DIY: Homemade Healthy Lunchables (that look just like store bought)

Homemade Healthy #Lunchables by 100 Days of #RealFood

The number one way to know what’s really in your food – and how highly processed it is – is to read the ingredient label.

There are some products that you just know are total junk food without even seeing what’s inside like Doritos, Coca-Cola, and pretty much any Little Debbie Snack. Then there are others that I don’t think are so obvious (to the average shopper), for example… Cheese and crackers? Peanut butter and jelly with fruit? All white chicken strips with a smoothie? C’mon, you have to admit those combinations sound more innocent and not nearly as bad as a Swiss Cake Roll.

It’s no secret that these are some of the combinations packaged up and sold as Lunchables. I can totally see the attraction to buying these “lunches” for your kids. There is no question that they are convenient for the adults and desired by (most) little ones.

But, at what point do we stop letting the benefits of convenience outweigh the importance of our children’s health?

I know we are all busy. Let’s face it though, we all have the same 24 hours in a day and it’s up to each individual to prioritize what is important in their own life. I don’t think one Lunchable is going to put anyone’s health over the edge, but please tell me that we can all agree this is not what we should be feeding our children on a weekly basis.

Let’s take a look at what’s inside those Lunchables!

Lunchables Contain…

Ingredients you know are bad:

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Hydrogenated Oils
  • Artificial Flavors
  • Mechanically Separated Chicken
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
  • Sodium Nitrites

Ingredients you do not cook with at home:

  • Sodium Diacetate
  • Potassium Chloride
  • Potassium Sorbate (Preservative)
  • Monocalcium Phosphate
  • Thiamine Mononitrate
  • Monocalcium Phosphate
  • Calcium Propionate
  • Whey Protein Concentrate
  • BHA and BHT

Ingredients that are mysteriously evasive…probably for a reason:

  • Flavor
  • Natural Flavors

I also find it interesting that the ingredients for Lunchables used to be listed on their website – because I saw them there with my own eyes earlier this year – but when I went to “copy and paste” the ingredients for this blog post they had strangely disappeared. Clearly the Lunchables people don’t want us parents spending too much time thinking about this stuff. So I took the liberty to type them up for you (below) straight off the package.

Lunchable 1: Chicken Strips with Smoothie

Out of the three lunches highlighted here, this is the one that took me the longest to replicate. But (to make things more manageable) you could prepare the chicken nuggets and smoothies in big batches ahead of time and store them in the freezer. You can get the “knockoff” divided containers I used online or at Target or Walmart.

Homemade Healthy #Lunchables by 100 Days of #RealFood

Lunchable Brand Ingredients:
Fruit Smoothie – Water, Strawberry Puree, Banana Puree, Apple Juice Concentrate, Orange Juice Concentrate, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Citric Acid, Natural Flavors, Fruit & Vegetable Extract For Color.
Breaded White Chicken Strips – Chicken Strips – White Chicken, Water, Potassium Lactate, Modified Cornstarch, Contains Less Than 2% Of Salt, Potassium Chloride, Dextrose, Sodium Phosphates, Carrageenan, Sodium Diacetate, Lemon Juice Solids, Flavor. Breading – Wheat Flour, Dextrose, Yellow Corn Flour, Modified Corn Starch, Wheat Gluten, Egg Whites, Whey [From Milk], Spices, Caramel Color, Salt, Paprika [Color], Onion Powder, Extractive of Paprika, Celery Seed Extract. Batter – Bleached Wheat Flour, Food Starch-Modified, Yellow Corn Flour, Dextrose, Flavor, Garlic Powder, Extractives of Paprika, Monosodium Glutamate, Caramel Color. Seasoning Blend – Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour [Bleached Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid], Egg Whites, Modified Food Starch, Salt, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Spices, Natural Flavor, Browned In Soybean Oil.
Chocolate Sandwich Cookies – Sugar, Unbleached Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate {Vitamin B1}, Riboflavin {Vitamin B2}, Folic Acid), High Oleic Canola And/Or Palm And/Or Canola Oil, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), High Fructose Corn Syrup, Cornstarch, Leavening (baking Soda And/Or Calcium Phosphate), Salt, Soy Lecithin, Vanillin – An Artificial Flavor, Chocolate.
Ketchup With Starch Added – Water, Tomato Paste, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Distilled Vinegar, Sucrose, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Modified Food Starch, Soybean Oil, Sodium Benzoate And Potassium Sorbate (Preservatives), Dextrose, Onion Powder, Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Spice, Natural Flavor.

