Last week’s “real food” school lunch tips were so popular I thought I’d stay on that bandwagon for at least one more week. Whether you want to spend one Sunday afternoon cooking up a storm or make a double-batch of something new every few days…planning ahead is key when it comes to making “real food” school lunches easy! Last year I struggled almost every night to come up with a balanced, fun, and somewhat creative lunch for my daughter. I now realize it’s because my options were rather limited. Aside from a few exceptions, I could only pull from our pantry or fridge and that got a little boring after a while. If by chance I had some leftover boiled whole-wheat noodles I could throw into the mix it was like my lucky day.
So rather than making last minute lunches again this year I am going to start planning ahead because I know this will make things so much easier in the long run. And even if “cooking up a storm” sounds like an undertaking, I am excited to finally have a plan. I don’t know about you, but once I have the next day’s lunch figured out and packed it’s such a big weight off my shoulders (and also one less thing standing in the way of me and my bedtime)!
Cook Weeks Ahead….
- Jar Storage (pictured): Eight-ounce jelly jars are the perfect size for freezing individual portions of soups, leftovers, and other one-dish meals. Pictured are five servings of homemade chicken noodle soup that will each fit perfectly into my daughter’s Thermos container. All I have to do is take one out to thaw the night before, heat it up in the morning, and then add it to her thermos before school.
Ideas for jars: Chicken noodle soup with veggies, tomato bisque, chili, corn chowder, tortilla soup, jambalaya, peanut squash soup, matzo ball soup, spaghetti sauce, and gumbo.
Hint: Don’t fill jars all the way because liquids expand when they freeze.
- Ice Cube Trays: Ice cube trays are a fabulous way to freeze extra-small portions of things like sauces. Whether you are preserving items that you made yourself or extending the shelf life of items that are store-bought, it is an easy little trick. Just transfer your frozen cubes into a big bag or container for storage and then pull out the right size portion the night before school. Simply let the cubes defrost in the lunchbox container overnight in the fridge and that’s all there is to it!
Ideas for Ice Cube Trays: Applesauce (pictured), hummus, pesto, pizza sauce, bbq sauce
- Zip Lock Bags / Big Tupperware Containers: Big disposable bags sure are easy, but my freezer starts to become a mess if I don’t have at least some sturdy containers to keep things straight. And I’ve found that there are so many things I can make in advance, freeze between layers of wax paper, and take out to defrost the night before school.
Ideas for Bags / Tupperware: Whole wheat muffins, waffles (pictured as a sandwich), pancakes, plain pizza crusts (to eat with that pizza sauce you froze in the ice cube trays!), banana or zucchini bread, and cornbread (to go with that chili you froze in a jar)
Plan Days Ahead…
- Boil eggs, noodles, rice, etc. to have ready and available in the fridge.
- Chop fruit and peel & chop veggies all at once so it is easy to grab and pack these items on a busy weeknight.
- Portion out whole-grain crackers, pretzels, homemade trail mix, or other snacks if this will help you save time during the week.
- Make at least one dipping sauce like tzatziki, a salad dressing or hummus to add to lunch boxes.
- Mix and freeze smoothies or yogurt in freezie pop holders so it is ready to go when you need it.
Set Up Night Before…
- Get out any freezer items like plain homemade whole-wheat pizza crusts (pictured) that need to defrost in lunchbox overnight.
- Add fresh chopped fruit, veggies, whole-grain crackers and/or dipping sauce to lunchbox.
- Make a sandwich or wrap if you don’t think it will get soggy overnight.
- Fill water or milk cup and store in fridge.
- Set out lunch box, reusable napkin, silverware, etc. as well as a bowl for cereal or other breakfast items.
Assemble Morning of…
- Reheat any soups, sauces, oatmeal or other items that need to be warmed up and added to Thermos.
- Get out frozen smoothie or yogurt pops, which will have all morning to defrost before lunchtime.
- Assemble and pack any other items that you didn’t make the night before like sandwiches.
- Add several ice packs to lunch box/bag to keep perishables cold.
Extra Credit: School Lunch Supplies…
- Lunchbox: For school lunch storage I love using Ziploc’s divided containers (pictured). Not only are these a ridiculously inexpensive option, but unlike other similar lunchboxes these are air-tight. That means sauces and yogurts won’t leak into the other compartments, and if you add whole-grain crackers or pretzels the night before they won’t get stale. This one is also BPA free and helps you pack a no (or low) waste lunch!
- Lunch Sack/Box: The Ziploc containers fit along with a drink cup in rectangular insulated lunchboxes from Old Navy, Lands End and Target. They fit without a drink cup in Pottery Barn lunchboxes.
- Napkins & Silverware: Sure writing notes on disposable napkins is fun, but tie dying reusable white cotton napkins with your grade-schooler is even more fun and it’s also better for the environment.
