Real Food Tips: School Lunch FAQs (the answers to all your questions!)

When I post my daughters’ “real food” school lunch pictures on Facebook it often provokes a lot of questions. So here—all in one place—are some answers for ya! Now let’s just hope we can get all those with the questions to actually read this post :) If I left out any of the more common ones please let me know in the comments below…I know some of you are just as familiar with these daily school lunch questions as I am!

1. I’ve seen you updated your lunch boxes, where can I purchase one of those really cool ones?!
Yes, we’ve definitely upgraded our girls’ lunch boxes and bags. We used to use the Ziplock divided containers (see below), but now we use these new ones from Sistema. They fit so much food and fold up into to three different compartments. They can be found at AmazonWalmart, or Target, and come in different colors.

Our New Lunch Boxes on 100 Days of Real Food

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2. Where do you get those snazzy divided lunch containers that you used to use all the time? And what does the lunch look like after being tossed all around on the way to school? Don’t the yogurt and applesauce leak into the other compartments?

We actually own quite a few different lunch containers, but before we switched lunch boxes, I did find myself reaching for our BPA-free Ziplock divided containers most often. And there are two main reasons why—First, each compartment is truly leak-proof therefore liquids will stay put no matter how much the box is tossed around on the way to school, and secondly, they are lightweight and easy to wash and open (okay, I guess that is technically 3 more reasons—but we really liked these). Plus at the uber reasonable cost of $5+ for 2 containers, they are a great deal!

The divided lunch containers can be purchased at…
– Target (stores only)
– Walmart (online and in stores)lunch in ziploc container

3. How do you keep your cut apples from turning brown (i.e. oxidizing)?
Here’s the deal—there are a few things you can do, but I actually don’t do anything. What I’ve learned (based on my own personal experience and no scientific data whatsoever) is that some apple varieties seem to brown much faster than others. For example, the Red Delicious apples I cut open tend to start turning brown within minutes. Honey Crisp, on the other hand (a seasonal apple that is a little harder to find), can sit in the fridge for days after being sliced and hardly change color. Maybe those apples are fresher and that makes a difference? I have honestly never spent very much time looking into it. So I simply go for the apples that either are or look kind of similar to Honey Crisp on the outside (like Gala), and when I do I find that I have better luck. I have tried putting lemon juice on our apple slices, but one day my poor daughter came home from school saying her apples tasted like “cleaning solution.”

But if you choose to go the route of preventing oxidation regardless here are some options…
– Citrus: As I mentioned, I wouldn’t recommend straight up lemon juice so either water it down or go for something less offensive like orange juice or pineapple juice.
– Salt Water Bath: I have not personally tried this, but blog readers often tell me this works great.
– Cinnamon: This is another suggestion from my wonderful blog readers, but it will certainly change the apple slices from just being plain (I do think it would add a nice flavor though).
Rubber-band: Surely we’ve all seen the image on Pinterest by now? Slice the whole apple then hold it back together with a rubber band until lunchtime. This would only work if you normally send the whole apple – and they would, of course, have to dispose of the core or just leave it in their lunch box.

4. How do you keep cold items cold and hot items hot until lunchtime (my child doesn’t have access to a refrigerator or a microwave)?
I keep cold items cold by packing 3 or 4 small ice packs together with the lunch box in an insulated lunch bag (we use the “Soft Sided” lunch bags by Lands End because they fit both our lunch box and thermos cup nicely). I keep hot items hot (like soup, pasta, beans, etc.) by heating them up the morning before school and transferring them to a thermos container, which is designed to keep food hot for up to 5 hours (more on those details here). I don’t stress about packing hot and cold together, but I do try to keep them each on their own sides of the lunch bag when I do.
cold lunches

5. Where is the protein??
We believe that part of eating a real food diet means not counting fat grams, calories, carbs, or even protein. Instead, you simply eat a variety of whole foods (without overeating) and the rest just falls into place. Other countries outside of the U.S. routinely follow this practice and don’t obsessively add up numbers like we do—plus all that calculating can sure take the enjoyment out of your meal in my opinion! But, if you still insist on counting up numbers anyway, please know it is rare for the average person who is eating a varied diet to have a protein deficiency. Please check out my “Why are Americans so concerned about protein?” post for more details.

