Healthy Lunch Ideas

healthy lunch ideas

With yet another school year now under way, I’ve been asked to revisit the topic of school lunches.  Since I wouldn’t feed the crap they serve in the school lunch line to my worst enemy (okay, maybe my WORST enemy, haha), I opt to pack my kids’ lunches every day. My frugal husband also takes a bag lunch, so many mornings I pack four lunches.

I have to admit, our lunches are rather uninspired. I’m fortunate that my family does not seem to need much variety in their lives, and our typical lunch consists of a PB&J on homemade bread, some type of real cheese, apple slices (organic and local, if possible), and carrot sticks (again with the organic).  Sometimes I’ll even replace the jelly with honey because we like to live on the edge.

If I have it handy, I’ll also throw in a baggie of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies or a homemade cookie. And they all take a reusable bottle full of water.

Sometimes I will buy deli turkey that isn’t full of nitrates and preservatives, and they will take a sandwich with that, for a change. Or I’ll just roll it up and put it in a baggie and send cheese slices along with it. They also love tuna.

Last year I tried reheating leftover soup and putting it in a thermos, but they all complained that it wasn’t hot enough by lunch time.  So we’re back to our old standby, the PB&J.

However. I know that many of you need more variety than this, and that some of you probably aren’t even allowed to let peanut butter darken the doors of your children’s educational institution due to allergies. So. Here is a list of healthy lunch ideas that I’ve gathered from a variety of sources. To qualify as a healthy lunch, it must be a well-balanced meal (I’m not talking about the whacked-out FDA food pyramid, either) and as much as possible, real food. I try to stay away from sugar and processed foods, particularly of the snacking variety. We do use deli lunch meats and peanut butter.

What To Pack

  • organic* peanut butter** and local raw honey or banana slices (or jam, but honey is better) sandwiches on whole wheat bread (homemade is best)
  • tuna salad on whole wheat bread (but you probably should only feed kids tuna once or twice a week; the mercury concerns are very real)
  • homemade chicken noodle soup (for canned soups, read your labels and avoid cans that are high in sodium and other additives)
  • raw veggies such as carrot sticks, red pepper strips, cucumber slices, radishes, celery, cherry tomatoes (or is that a fruit?)
  • fresh fruit such as grapes, oranges, pears, peaches, apples, kiwi
  • homemade yogurt (or a good quality store bought – whole milk yogurt without HFCS, aspartame, or artificial colors) with granola or fruit
  • cheese slices  (I love the health benefits of raw cheddar, and my kids love the taste; score!)
  • organic* whole milk cottage cheese with fruit
  • hard boiled eggs (local pastured eggs, if possible)
  • homemade granola bars
  • air popped popcorn or popcorn popped in coconut oil on the stove top with sea salt
  • trail mix (make your own; it’s cheaper, and you can control what goes into it)
  • hummus with whole wheat pita bread
  • whole wheat tortilla wraps (Trader Joes makes yummy ones) with meat and cheese or veggies or whatever they like on it
  • whole wheat bagels with cream cheese (no light dairy, ew!)
  • homemade whole grain muffins
  • green salad (my daughter loves spinach salad; go figure)
  • leftover dinner
    If you have homemade dinner from the night before, heat it up and put it in a thermos.  It’s a great quick hot lunch, and it gets rid of your leftovers so you don’t have to eat them.  😉  Some good leftovers are spaghetti, mac and cheese, soup, and casseroles.
  • water or milk to drink (I only use stainless steel water bottles now, to avoid BPA)

What To Avoid

Even if you aren’t a food freak like I am, if you are concerned for your kids’ health, here are a few modern day lunchtime staples to avoid at all costs:

  • Lunchables
    I shudder to see kids eating these.  They have a ridiculous amount of sodium and practically no nutritional value whatsoever.  You’re better off buying the good lunch meat from the deli; by good, I mean the stuff that’s not so processed and has no added nitrates.  Throw a few crackers and some cheese slices or a cheese stick in there, and you have a homemade “lunchable” that is cheaper and healthier.
    Here is a sample nutrition label from a lunchable:
    Can we say, cancer in a box?
  • snack packs with cookies or chips
    These offer no nutritional value, and most have high amounts of sugar or sodium or both; skip them and throw in some fresh fruit or veggies or yogurt instead.  It will save on your grocery bill too.  If your kids like a sweet treat (and who doesn’t?) then make a double batch of homemade cookies and throw the extras in the freezer.  They’re the perfect treat to pop into a lunch box on a busy school morning.
  • Pop Tarts
    Do I REALLY need to add that one?
  • fruit snacks and Fruit Roll-Ups
    I have avoided buying these for years.  My dentist always warns that they are the single most cause of cavities in children.  It’s just one more junky food product masquerading as good for you.  There is little to no fruit in them.
    Take a look at the ingredients:
    Pears From Concentrate, Corn Syrup, Dried Corn Syrup, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Acetylated Mono and Diglycerides, Pectin, Malic Acid, Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), Natural Flavor, Color (Yellow 5&6, Red 40, Blue 1).
    And we wonder why kids can’t concentrate.
  • pudding, jello, etc.  Blech!
  • juice boxes
    Again, these have no nutritional value, and it’s just adding onto your grocery bill.  Send milk or water.  They’ll survive.  I promise.  And yes, not all juice is created equal.  Some kinds are better than others, but it’s still a waste; I’d rather spend my budget and my sugar allotment on something that tastes better, but that’s just me.
  • soda (Do I REALLY need to tell you what’s wrong with soda?)
    Disclaimer: My kids DO get an occasional soda; they are not totally deprived.  But I do not believe soda is appropriate for a school lunch.  EVER.  Sometimes when we order pizza for Friday night dinner, I’ll pick up a 2-liter bottle of root beer.  They think they’ve died and gone to heaven.  It can be an occasional treat, but not a regular part of a nutritious diet.  Incidentally, since I stopped drinking soda, my dental health has improved ten-fold.  I had 30 cavities filled (no lie; I asked them to print out my history because I was curious) between the ages of 27 and 35.  I haven’t had one since.

*Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you.  I don’t mean to imply that organic is the end all, be all, but it’s a good place to start, especially when buying from a larger store. (When you buy from a farm, it’s not necessary because you can talk to the farmer about his practices.)

** Yes, I realize that peanut butter isn’t really THAT good for you, but it’s not a battle I’m willing to fight. I try to feed them enough good foods for other meals that the PB&J for lunch isn’t gonna make and break the quality of their health.

Now it’s your turn! What would you add to my list? What do you pack? What do you avoid at all costs? How often do you allow your kids to “buy lunch” at school?

Join The Conversation

42 Responses

  1. My daughter likes milk in her thermos, but I have to be sure she brings it in at the end of the day (sometimes it gets left in her Dad’s truck) so that it won’t be nasty. I’ve been packing the pb&j, fruit, pretzels, cheese and yogurt (not all at once). I also have to send her snack, which is usually fruit. I worry because she’s not a big eater in the morning that she is going to be starving, but so far this seems to be working. I know processed yogurt isn’t the best, but I found one that has no HFCS (which is what I try to avoid the most) and I freeze it send that. She loves it. I noticed that Stoneyfield Farms has the push up type yogurt now too and I may get that next time.

  2. My lunches are pretty boring too. My daughter’s school is nut free which limits things. I aim to include one starch like crackers or bread in a sandwich, fresh fruit and/or veggie, and protein. Because of the no-nut thing and my daughter being picky about meat, the protein usually ends up being dairy in the form of cheese, greek yogurt, or kefir.

  3. My kids are unlike me and don’t like peanut butter. Seriously? I put it on everything and they don’t like it. They also aren’t big sandwich eaters. I usually make a roll up with whole wheat tortilla, cheese and either black beans or preservative free turkey. I slice it into pieces and serve it sushi-roll style. Sometimes I send cooked whole wheat pasta with a cup of tomato sauce for dipping.