Homemade Version Ingredients*:
Fruit Smoothie – Bananas, Peaches, Raspberries, Kale, Milk.
Chicken Strips – Chicken Breasts, Egg, Butter, Breadcrumbs (Unbleached Whole Wheat Flour, Malt Extract, Yeast, Sea Salt), Paprika, Garlic Powder, Parmesan Cheese (Pure Cow’s Milk, Salt, Rennet), Sea Salt.
Dark Chocolate – Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa, Raw Cane Sugar, Vanilla Extract.
Ketchup – Tomato Puree, Sugar, White Vinegar, Salt, Onion Powder, Spices.

*Organic ingredients were sourced when possible. Not all ingredients in the “Homemade Version” are technically 100 Days of Real Food approved, but are still far superior to the store bought version.

Lunchable 2: Ham and American Cracker Stacks

Call me old fashioned, but (in an ideal world) I think everyone’s lunch should contain some sort of fresh fruit or vegetable. So I took the liberty of adding organic grapes to this one.

Homemade Healthy #Lunchables by 100 Days of #RealFood

Lunchable Brand Ingredients:
Chocolate Sandwich Cookies – Sugar, Unbleached Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate {Vitamin B1}, Riboflavin {Vitamin B2}, Folic Acid), High Oleic Canola And/Or Palm And/Or Canola Oil, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), High Fructose Corn Syrup, Cornstarch, Leavening (baking Soda And/Or Calcium Phosphate), Salt, Soy Lecithin, Vanillin – An Artificial Flavor, Chocolate.
Cooked Ham – Water Added – Chopped and Formed – Smoke Flavor Added – Ham, Water, Contains Less Than 2% Of Sodium Lactate, Potassium Chloride, Modified Cornstarch, Sugar, Sodium Phosphate, Salt, Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Ascorbate, Flavor, Sodium Nitrite, Smoke Flavor.
Pasteurized Prepared American Cheese Product – Milk, Water, Milkfat, Milk Protein Concentrate, Whey, Whey Protein Concentrate, Contains Less Than 2% Of Sodium Citrate, Salt, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid As A Preservative, Cheese Culture  Enzymes, Oleoresin Paprika (Color), Annatto (Color), With Starch Added For Slice Separation.
Crackers – Enriched Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Vegetable Shortening (Soybean Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil With TBHQ And Citric Acid Added To Help Flavor), Sugar, Leavenings (Baking Soda And/Or Monocalcium Phosphate), Salt, Whey (From Milk), Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavor, Enzymes.

Homemade Version Ingredients*:
Dark Chocolate – Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa, Raw Cane Sugar, Vanilla Extract.
Organic Ham – Pork, Water. Contains Less Than 2% Of The Following: Sea Salt, Honey, Cane Sugar, Celery Powder.
Cheddar Cheese – Pasteurized Milk, Salt, Cheese Culture, Rennet, Annatto Color.
TJs Whole-Wheat Wafer Crackers – Whole Wheat, High Oelic Safflower Oil and/or High Oelic Sunflower Oil, Salt.
Grapes – Grapes

*Organic ingredients were sourced when possible. Not all ingredients in the “Homemade Version” are technically 100 Days of Real Food approved, but are still far superior to the store bought version.

Lunchable 3: Pizza with Pepperoni

A lot of people seem to think of pizza as “junk food,” but if it’s made with 100% whole-wheat crust, organic cheese and sauce, and accompanied by a “real” vegetable then what’s so bad about it? I say dig in and, if you are a pepperoni fan, treat yourself to an organic version (Applegate makes one) on occasion.

Homemade Healthy #Lunchables by 100 Days of #RealFood

Lunchable Brand Ingredients:
Pizza Crust – Wheat Flour (Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour [Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid], Whole Wheat Flour), Water Sugar, Glycerin, Soybean Oil, Contains 2% Or Less Of: Yeast, Vital Wheat Gluten, Mono- & Diglycerides, Salt, Xantham Gum, Calcium Propionate, Sorbic Acid, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Enzyme.
Pizza Sauce – Water, Tomato Paste, Sugar, Contains Less Than 2% Of Modified Food Starch, Garlic Powder, Salt, Onion Powder, Spice, Citric Acid, Dried Basil, Sea Salt, Potassium Sorbate Added As A Preservative, Xantham Gum, Natural Flavor.
Pepperoni Made WIth Pork, Chicken And Beef – BHA, BHT And Citric Acid Added To Help Protect Flavor – Pork, Mechanically Separated Chicken, Beef, Salt, Contains 2% Or Less Of Pork Stock, Spices (Including Mustard), Dextrose, Lactic Acid Starter Culture, Oleoresin of Paprika, Flavoring, Sodium Ascorbate, Sodium Nitrite, BHA, BHT, Citric Acid.
Pasteurized Prepared Mozzarella Cheese Product – Pasteurized Part-Skim Milk, Water, Milk Protein Concentrate, Salt, Cheese Culture, Whey Protein Concentrate,  Sodium Citrate, Milkfat, Sorbic Acid As A Preservative, Enzymes, With Cellulose Powder To Prevent Caking.

