Real Food Tips: 21 Ways to Plan Ahead for School Lunches

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)!

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Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup Frozen in Individual Serving Sizes


Cook Weeks Ahead….

  1. 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.
    : Don’t fill jars all the way because liquids expand when they freeze.

    Storebought Organic Applesauce Frozen in Ice Cube Trays
  2. 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
  3. 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.
    Cream Cheese, Raisin, and Cinnamon Sandwich on Defrosted Homemade Whole-Wheat Waffles

    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…

  4. Boil eggs, noodles, rice, etc. to have ready and available in the fridge.
  5. Chop fruit and peel & chop veggies all at once so it is easy to grab and pack these items on a busy weeknight.
  6. Portion out whole-grain crackers, pretzels, homemade trail mix, or other snacks if this will help you save time during the week.
  7. Make at least one dipping sauce like tzatziki, a salad dressing or hummus to add to lunch boxes.
  8. Mix and freeze smoothies or yogurt in freezie pop holders so it is ready to go when you need it.

    Set Up Night Before…

    Plain Whole-Wheat Pizza Crusts Frozen for Lunches
  9. Get out any freezer items like plain homemade whole-wheat pizza crusts (pictured) that need to defrost in lunchbox overnight.
  10. Add fresh chopped fruit, veggies, whole-grain crackers and/or dipping sauce to lunchbox.
  11. Make a sandwich or wrap if you don’t think it will get soggy overnight.
  12. Fill water or milk cup and store in fridge.
  13. Set out lunch box, reusable napkin, silverware, etc. as well as a bowl for cereal or other breakfast items.

    Assemble Morning of…

  14. Reheat any soups, sauces, oatmeal or other items that need to be warmed up and added to Thermos.
  15. Get out frozen smoothie or yogurt pops, which will have all morning to defrost before lunchtime.
  16. Assemble and pack any other items that you didn’t make the night before like sandwiches.
  17. Add several ice packs to lunch box/bag to keep perishables cold.

    Extra Credit: School Lunch Supplies…

  18. 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!
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
    DIY Reusable Tie Dye Lunchbox Napkins
    DIY Reusable Tie Dye Lunchbox Napkins

    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.

  21. 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

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158 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: 21 Ways to Plan Ahead for School Lunches”

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  1. Does anyone here have Teens? I’ve got a 16 and 13yo. The last couple years, they have refused any type of “reuable” containers or lunch boxes/bags. (it’s just not cool anymore) my 16yoDD will bring back a salad and dressing container, but my son will not – and in my attempts to reduce our “plastic garbage” I’m left with wrapping sandwiches in foil or wax paper and use small snack sized plastic baggies. My son is PICKY- but I would like to try and find ideas and alternatives for the standard deli-meat (from the deli counter at the grocery store). Also, In my attempt to try and talk about eating healthy and provide healthy foods- my son CONSTANTLY asks for sodas, chips, sugary foods, practically anything processed. I have always tried to cook much of our meals from real foods- even before the more recent trends- but didn’t forbid occasional packaged conveniences- but somehow my son is obsessed with it and I’m feeling the more I try to keep it to a minimum, the more he pushes for it. He doesn’t care and isn’t mature enough to understand the connection between food and health. But I’m torn between holding my ground and giving in some so that we’re not always battling. He is also at that age where we are supposed to give them freedom to make choices too (which I reluctantly allow if we’re not at home). Any insights or ideas are much appreciated!

    1. Lisa- Do they have an allowance and manage their own money? If that hasn’t been setup yet I would highly recommend it since they’re teens (good to setup as kids). Let them know that you realize they’re fully capable of making their own lunches now (they are!) and paying for any extras they want (like disposable plastic baggies, chips, whatever). Tell them you will be happy to keep reusable containers available because that’s what you want to invest your money in and also will continue buying healthy foods. They are welcome to spend their own money on other foods and also to help you make the grocery list and shop for healthy options that they like. Then just let it go. Hopefully eventually they will follow some of the things you do but honestly they may never and all you can do is set the example and teach- you can’t force it and if you try it can really backfire.

  2. As a busy mom, I love your tips on minimizing crazy while managing to make healthy & green choices without breaking the bank! I love your tie dye napkins! Wishing that I’d seen that before we implemented our plan…using hankies!The kids love them…they’re part of our family’s “fellowship” meal kit and we got enough so that we can use them whenever we have parties….love not having as much paper trash! I also thought you might enjoy our recent post on Make Ahead Lunches…

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Lisa. You know, you could always tie dye your hankies! Thanks for sharing. ~Amy

  3. I want to try freezing soups in the glass jars, but am concerned about them breaking in the fridge. Not because they would burst, but because of accidentally knocking them around when pulling out other items. What tips do you have for keeping all of your frozen items secure and organized?