6. Are you really allowed to send peanuts and peanut butter in your daughter’s lunches? It’s not allowed at my child’s school—what can I pack instead?
Our entire school used to be nut-free, but a few years ago they changed it to just one “nut-free class” per grade level. When they were attending that school during that change, it was the first time  I did not have a child in a nut-free class so it was the first time since my kids started elementary school that I could freely send peanuts, peanut butter, tree nuts, etc.—so, yes, I did just that. And just for the record, when we were in the nut-free class I took it very seriously and miraculously never “goofed” or forgot—but outside of those designated classrooms, the school never gave us a reason to believe there was an issue with us sending products containing peanuts or tree nuts.

If your child does have an allergy or is in a nut-free class or school, some great alternatives to peanut butter are…

dfds-For tons of nut-free school lunch ideas, I’ve put together a list for you here and here, so you can check them out all in one place.

Sunflower seed butter (be sure to check the package to make sure it wasn’t manufactured in a facility that also processes peanuts or tree nuts)
Cream cheese
PB Alternatives

7. Are the lunches you pack enough food for your kids? They look like they would be a small snack for my football-playing teenage son!
While I thank you for your concern I do pride myself in knowing my own children well enough to have a good understanding of their appetites. I am certainly not always spot on, but I do think I am pretty close most days. Not to mention we do think real food is much more filling than the processed stuff AND my daughters do both get a morning snack at school (usually oatmeal) as well as an afternoon snack when they get home—in addition to a standard breakfast and dinner of course. Long story short, I can assure you that everyone is well fed at our house. When my daughters were only 6 and 8-years-old, I would never expect the amount of lunch that is right for them to also be right for a 6-ft tall teenage boy (or even an extra hungry younger child) so please feel free to simply use our lunch ideas for guidance and supplement or switch things up for your own kids as necessary.  I personally think leftover dinners would be a great way to fill up hungrier kids.

8. When you pack items that you’ve previously made and frozen (like soup, muffins, waffles, homemade uncrustables, etc.) how and when do you defrost them?
Since I am in the habit of packing my kids lunches the day before, I almost always pull out frozen items the night before as well. I usually allow items to defrost in the fridge overnight—which is required for soups and such—but bread-like items that are not already packed with perishable items are fine defrosting on the counter by themselves. Sometimes I forget or just decide to add a frozen muffin at the last minute on the morning of school and, even so, it is still defrosted and totally edible by lunchtime. For more on this topic check out my list of 10 Recipes to Make and Freeze for School Lunches.

9. There is no way I could get my picky kid to eat the items you pack in your lunches—any advice?
Right off the bat – the fact that you are here reading a real food school lunch post is a great start! I say get your kids involved in deciding what to pack. But, please remember, it is our job as parents to give them the right choices. For example, don’t ask if they want organic cheese cubes or Cheetos—ask if they want cheese cubes or sliced apples! Lots of blog readers tell me that they sit down with their kids and look at my school lunch pictures together so their child can easily point out what real food items they’d like to have in their lunch (love this idea!). For even more tips be sure to check out my blog post all about winning over your picky eater. And most importantly…be sure to use gentle persistence and don’t give up on them!

10. Where do you get those amazing looking bagels?… and where can I find whole-wheat pitas?
I get this question almost every time I share a photo of them! I wish they were available everywhere, but I purchase them from a local bakery here in NC called Poppyseeds. When I make my girls sandwiches using pitas, I grab a bag from Trader Joes!

11. When do you make baked goods?
I make most baked goods (like muffins and pancakes) in advance and store them in our freezer. So when I am packing school lunches the night before I just pull out what I need so it can defrost in the fridge overnight. Almost all of the recipes I used can be found on the blog…just use the search box at the top right of the page to find what you are looking for!