    I’m a bit leery of reheating leftovers, worrying that they’ll cool too much and get into the food safety danger zone (40-140F) and potentially cause food borne illness. But – I have a food science background and have had that probably unnecessarily drilled into my head….and I read this article: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/product-testing/reviews-tests/childrens-toys/best-kids-lunch-box – which also made me worry a bit. Still, thousands of kids eat ‘not cold enough’ lunches every day and most are just fine.

    1. I always use an ice pack when I put deli meat or cheese in there, but I didn’t realize that might not be good enough. Yikes.

  4. Boo gets a lunch every day that i pack with her nutritional needs in mind, no milk no juice for sure. We do a lot of fresh deli meats, veggies and fruits as well. She LOVES her new thermos, so she has had chili I think four times already, left overs from our chili days. She also loves home made mac and cheese and hotdish in it as well.

    We also do tortilla wraps, both veggie and with meat. For her it is harder, she doesn’t like any mustard or anything on hers so sometimes they don’t stay together if I am not exact with my rolling.

    She has a water bottle that she brings every day, and she can even bring it to class which makes her drink tons more water, something that I love!

  5. I know this is about school lunches but you mentioned your husband also takes one. I could sure use some new ideas for packing a healthy but frugal lunch for my husband who has a big appetite. Maybe that could be a topic for another day?

    1. My best suggestion would be dinner leftovers. The nice thing about packing for an adult is that they usually have access to a microwave and can heat up whatever they bring. It doesn’t work so well for kids b/c the thermoses don’t usually keep them hot enough.

  6. Sigh. You could be me, except that pretzels are our one school lunch indulgence. Today my children went to school with pb&j (homemade bread, homemade jam, “all natural” peanut butter), homemade cookie, pretzels, and an apple. They are responsible for keeping their own water bottles clean and full.

    1. Mine have pretzels today too. I count them as a neutral. They’re not nutritious, but they’re not too bad either. I don’t buy them often, but we had a get together at the house last night, and I picked some up for munchies, and we have leftovers so they get to take them to school.

      These are all nice goals; nobody’s perfect. Least of all me! 🙂

  7. I feel like I make the same things over & over, but the boys like what they like! So my youngest it’s usually PBJ. My older son likes PBJ or tuna best, but likes tortilla wraps with cream cheese & smoked salmon of all things. He will also take leftover Quesadillas with salsa for dipping.
    We always pack fruits & veggies, then maybe cheese or yogurt, and my older son likes a granola type bar for before practice.
    I am guilty of sending juice sometimes, my youngest likes Apple & Eve’s Fruitables. I am glad he likes all the juices that have veggies, too. When I send milk I have those cups that are insulated and you keep them frozen before use. That helps. Otherwise they can buy milk. Both boys take a water bottle everyday as well.
    I almost never pack a “dessert”….maybe a homemade cookie about once every other month! I throw in a love note from mom instead!

  8. OMG!!! Thanks for the link to the Pumkin muffin recipe! I have been searching for an easy pumkin recipe for fall! This looks perfect. Must try it this weekend.

  9. I love your list–there’s tons of variety! I used to despair over my daughter’s picky eating, but that actually has simplified the lunch box–she wants the same thing every day, so I can pack it in my sleep: yogurt, granola bar, grapes, strawberries, chips, and a cookie. The chips are a matter of debate. We had a party over Labor Day weekend, for which I bought potato chips, and she gets to have a few in her lunch until the bag is gone; this makes her positively giddy with glee. Otherwise, I’ve compromised and will let her have Wheat Thins or pretzels. I’m with you on the soda thing, too–my daughter (she’s 8) now gets to have a Sprite or Dr. Pepper at a party or on pizza night. Funnily enough, she’ll be so excited to have one, then she’ll take about three sips and be done. Neither of my kids are soda drinkers, despite my husband’s addiction to Diet Coke. They drink milk and water.

    What do you do, though, when the preschool won’t allow you to send a lunch without a doctor’s note or unless you’ve got legitimate religious reasons? I’m almost grateful that my son refuses to eat most of the stuff they serve for lunch, and I no longer worry that he’ll starve–they do serve fresh fruit for snacks, and he eats a pretty big breakfast at home, but still. I wonder how other parents handle the “requirement” that their kids eat the school’s food.