That’s what my daughter and I did together last year (pictured) and we now have 10 reusable napkins that I can pack for both her lunch and snack every day of the week. She designed them herself and the bright tie-dye colors hide stains so they will easily outlast yet another school year. I found that cocktail napkins are the perfect size for wiping little fingers and faces, and they’re also 100% cotton, which is recommended for tie dying. I also let my daughter pick out some super cheap reusable forks and spoons from Wal-Mart that we use in her lunchbox as well.
- Cups/Thermoses: We love the supply of insulated Thermos drink cups and containers at Target. They keep drinks cold and food warm for hours and there are lots of fun choices for both big and little ones!
Please feel free to share your school lunch tips in the comments below.
Related Post: Real Food Tips: 10 Ways to Switch Up Your Kid’s Lunch
158 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: 21 Ways to Plan Ahead for School Lunches”
Because nothing is more delicious than egg noodles cooked, frozen and reheated.
what are people using for leak-proof thermos’ these days?
Hi Cindy. You can find Lisa’s favorites here: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/08/24/my-favorite-school-lunch-supplies/.
Love these ideas <33 I am in high school and do not have a lunch period, therefore, I have to eat during my art period so I need to bring foods that are on the go and don't have offensive smells (recently Ive been brining perfect bars and apples, but the perfect bars have many ingredients but its very healthy but I want something thats lower in fat because I love peanut butter with my breakfasr/afternoon snacks) any tips? <33
Hi Rachel. I find hummus, veggies, and crackers to be a perfect simple lunch. This list of various snack ideas will help, too. You can combine items to make a meal: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/07/31/85-snacks-for-kids-and-adults/. :)
I just have a question about the Masa Harina for the corn tortillas. I found some at Kroger in baking section but not organic. Is the kind you use organic? Also the strawberry sauce recipe use for yogurt, pancakes, milk etc. Can it be put in freezer if a large batch made to make it bulk for planning ahead? Thanks much. Your site is great!!!
Hi Katie. Lisa buys the Bob’s Red Mill Masa and it is not organic. You can freeze the sauce. :)
how do you reheat the soups that you have frozen in jars before putting in a thermos?
Hi Heather. I defrost overnight and reheat on the stove top. You can also microwave the jars (minus their lids) as long as you loosely cover them.
When using the Ball jars & lids for storage, are you able to reuse the lids repeatedly? I know for canning, you need to purchase new lids every time, but wasn’t sure for just storing. Also, if you are reusing them, can you run the lids through the dishwasher, or do you hand wash them. Thanks!
Hi Rachel. I reuse clean lids for storing and freezing. I typically wash thoroughly and dry by hand.
There are white plastic jar lids that are sold along with the metal ones in some stores that can be used for freezing or for sending along in the lunch boxes. We send my son’s jar of milk daily in one and it works great, plus is easily washed in the top rack of the dishwasher.
When freezing soups in jars do you put the lid on after it’s froze or as soon as you put it in the freezer?
Hi Ashley. Put the lid on prior to freezing leaving room for expansion. ~Amy
packing lunch for my 7 y-o son is so frustrating! he is allergic to peanuts and pistachios. He will not even taste another nut butter or eat anything of that consistency (yogurt/applesauce/oatmeal or eat raw cheese). I love your lunch ideas but there are probably only 7-8 items he would eat. I thought I had it figured out by sending leftovers but the thermos came back full because it wasn’t hot after 5 hours. Even though he has made leaps and bounds on what he WILL eat, it’s still not much and now he is getting picky about types of bread. We eat almost all organic so I end up sending lunch meat, crackers or chips and fruit (he only eats grapes, strawberries & pineapple). I know he is bored with this because half this comes home too and he uses any lunch money in his account for chips and cookies. It’s so hard to promote healthy eating in a picky eater when he is surrounded by kids with junk food lunches and it’s served to him by the school. Any ideas you have for me would be greatly appreciated!
Hi Stacey. Have you perused all the picky eater posts? Here are a few: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/12/07/picky-eater-vs-problem-feeder/, https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2011/09/09/real-food-tips-12-ways-to-deal-with-a-picky-eater/, and https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2013/07/08/top-10-feeding-mistakes-parents-make/. ~Amy
For the thermos problem, try putting boiling water in the thermos for about 20 or 30 minutes before you put in the soups. I usually put it in the night before then put in one more fresh boil before I fill mine in the morning. Had coffee still steaming hot the next morning.
I’m just curious, how many of the smoothie pop molds do you have? I am excited to buy some, but am debating on a good number. Thanks!
Hi Mary. They usually come in a set of 4. You can find Lisa’s here: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/03/19/real-food-tips-4-hints-for-using-freezie-pop-molds/. :)
Thanks for the inspiration! I want to share our favorite lunch boxes…Planetbox. What a great product and company that has awesome customer service. The boxes are stainless steel with small storage containers too. It makes packing lunch fun for my 7 year old and 5 year old twins…yes they pack their own lunch from the whole food choices that have been chopped or prepped for them. We are gluten free too so we have to work even more veggies, fruit and wheat-free options in our diet. Thanks for all the great tips!