I hope this post helps to clear some things up…please feel free to leave additional questions in the comments below.

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128 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: School Lunch FAQs (the answers to all your questions!)”

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  1. Honey bath works wonders on sliced apples to prevent browning! 1 cup of water to two Tablespoons of honey. Slice some of the apple, drop it in the honey water while you slice the rest. Then switch.

  2. When I make fruit salad I drain a can of mandarin oranges saving the juice. Then I place the cut apples into the orange juice.
    As far as #8 with a picky eater I make new things to try as lunches dinners or snacks on the weekends to see if kids like them. That way I know I avoid the problem that if I send them to school with something new and they didn’t like it they wouldn’t have much to eat that day. You should always try. Your picky eater may surprise you!!!

  3. In reference to #5, I use Wow Butter in my son’s lunch (if I can’t find Wow Butter, I use Soy Butter.) It doesn’t taste exactly like peanut butter, but is close enough, especially paired with jelly. My son is a fairly picky eater, so for him to give it thumbs up means it is pretty good. It says it is school safe, peanut/tree nut free, and even comes with stickers to put on the sandwich container so there is no question by the school.

  4. My kids did the 10 day challenge last week and to get them on board for a much different lunch experience, I showed them a bunch of lunches on this site and asked them to pick what looked good. We’ve kept it up (day 13) and their lunched have been much healthier, their choice!

  5. I think it’s funny when people question a parent’s lunch choice. My daughter eats only a half of a sandwich for lunch, if that. So, there was a time when I would send a quarter sandwich as to not be wasteful. Obviously other things as well. I used to get comments about it as if I’m trying to starve my daughter. She eats like a bird! And sometimes a portion of the quarter sandwich would come home!

  6. To keep apples from turning brown, rinse them in lemonade! Much tastier than straight up lemon juice.

    I worked at Shoney’s in my teens and that was the trick to keeping them fresh on the salad bar. We would dispense lemonade straight from the drink machine into the apple container.

  7. Thank you for this site and these posts. I’m almost a first time mama, and these posts help me feel better about taking care of my kids…I know about 5 years in the future, but still. I’m already stressing about it and educating myself.

  8. When are you supposed to make the mac and cheese on week 1 of the six weeks of school lunches as it’s not listed on the’weekend before’ section and then just appears on Tuesday to put in thermos?

    1. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      Hi Emma,

      Make it the night before. It’s pretty straightforward and shouldn’t take you too long. Please email me directly at kiran (at) 100daysofrealfood (dot) com if you have any other questions regarding.

  9. Just a note to those of you who have younger kids off at school. I love the Ziplock containers and that the food truly stays separate. However, I had my new Kindergartener try to open these several times before the first day of school, and she never could get it open and she’s a fairly self-sufficient kid for her age. We use the rubbermaid bento box type system ($13 on amazon) and while it doesn’t keep messy foods separate, she can open them on her own.

  10. I always soak apple slices in lightly salted water for 3-4 minutes. This keeps them from browning and doesn’t alter the taste as much as lemon juice can.
    Salt water soaking will actually sweeten very tart apples, such as Granny Smiths, making them much more palatable for children.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Cayla- I don’t know why they are so pricey on Amazon. has them for 5 something. :) ~Amy

  11. Love your blog – but did have to laugh when you mentioned left over dinner for teenage boys. Grin – growing up with just a sister – I had no idea how much teenage boys eat. I have three and there are no left overs. Ever!!!! :-) But I do use your ideas and just use larger portions.

  12. To keep apples from turning brown all you have to do is put them in a bowl with water and a little bit of lemon juice, swirl them around for a second and then take them out. No lemon flavor will stick to the apples.

  13. I work for a local school and to keep our apples from browning we dip in pineapple juice. I do this for my own lunch. I only use fresh ingredients the fresh pineapples I use always have extra juice when cut. The apples taste great this way!

  14. I buy a bottle of Vitamin C powder on amazon and soak the apples in a bowl of water with a small sprinkling of the vitamin c powder. They don’t brown, nor does it change the flavor. I buy the Now brand.