Homemade Version Ingredients*:
TJs Whole-Wheat Pita – Whole Wheat Flour, Water, Honey, Yeast, Sea Salt, Ascorbic Acid.
Pizza Sauce – Tomato Puree, Oregano, Salt.
Pepperoni – Pork, Sea Salt, Contains Less Than 2% Of The Following: Dextrose, Celery Powder, Spices Paprika, Paprika Extract, Garlic, Lactic Acid Starter Culture.
Mozzarella Cheese – Cultured Pasteurized Part Skim Milk, Salt, Enzymes.
Carrots – Carrots

*Organic ingredients were sourced when possible. Not all ingredients in the “Homemade Version” are technically 100 Days of Real Food approved, but are still far superior to the store bought version.

Full Disclosure:  I clearly had to purchase Lunchables in order to write this blog post. While taking the photographs and making the “knock off” versions I allowed my children to sample everything you see pictured here. I hope to raise children who don’t just avoid highly processed food “because mommy said so,” but instead because they realize it is far inferior. My older daughter didn’t really like most of what she tried (and now knows what this stuff tastes like!), but my younger daughter, on the other hand, would eat anything and everything I put in front of her…including these. That is why I don’t buy this stuff. If it’s not around it is rarely ever an issue. Always a work in progress around here. :)

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277 thoughts on “DIY: Homemade Healthy Lunchables (that look just like store bought)”

  1. You are a very health conscious mother. You have also good knowledge about foods. I usually give my kids noodles/ rice cakes and sometimes cakes. I mean to say 1 item only. But all of them are made by me.

  2. I skimmed through this and really like the premise and the results that you came up with. Lunchables are so popular among children, I’ve wondered why I’ve never seen a more health-conscious version on supermarket shelves.

    As the head of R&D at a National School Lunch Program provider, I’ve been working on similiar healthy versions of lunchables to try and get more kids to eat lunch while still meeting the strict nutritional requirements, and our own “healthy as possible” company ethos. We’re doing a “kid-friendly charcuterie” with crackers, summer sausage and aged cheddar, a “pizza pack” with whole wheat pizza rounds, house-made sauce, turkey pepperoni, and freshly shredded cheddar and mozzarella blend, and a “premium protein pack” with sunflower butter, dried fruit, celery, and string cheese.

    Really, the only qualm I have is that mechanically separated chicken is not inherently a bad ingredient. There might be bad additives that go into some MS chicken, and it’s certainly not as tasty as whole-muscle chicken products, but I feel that the idea of a cheap chicken product that reduces waste by utilizing leftover scraps from carcasses during the manufacturing process is actually a fairly commendable practice.

  3. The containers you use for your lunchables, where did you get those? We love this idea and are looking into it for our 6 year old.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi. The brand is Applegate and you can find it at most large chains but Lisa buys hers at Earth Fare.

  4. Wow awesome idea! Thank you for sharing this important information. I was just looking to purchase a few lunchables for my little one and wow I’m so glad I didn’t!! I’ll do these instead. Thank you so much!!

  5. Jennifer Christianson

    Reading up on lunchables. I just came from a field trip and was so disappointed to see 5/6 girls in my group with lunchables! My daughter was the only one without one! I’ll be reading this article to her tonight and possibly buying a few for them to actually see if there is any flavor in them. Thanks!

  6. How do you keep the chicken nuggets cold enough by lunch? Do they need to be frozen to dethaw for lunch or out of the fridge is fine? We have a lunch box with a cold pack but is that enough is they just go from the fridge?

  7. This is incredible! I definitely want someone like these prepared for my kids in the future. Its healthier, it looks more delicious and even more affordable. I was just curious.. Where did you buy the organic ham?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hello. Lisa buys Applegate brand. You can find it at stores like Earth Fare or Whole Foods. Our local Publix carries it, too.

  8. I see she used zipcicles for the sauce. What esle does she use them for? I went to the website…they are made for freezer pops. Just curious how else she uses them.