    1. If I had to deal with a control issue at the school, I have a good enough relationship with our family doc that I would simple ask him to write that note.
      Is this an option for you?
      I wouldn’t ask him to lie , of course!
      But a simple note stating that due to your child’s ‘unique nutritional needs’, you’ll be sending his lunch.
      Hey, EVERY kid is unique,lol!

  10. Great post and just shared it on our FB page. I am working on this. I did let my son buy lunch last year for school and this year he is only allowed to buy on pizza day because I was not happy with what he was eating. It is no surprise that his behavior this year has greatly improved.

    I do make instant pudding for him as a special treat, but everything else is whole grain, veggies, and he absolutely loves flavored water. We alternate a 100% apple juice with a flavored water as his other “treat.” I know…water is not a treat, but he thinks it is 🙂

    I also tuck a note in his lunch bag with a knock-knock joke in it. I think that is his favorite part and it is 100% healthy 🙂

    1. I used to, but the kids didn’t like how it flavored the apples, and they prefer to eat them slightly browned. Oh well! 🙂

  11. I’ll have to try our popcorn in coconut oil… I can’t find my non-GMO corn oil anymore. Does it change the taste of the popcorn?

  12. Ha, that’s great. I used to love baby spinach with thousand island dressing. I would sit there with a bowl full of spinach and dip it in the dressing, eating it like chips. I suppose the dressing wasn’t exactly a great idea, but it was better than just eating chips. 🙂

    I suppose this doesn’t work for kids, but I love to bring a carton full of organic soup to work and keep it in the fridge. Then I always have a lunch if I forget it, and it’s surprisingly satisfying. I usually trip to supplement it with half a sandwich or a salad though.

  13. My kids also don’t need a lot of variety. It is usually pb&j, small amount of chips, and a piece of fruit. Water to drink. I allow them to buy lunch once a week if they choose. My son will try anything, my girls are choosier and usually opt to take their lunches. They will take a few things leftover, such as chicken noodle soup or spaghetti. They also get a snack at school, and finding something to send that is quick and easy to eat is a little tricky. Our school recently decided to let the kids play before eating at lunchtime, because kids were rushing through lunch to get to play and throwing away food. I thought that was a good idea, but my kids don’t have enough time to eat what I send with them, and it is not that much food! I’ve currently put a hold on trying to make big changes to how we eat, but I am hoping to make small changes when things settle down in a few months. Natural peanut butter and water are the healthiest things they get right now, besides non-organic fruit.

    1. Our kids complain about not having time to eat too. It’s so annoying. Lunch should be a relaxing time.

      We don’t always buy organic fruit either. The local fruit isn’t usually organic, and I’d rather have it local than organic, if I have to choose.

  14. My kids love when I pack a ‘Simply Go-gurt’ in thier lunches. I keep some on stock in the freezer, and then throw it in thier lunch bags, and it is thawed by lunch. It also helps keep a sandwich cold, I just put them side by side. The ‘Simply Go-gurt’ has no preservatives or additives, and you can usually find good coupons for them. My kids also love when I pack ‘golden coins’. I just peel carrots, and then slice vertically, making little carrot circles. I just adds a little variety to the norm.

  15. Just a note…my kids were also complaining of their thermos’s not keeping their lunches warm enough(Thermos brand “food jar”)..this year I picked up a couple of Aladdin stainless thermos’s @ Walmart on a whim, and they are great! Everything stays hot! I do preheat the thermos’s with boiling water for 5-10 minutes before I fill them( I did this, with our previous thermos’s as well).. But you might try them, they are half the price of the thermos’s I have used in previous years, which is great!!!

  16. Thanks for the list! We haven’t started school yet (my son is only 21 months) but I’m always on the look-out for healthy lunch ideas. So far our favorite is leftovers. It’s easy for me to make a couple extra servings at dinner time to reheat for lunch. I think spaghetti almost tastes better the next day too!