I just found your blog and am very inspired by it! Packing lunches and snacks is definitely at the top of my list for making healthier choices for my family. I see that you have the Ziplock boxes advertised for making homemade “lunchables”. I have found a far better alternative that I wanted to share with you and your readers. Check out Easylunchboxes.com. The owner and creator of the site, Kelly Lester, has created a wonderful solution to the Ziplock boxes. I have no affiliation with her company, but love the durability of her product and the usefulness in creating healthy lunches for my family. Check it out. Thank you for sharing all of your food information and ideas for creating healthy eating experiences for our families!
Those look really cute, but on the homepage of her website it specifically states, “NOT leakproof. Best carried upright in our cooler.” So with that alone, I think Ziploc would be a better alternative especially for kids’ lunchboxes.
Lisa, Hi. My 2 youngest are 12 and 13. They don’t want to pack lunch at all anymore. They want to eat the processed, (imo) crappy school lunches because a lunch box just isn’t cool anymore. I decided to let them have school lunch, and healthy real foods the rest of the time. We have to choose our battles, and the more I resist, three more they want it. Maybe you can let your son have a little bit of junk with his friends and healthy real food at home. Being 16 I’m guessing they get to go off campus for lunch? My oldest daughter is 21 now, but when she was a teenager they always had taco bell or subway for lunch. Same with her, everything else was real whole food, and today she’s making her own whole foods for herself and her husband
Love it! I pack my own lunches every day for work. I am already using canning jars for my salads as I can make ahead and keep fresh longer! Will add this to the repertoire now with cooler weather around the corner thanks!
Hi thanks for all the great tips. Do you know if the zip kick containers and thermos will fit in an llbean lunchbox?
Hello Michelle. Zip Kick? :) You can find the dimensions of the container here: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/08/09/product-review-lunchboxes/ and you can compare that to your lunchboxes. Hope that helps. ~Amy
I freeze jars of turkey soup, but don’t add the noodles until I thaw. I’ve found out the the noodles don’t freeze and thaw very well. They get mushy. I always make a big batch of soup after Thanksgiving, cook down the carcass and add more meat and veggies… it’s yummy.
Hello! LOVE LOVE LOVE all these ideas BUT…. our biggest roadblock is that our kids are required to CARRY all their textbooks in the back pack – thus no thermos room! So sad! We do cold sammies regularly but it’s hard to pack a really healthy lunch this way, and the highschool backpacks are particularly heavy already w/their books :(. Frustrated momma.
Why can’t they carry a lunchbox (with thermos inside) in their hands? Maybe I’m missing something, but my high school sophomore wouldn’t possibly be able to fit all her homework, lunch, clothes/shoes for sports practice, and instrument all in one backpack. She usually has to carry at least 1 or 2 things in addition to her backpack. Also, you should ask your district if the book publisher offers online textbook access. My jr. high schooler has 2 books that can be accessed online and most publishers are now offering this service.
Laura–I’m a high school teacher. Several of the students who have me for the class right before lunchtime bring their lunch bag/box to my classroom at the beginning of the day. They leave it with me (in a safe spot) and then take it with them to the cafeteria when they leave my class. They don’t have to carry it around with them all morning, and they still can enjoy their home-packed lunch.
I like the idea of freezing the soups in 8oz jars. Would it work to freeze spaghetti/Mac n cheese etc? And then reheating to put in their thermos after thawed?
Hi Heather. Absolutely. Freeze away! ~Amy
What did you use to due the napkins?
Hi Michelle. Lisa found white cocktail napkins from Crate and Barrel. The link is provided in the post: dev.100daysofrealfood.com/2011/08/19/real-food-tips-21-ways-to-plan-ahead-for-school-lunches/. You can find tie dye kits at any craft store. Have fun. ~Amy
Hi! Is there a particular ice pack that is best to use with the ziplock plastic lunch containers? (I will also be using the Lands End soft sided lunch pack.)
Hi Candace. You can find the ice packs Lisa uses in this post: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/08/24/my-favorite-school-lunch-supplies/. ~Amy
I am by no means an expert in parenting however, here is my opinion if you’d like it. At 16 your son is old enough to feed himself and make his own decisions. My mother always fed me healthy homemade foods and I had very limited exposure to fast food, soda, processed foods etc. However in my late teens and when I moved away from home for the first time I went nuts over all this stuff I had watched my friends eat all my life but was never allowed to have. Now, at the age of 25 and after losing 40lbs since I was 18 I have learned my lesson the hard way and I only feed my family and myself whole foods made from scratch at home. Some people just need to learn these things the hard way! I would say stock healthy foods at home and if your son wants to eat junk he can get a part time job and pay for the junk himself. He WILL learn eventually that these foods are a waste of money and bad for him. Best wishes!