  9. I really love your website! These lunches are definitely more appropriate for growing bodies. I was wondering what kind of chocolate did you use in your lunches. I am looking for a cleaner chocolate to eat. Also, what brand of ham? I have a lot of trouble finding appropriate lunch meat. Thanks!

  10. Hi Amy, my daughter is very big on textures and I was wondering what specific type of organic ham did you use to get it similar to the texture of a lunchables ham? If I buy regular deli ham she will realize it’s too thin. We have a slot of food issues and it’s a big step for he to even eat the meat from a lunchable (yuck) lol. Thanks!

  11. Where do I purchase/what brand of containers are those? Sorry if I missed it in an earlier post. I love these lunch ideas!

  12. Awesome to know it is Applegate! One follow up question however–it seems like thicker cut meat. Is it deli meat or meat from their Half Time boxed lunches? I ask as I think the typical deli meat would be too thin to handle and not have the novelty of this sliced cut into circles! :)

  13. If I make the chicken nuggets ahead of time and freeze them, should I take them out the night before or heat them in the morning before packing them? Or can I just put them in the lunch from the freezer, do you think they will have thawed by lunch time?

    Thank you

      1. Awesome to know it is Applegate! One follow up question however–it seems like thicker cut meat. Is it deli meat or meat from their Half Time boxed lunches? I ask as I think the typical deli meat would be too thin to handle and not have the novelty of this sliced cut into circles! :)

  14. I see popcorn in the lunches from time to time. Can you tell me what you think about “Boom Chicka Pop” original. Is this ok? The ingredients are spot on but I’m not sure how it’s made.

  15. Lisa, as usual, a highly informative post with all the details needed to make informed decisions. I appreciate your honesty about your younger daughter’s appetite for the lunchables. I have one of those kiddos, too, and quite honestly, it is a battle in our home. Maybe this post will help us, too.

  16. Thank you so much for this post. My daughter has been asking for Lunchable all week since she saw some kids at her summer camp has it. I’ve been telling her that I won’t buy them at store but I will make my own with healthier alternatives…your post make it easy for me!

  17. Great ideas!! I was just looking to do this for my son. Just wondering where you get the cute snack seperators, seeing I haven’t had any luck looking for containers with enough spaces. Also, have you ever used organic turkey hot dogs? Would that be ok for a lunchable snack if they’re fully cooked and are in an insulated lunch bag ? Thanks:-)

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Those containers were a Ziploc product but have been discontinued, much to many readers dismay. ;) Be sure that the organic dog is kept plenty cold with ice packs within the bag.

  18. Love this! I found this b/c I have been thinking about replicating pizza lunchables for my son (he’s actually never had lunchables before, but his friends bring them). What I’m most excited about is the reusable puree pouch. Never have seen them before! I’m now inspired to get creative with lunches. He eats a pb&j every.single.day. (per his request!) Thanks for the ideas!

  19. I’m wondering how you send the chicken nuggets in a lunch that won’t be eaten for a few hours? Do you cook them when you take them out of the freezer and then they are room temp by the time they are eaten?

  20. Forgive me, but isn’t this just a commercial for specific brands? Tj’s and who ever make the smoothie with kale(gross) in it?

  21. I haven’t looked through the comments, so this may have been answered, but I was wondering what the little pouch for the pizza sauce is? I LOVE the green pouch for smoothies, but I don’t recognize the pizza one.
    These look great. Some neat ideas when we go on field-trips. :) We are also gluten-free, so some adaptation is already necessary for eating anything. :)

  22. How do you switch your kids over from the processed one to the non processed one. I tried to do a non processed one I even had him pack it and he did not touch it! Came home hungry Please help! Oh he is 8.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Liz. Don’t give up and practice gentle persistence. :) Continue to encourage him to help with the packing and try some different combinations. It also helps to talk with him about the “whys”. Maybe compare ingredient lists with him, too, pointing out the chemicals and such. HTH ~Amy

  23. Quick question…the smoothie container & the container holding your pizza sauce…are those reusable ones? & if so where did you get them?