      1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

        Hi Cassie. The uniform shape of glass jars actually makes keeping them organized pretty easy. I reserve one full section of the freezer for the glass jars and arrange them as best I can predict I will use them. I do not put other items underneath or behind the jars. Hope that helps a bit. ~Amy

      2. I also freeze soup in jars, but sometimes the larger jars (quart size) would break in the freezer. (It wasn’t from being too full.) But I have found that if I refrigerate them overnight before freezing them, that they don’t break. I’m guessing that the smaller size that she is using wouldn’t have this problem unless the soup was still hot when she put it in the freezer.

  4. We have the freezie pop holders and have tried freezing yogurt in them and sticking them in lunches, and they make a mess! Do you have any tricks to making them work?

  5. I want to start making lunch for school. If my mom says I could make lunch for school, do you know where they sell Hello Kitty thermos? Because I was thinking of making hot lunch instead of cold lunch. Another question, if you put Chef Boyardee in the thermos, will it be hot by my lunch time? (By the way, I have lunch at 11:30am)
    Please reply back, Sincerely,Siara

  6. I purchased the ball jars and made the tomatoe bisque. I made two batches and froze some. Now that I am reading on the Ball website, I am afraid all the soup is ruined. Are you suppose to boil the jars before you use them? I thought it was safe to store in the freezer but I am reading all this stuff and not sure what to do.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Tracy. If you are canning, then, yes, but, just to freeze the soup, you do not need to. Other than cleaning them when you get them home from the store, you should be fine. Jill

  7. Sandwiches made the night before and placed in the freezer, thaw in the lunch box for a great fresh tasting lunch. I was concerned it would be soggy, but fortunately it was a hit and my son’s friend is now asking me to send extra. I made roast beef and cheese with lettuce, mayo, and an herbed vinegrette. I froze it in a sandwich size tupper that worked great.

  8. I just bought some of the Ball jars today so I can freeze small portions of pumpkin purée. Do you reuse the 2 piece lids they come with since you’re not actually canning with them and just using them for freezer storage? Or did you get a different kind of lid to use?

    1. Hi Amber, There is only concern for lid re-use if you are canning. That pink plastisol liner is only designed for single “canning” use…they are safe to use for refrigerated or freezer storage as many times as you like. I like to use them as often as I can, but for jars that I’m in & out of often, I like to use the single piece lids that have that plastisol liner…liquid tight, and don’t need to fiddle with the 2 pieces. They’re available at Fillmore Container for as little as $0.26 each.

  9. Do you ever have a problem with freezing liquids in a canning jar? Such as soup. In the past I have had a jar break. Dry things work great.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Pat. I have not. I would just make sure things are completely cooled before you seal the jars and freeze them. Jill

  10. Thank you for all the great tips, Lisa! I will definitely be coming back to use these ideas with our kids as the school year progresses. I was running out of creative lunch ideas as well!

  11. I’ve used the thermos brand water bottles and just purchased the food jars for this year. I really like the water bottles because they don’t leak, they stay cold and there is no condensation. The only thing that really bothers me is that they are made in China. Have you ever considered any US made products? Do you know of any other brands that are just as good that are US made? Just wondering! Thanks…I love your site!!

  12. Our Costco has some great insulated lunchboxes. I’m not home now, but I think they are “artic zone” brand. They are expandable by a zipper that goes around the middle. We’ve been using them for a week now and im very impressed. They hold the divided ziplock container, a thermos, an ice pack, and 2 other smaller reusable containers. We went back and bought two more, one for me and one for my husband. They come with an ice pack and a reusable divided container with a snap on lid that is awesome!

  13. Hey – I just wanted to say that I’ve been searching for a lunch box that would fit the zip-loc container and a drink and I wasn’t having much luck. After your post, I went to old navy with the container and that was a no go. I then went to target and the only thing I could find that would work was a lunch box that had a mesh pocket on the side with a drink container in it. If we weren’t already in the school year I would go with the lands end, or I found a “flat” lunchbox on ebags that would be perfect. If the Target lunch boxes tear up I’ll probably go that direction.

  14. You might be over-thinking it. My kids bring their lunch every day and probably 4 out of 5 days, they just eat leftovers from 1 or 2 nights before (I cook real food every night for dinner). I simply increase the amount of food I make for dinner so it serves 6-8 instead of 4. For example, we’ll have tacos for dinner using 2 lbs of ground meat and then my son will take the meat, beans and cheese in a thermos to eat with a tortilla and my daughter will take it chilled to eat as a taco salad with lettuce, tomato and avocado. I just need to throw in some cut veggies and fruit plus a drink and maybe a cookie, granola bar, muffin, etc. for variety. Soups, stews, and pastas work great for planned leftovers too. We started doing this when my husband was in grad school and we couldn’t afford for him to eat lunch out and have kept it up over the last 13 years! While I’m washing dinner dishes, my husband assembles containers for the next day.