  15. Love your site! I recently purchased the ziplock divided containers but am now realizing I may need a different lunchbox. I can’t fit both the container and a drink. Do you have any lunchbox recommendations?

  16. Hello Lisa!! I am getting ready for packing lunches again and ordering fresh supplies to replace the ones that haven’t made it through the year, I have a couple questions. I just went to order the blue ice pack sheet on amazon and the reviewers said that the plastic is so think the little cubes burst. Several said their kids lunch have been coated with the blue cooling material. Has this ever happened to you? That made me think I should order the smaller hard plastic cubes instead. Also where do you get the cute clog napkins. Amazon didn’t seem to really have any.

    I am planning a back to school food prep workshop to present in our community and will be using tons of your ideas (with reference of course). I have shared your site and info with so many people!!

  17. I love your site! I’m learning so much information about eating better. I can’t wait to try packing better lunches for my girls (heck, I need to do better for my lunch). I do have a picky eater, very picky. BUT we are working on it. Since I’m just starting, I find that it’s hard to find lots of better food. At first everything looks so hard to do. But now I see that I just need to do little things here and there to start. And once I stopped eating processed foods, I started feeling better. Soon my girls, 6 and 8, will love all the foods I am starting to find! Thanks again for opening up my eyes!! <3

  18. Hi!
    I love all your recipe and lunch ideas and purchased your 6 week lunch plan. I’m on week 1. I tried making the gronola bars and once they baked they came out super crumbly, not a consistency I could cut into bars…….any ideas on where I went wrong? I’m going to use it as gronola to add to my daughters yogurt, but would love to know of maybe an idea of where I went wrong:)

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there. I am going to copy you on a reply from Kiran regarding the same issue:
      “Hi ladies,

      I’m so sorry that you had this problem! The biggest thing you need to do is to let it cool COMPLETELY before cutting. You can put them in the fridge even to be sure. Maybe cut down a tad on the fat/pb as well – no more than 1/4 cup, though. I hope that helps! Lisa and I have not had a problem, so I do know they turn into bars! And worst case scenario, try them in yogurt or even as granola.” Hope that helps. ~Amy

  19. Allison Pappenfus

    Just a quick note regarding the Ziplock containers shown above. I found them at Target in southern MN in December 2013 for $2.74 for a 2 pack. With the $1/2 ziplock coupon that is usually available, you may be able to get them for only $1.25 each. I bought three packs because Target also had a $1/3 Target coupon so it made them even cheaper. Since my boys are new to using these, if they accidentally get tossed at school, I am not out very much money. Then I was looking at them and thought these would be the perfect size to prepack lunches for when we are traveling and also for picnics. The size should stack nicely in our cooler.

  20. To keep apples from turning brown, I use pineapple juice. I use this in my catering and it works wonderful, plus I like the flavor it adds to the apples.

  21. I know you probably don’t do soda, but for keeping apples from turning brown, a lemon-lime soda like sprite works well. Better than lemon juice and it doesn’t seem to affect the taste of the apple. I take a small bowl of sprite and dip the apple slice in quickly and pull them back out.

  22. I think your lunches are awesome. My son packs most of the time and he loves to take healthier foods. I think its sad that the kids actually make fun of the foods he takes. It doesn’t bother him at all but that means these foods are not available for them at home and that’s sad. It was a very easy transition going from all the snacks they loved to healthier snacks. I left them look at your pictures and give them options at the store. My 8 yr old boy looks ant food on the shelves and will tell you that’s not healthy anymore. And I think I ruined fast food for all of us which is great. Can’t believe what this country is feeding us. Keep doing what your doing you have helped my household so much. Can not wait for your cookbook.

  23. I have a daughter with peanut/tree nut and seed allergies. She was diagnosed at 18 months old. Retested several times and will never out grow her severe allergies. Plus she just recently became a vegetarian at the age of 17 which makes it equally challenging for me to prepare meals. She cannot eat any of the seed butters available. Except for soy nut butter and even that she doesn’t like the taste “says it tastes like peanut butter”. She also is intolerant to coconut and peas/lentils (breaks out in hives).

