for the mini metal round containers but it was totally worth it. Highly recommend.

  6. We have a team approach to packing lunches- I have a high schooler and a middle schooler who prefer to take their own lunch. I have them pre-pack anything non-perishable/easy the night before, then leave me a post-it note with anything that needs to be prepped in the AM (heating something for thermos, making a sandwich fresh). It takes out the guess work plus avoids the morning frantic-ness!

  7. Stocking the freezer is key. I took a few weeks, but my freezer is now filled with homemade whole wheat dinner rolls, quesadillas, pizza rolls, sour cherry scones, power balls and granola bites for lunches as well as breakfast burritos, corn bread, zucchini, apple and banana breakfast cakes, and 2 kinds of granola for breakfasts. Last night my daughter made guacamole, while I took quesadillas out of the freezer and cut up strawberries and peppers. I second packing lunches after dinner as I dread having to pack lunches before bed.

  8. I don’t have a routine for lunch that works well. My son is in 3rd grade, with allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. We let him get hot lunch q few days a week, if he likes the options, because it is easier and they are safe for him to eat. He says he feels like the other kids when he gets it. I frantically search for options in the morning while the kids eat some breakfast and usually throw something together that I never feel is great or exciting. I totally fail at planning ahead. I have nothing in the freezer that is cooked and just needs to be defrosted. My son would never eat a breakfast burrito, he hates eggs. I usually start with year with lots of ideas and Peter out, but this year, it has happened fast. I don’t know what to make. My meal idea for busy nights when we have activities is also not good. I think I have to plan this weekend.

  9. I love the, ‘soup Wednesday’ idea. We always have extra soup when I make it, saving it into individual portions for lunches is a brilliant idea! I have a new soup recipe I’ve been dying to try–it’s from Melanie Wildman’s new Ultimate Protein Cookbook, this has been a great new resource! I’m going to make it this weekend and will definitely be using your suggestion! My kids are going to love this, ha! Mom win.

  10. My first grade daughter helps pick out her lunches by filling out a menu I created. I listed out things I would be happy for her to have in a school lunch, breaking them out into 4 categories-main dish, fruit, veggie, other and I laminated the menu. Each weekend she circles 5 items from each category that she wants in her lunch and it’s ready for me before I grocery shop on Monday. I either pack up as much of the lunches at once (that will keep well in the fridge) or pack the night before.

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