  15. I am a teacher and most of these tips are awesome reminders for adults who pack “school lunches” as well! I am going to try to use my weekends more wisely this school year and do some of the prep that you outlined above!

  16. Funny you posted this today. My daughter starts school this week and I just whipped up a batch of our favorite tomato parmesan basil soup for dinner and am about to freeze a few in my canning jars you recommended. They will be perfect for those chilly fall days in a thermos.

  17. I bought the “packit” lunch bag on line. Its lined with ice packs! You freeze it and the bag stays cold all day! I had one last year for my sons preschool day and it was still very cold by noon. Since kindergarten lunch is at 10:30 in the morning, we should be very well off with yogurts and milk. I also found ” fit fresh” containers at my local grocery store ( publix) and they have little freezer/ ice packs in the lids. I took your advice and started my zip lock bags of snacks now ( Sunday) for the week. I will also start looking for a thermos. I forgot about those. Thanks for the advice!

  18. I love the canning jar idea. I wouldn’t have thought to use them in the freezer. We made lunchbox napkins out of cotton fabric with character or other fun prints, some purchased and some from sewing scraps. 8×8 size works out well and we have a big pile, using them in the house for snacks and breakfast as well. Also, as for containers, we just love our Lunchsense lunchboxes! My son has been using his for 3 years and it’s still good for next year. The lock ‘n’ lock containers are great portion sizes, are easy for kids to close and have never leaked.

  19. hey just a tip for freezing liquid items like sauce n broth is i lay my pint sized bags into flat boxes or raised edge cookie sheet then they freeze into sweet square shapes!

  20. Check out the plastic lids for canning jars. They are so handy for leftovers. Because they can be used over and over, the cost will be minimal compared to buying new jar seals from time to time.
    They can be found at Wal-Mart; made by Ball.

  21. We live in Florida and temperatures are a real issue here. This past school year I have used sort of cooler bags with a small ice brick in it to keep things cool – not just drinks and yogurt, but also sandwiches and fruit. For next year I want to start using your ideas for lunch boxes (past year has been a bit plain), but do you know of any (small) cooler bags that fit the compartmentalized ziplock containers? The one that we have currently is too small.

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      I have 4 of them that I rotate and usually buy a new fresh set at the beginning of each school year.

  22. What process do you use to freeze the soup in jars? Does it need to be room temp first, can you put lids on right away, etc?

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      I think it’s better if you can let the soup cool off some…you don’t want to fill them up to the top (so there’s room to expand) and putting the lids on right away is fine.

  23. Your ideas for making ahead school lunches are creative and will, I’m sure, make your day easier. Thanks for sharing. Here’s a tip. Lay your filled ziploc bag on a cookie sheet to freeze. When it’s frozen it’s flat and thin. Much easier to store in the freezer.

  24. We make BENTO over here at our place. You can make-ahead everything needed and freeze it. In the morning or at night, just place all the frozen stuff in there. It will defrost over the hours before lunch. Also, some bento can be made up that are fine to stay out at room temperature (like applesauce and sandwiches). It’s a lot of fun too.

  25. I have been using your idea about freezing portions of soup in the jars for the last few weeks and it’s fantastic! Great idea!

  26. Pretty element of content. I simply stumbled upon your website and in accession capital to assert that I acquire actually loved account your blog posts. Anyway I will be subscribing in your augment and even I success you get entry to persistently rapidly.

  27. Yes! Please share your coveted chicken soup recipe…I looked for it all over this website as well! I’ve become a little obsessed with this blog…it’s changing my life! I haven’t done the full switch yet because even with the budgeted version, it’s still too expensive for me. But I’ve been switching for a lot of big things I use in my cooking- flour, sweetners, etc. And I’m really beginning to LOVE all of the new veggies I’m trying…my friends said the Butternut Squash Ravioli should become my “signature dish” :) Not bad for my first time even purchasing a squash or making my own pasta!

  28. I’ve seached everywhere and can not find the chicken soup recipe. my son LOVES him some chicken soup could you please share it :) Seems several of are interested. Thanks much!!

  29. Hi Lisa. love, love, love all of these ideas. Just put together the mini pizzas for tomorrow’s lunch. I was wondering, do you have your chicken noodle soup recipe posted somewhere? I looked in the recipe section but did not see it. My oldest daughter loves to have soup for lunch, but I don’t have a good homemade CNS recipe. Thanks!

  30. a question about the freezie pop molds – you use those to put yogurt and smoothies in that you put in the lunch boxes? Do they leak any as they thaw? I could see them as a great way to send yogurt, smoothies and applesauce to school, but I’m worried they’ll leak all over the other food….

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      Ours don’t leak b/c I fold the end a little and fit them into our ziplock lunchbox containers which keeps everything in place. I’ve also put a rubberband around the top and end to keep it together, which works as well.