    1. For the peanut/nut/seed allergies, have you tried making your own soynut butter? My daughter can no longer use the store versions because they have added palm oil to them. So we started making our own. You will have to add some oil to them, unlike making other nut butters, but you can choose an oil she is tolerant to, and the taste is sooo much better.

  24. Stopped by this post…AGAIN…in order to do some planning for back-from-holiday-break lunches (although it’s so cold here in Chicago that they just cancelled school tomorrow), and I wanted to add a tip for browning apples. Once you slice them, stick them in organic pineapple juice. The flavor of the apple won’t change at all and they’ll stay nice and white. While I don’t always have pineapple juice on hand…if I’m stocking up on apples, I always make sure to grab a bottle. It’s a trick I learned years and years ago…just passing it along.

  25. Another idea for stopping the apples from browning is to soak them in apple juice for a few minutes. I use this for my own sliced apples and it works like a charm!

  26. I just wanted to say thank you for your blog. I don’t have kids but your lunch ideas give me ideas for my own lunch’s. Also your blog gives me great ideas for my own real food journey

  27. Chrystal Gillespie

    Thank you for your reply and fantastic blog Amy! I am so excited to get started on reading up on all the links you’ve shared in the welcome portion of the blog. I did get to read through the initial welcome and I am so pleased with all you have offered to us “newbies”. :)
    I finally have my hubby on board for making some changes, but he still doesn’t truly get why we need an overhaul. He thinks it’s mostly because we don’t want our 11 year old daughter to struggle with weight they way we both have. Because of his reasoning, it makes it more difficult to make more changes. I am so open to making drastic changes. I pray that I can get him to read more of your links as to why its important to our overall health. Any suggestions on how to make him want to read the links?
    I also love that you have included the fact that real foods make you full faster and it means you will not need as much food. Again, thanks so much for all your amazing help/tips. Love your blog!

  28. Chrystal Gillespie

    Absolutely LOVE your lunch ideas. We are used to packing lunches but have a hard time being creative most days. Love your creativity and healthy choices. I think my family would eat most of your suggestions but not quite all. I’ve never heard of the real food eating choice. What exactly does it intale? We are the every other week healthy family which is why we are all 3 over weight. How did you have the will and knowledge to do this and how did you get your family on board? That’s my family’s prob and why we are not the most healthy eaters. I LOVE healthy but I’m out numbered by carnivore carb lovers. We need colorful variety on our plates. So happy I foun your blog. Please don’t quit posting pics of lunches cuz it’s helping me get ideas of how to properly give my family nutrition foods.

  29. Where did you get the container for the frozen smoothie / yogurt/ etc. I would love to make my own but have never seen these containers before nor know what they would be called to research it lol

  30. Regarding browning apples. I have found that if I cut the apple under running cold water or inside a large bowl of cold water, they do not turn brown or take days to change colors. We usually buy granny smith or green apples at our home.

  31. I was wondering if you’ve ever used the Planet Box lunch box? I know it is pricier, but I’ve been told that it will last for years. Just wanted to see your opinion.

  32. We are big fans of Honeycrisp apples as well but I have heard that red delicious apples are……1. shipped far (I live in midwest) 2. stored long 3. heavily waxed (not necessarily food-grade). I was told by a natural food activist like yourself to avoid this variety. I have also noticed that they have very little taste. Please do research apples. I am interested in learning more….

  33. I am wondering if you have found a way to keep frozen stuff frozen? My very very very picky son will not eat most foods – I am not exaggerating! But I have found he will eat green smoothies and such as a frozen popsicle (can’t get him to eat veggies any other way). So if you have any thoughts on this subject it would be fantastic.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Melanie. I am not exactly sure what you are asking. Are you looking for ways to keep smoothies frozen? Let me know so I can try to help. ~Amy