  24. Those look great! I am wondering, though, is it safe to put the chicken strips in their lunch in the morning if they won’t eat them until several hours later?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Becky. It is safe as long as they are kept at either a safe hot or cold temperature. Lisa sends them cold. ~Amy

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Ceci. You can find Applegate Farms pepperoni at health food and conventional grocery stores. ~Amy

  25. It’s sad to think that there are such things as BHT and BHA in kiddos foods. Why would you want to feed anyone, child or adult, something that is derived from butane? As a nurse I try to encourage my friends and patients to eat healthfully to support their body’s natural functions and defenses. Thanks for posting these alternatives for those people with kiddos

    1. For those asking the sauce bag appears to say “zipsicle” a quick google search will pull up these cool little bags! :)

  26. Salami, cheese and crackers is an old standby in our lunch planning…but my kids would love the mini pizzas, what is the bag you have the sauce in?

  27. Thank you!! I kind of knew how to do these without all the processed foods, But I’m happy to see your ideas! My daughter loves the lunchables and I don’t buy them a lot but i think a big draw is the “diy” factor. We bought her a yumbox for lunches this year (she’s a kindergartener) and i’m excited to use these ideas!

  28. Hi. My daughter loves the ones with cheese sauce and salsa. Do you have a homemade version of that one? I try and tell her that the cheese in the store bought one isn’t even real cheese but she begs for them and lately I have refused to buy them. Thanks!!! LOVE your site.

    1. I would say get organic white corn tortilla chips, organic or homemade salsa, and homemade cheese sauce made with real cheddar and cream? I am sure you can find a clean cheese sauce recipe on a google search.

    2. Strictly speaking this is not a real food recipe but it does yield a cheese sauce that has the same texture as that cardboardy stuff but, tastes like cheese, because it is real cheese! And it only uses a few ingredients, you can use organic cheese and cornstarch and evaporated milk if you so desire.

      http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2010/09/cheese-sauce-for-cheese-fries-and-nachos.html

      you can read the article as to how he came up with the recipe, it’s pretty interesting.

  29. This is great what you did. You have it look so easy to create processed junk marketed for kids. One thing I’d like to add is stressing that Mono- & Diglycerides are BAD too and should be in your list. These two seem to be in everything and are just as bad as Hydrogenated Oils. Many fail to know this. The other thing I’d like to mention is I know you created these lunches to be comparable to lunchables – however I don’t think chocolate in any form really needs to be part of a balanced lunch for kids.

  30. I don’t understand the reasoning for pretending to your kids that you are giving them “Lunchables”. Why not just make a healthy lunch and be honest and say I don’t buy Lunchables because they are not healthy?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Mary. Our kids understand that we don’t buy “Lunchables” for that very reason but I, personally, think it can ease the transition for kids who are just making the switch to real foods. I know it was difficult, at times, for my boys. They still have other children sometimes comment negatively about their “weird food”. Beyond that, this post is s great example of how to take something that is relatively bad for kids and making it over in a simple way that any parent can also do. ~Amy

    2. i think too, it can help the kids not feel like they are “so different” from other kids. i have a friend who has a kid with celiacs and wen she goes to birthday parties, she tries to duplicate the cupcakes in a way her daughter can eat so the daughter doesn’t feel left out. i don’t want my kids eating lunchables, but chances are, if they see all of their friends eating them, they will want to too. this way, they feel like they are getting the same stuff their friends get, without actually getting the yucky stuff in the lunchables. love this idea!

  31. I love love love the homemade lunch-ables. My 8 year old DAUGHTER loves them as well. I have taken left over ham and using cookie cutters cut the ham into shapes. She will only eat hot school lunch if it is something she really enjoys but I would say 95% of the time she will pack a cold lunch loaded with fresh vegis, fruits and a yummy pb (one ingredient) and honey (local and organic) sandwich.

  32. Thank you for sharing this! I’ve been wanting to replicate a lunchable but with healthy ingredients ever since my 7 year old came home from school begging for them after seeing her friends eat them. I refuse to buy them but understand why they appear so appealing to children. What a great resource to find a balance between what our kids find cool and what we aim for with nutrition!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Angela. Lisa cut the ham herself to mimic the look of lunchables. Just use a small round bisquit/cookie cutter or a small juice cup. ~Amy

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Carolynn. We do not provide nutrition information on our recipes. We want people focusing on eating real foods/more whole foods and less on numbers. Here are some posts which help explain our philosophy: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2013/01/04/healthy-eating-defined/, https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2013/01/23/portion-size-matters/, and https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/10-reasons-to-cut-out-processed-food/ and https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2011/04/29/mini-pledge-week-8-stop-eating-when-you-feel-full/. There are many tools available online which can help calculate nutrition details for recipes. ~Amy

  33. My question is where did you find little pouches of pizza sauce, and certainly where did you find “healthier” ones? Do they sell these in stores because I have never seen them! Thanks!

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