    Question – What are your thoughts on dried fruit? My son is addicted to dried apricots and dried cranberries. We buy the Newman’s Own or buy in bulk from our co-op. Both are organic and the ingredient list doesn’t show any “extras.” But they are processed, so do you think they’re “bad?”

    1. We don’t eat much dried fruit mainly b/c my kids don’t care for it, but I think a lot of “real foodies” eat it. Everything is processed to some extent, ya know? I’d go easy on it just b/c of the sugar content, and I don’t know how it affects dental health. Would be a good question for Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

  17. This post is a great resource – thanks for putting it together. I’m a little confused, though. Why isn’t peanut butter “really” good for you? I’ve read a lot of whole foods stuff, but I can’t think of a reason it wouldn’t be.

    1. It’s debatable, for sure, but the paleo and traditional diet advocates believe that the high phytic acid (a non nutrient that blocks the body from absorbing important nutrients such as iron and zinc.) The phytic acid is why it is also recommended to soak grains and nuts.

      I’m aware of all that, but at this time in my life, I’m doing all I can do and I haven’t eliminated peanut butter and unsoaked grains from our diets. I just try to get other good stuff in there, and figure homemade bread and peanut butter sure beats the rancid oils and additives and preservatives that they’d be getting in school lunches.

      1. Of course – sprouting. I’m with you there. I’ve been getting rid of of all the trans, low-fat, etc. and sprouting is just not possible right now. Thanks for answering my question!

  18. Well, I stumbled upon your blog looking for a picture of a milk carton (the Internet is a funny animal) and you inspired me to share the time I was a dinner lady on my blog. Basically, one beautifully independent child from a very supportive funky family, regularly once a week brought in a bag of winkles, a pin and some home-made bread (please don’t start with the “Health and safety” thing, we all have pins around). It was what she wanted and totally loved eating them with some vinegar. Bless and support the individuals of this world aye? I know I always will, do you? Bexy

  19. FINALLY my son let me send homemade lunch with him to school JUST TODAY. He wasn’t eating the school lunch (he just drank 2 milks and sat in front of his plate filled with school lunch grossness). So I figure I’m not out anything if he doesn’t eat mine either, he’ll just bring it home and we’ll use it up here.

    30 cavities? Do we have 30 teeth?? I’ve had one in the last 15 years and I remember it cuz I was pregnant at the time.

    1. LOL, that’s what I wanted to know. Most of them were between teeth. Of course, flossing regularly might have helped, but since improving my diet (and also ceasing childbearing, which notoriously impacts dental health) I’ve been fine.

      1. Flossing…sigh, my arch nemesis of teeth care. I’m glad your teeth have taken a turn for the better! Would hate to see you gumming it up while still in your prime. 😀 {ducks}

  20. Lunchables = eewww.

    We never buy juice boxes and, thanks to you, we stopped buying fruit snacks too. We do, however, like the fruit leathers by Stretch Island. We buy them in bulk at Costco. Ingredient list? Just fruit.

    Oh, and PB is pretty healthy if you get the natural kind. Just peanuts.

  21. My daughter’s #1 favorite right now is pizza pitas. I spread pizza sauce inside a whole wheat pita pocket, and sprinkle shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheese inside. When I make that for her (at least 3 times per week), I always include a baggie of sliced green bell pepper, and if I have it, chunks of pineapple.

    She also loves my guacamole with pita chips, grape tomatoes, and carrot sticks. I don’t normally link my blog when I comment, but you might just love my recipe. It is a healthy, low-sodium protein-packed version of guacamole. The modifications make it a stand-alone lunch. I love it, and so do my kids and hubs. I love to make it in the morning for her lunch and mine. If I make it at lunchtime instead, it is her favorite after school snack.

  22. Would a little washed carrot with the fluffy green top be great in the packed lunch box? As a child, I used to love to take a carrot from the ground, wash it and eat it raw (not peeled). Do we prepare food too much? Is anyone out there similar to me and have an old cleaned out fish tank in the corner, with layers of different coloured soil and gravel, and cress growing in it for the children to smile at, pick and eat?

  23. It’s crazy to think the amount of time you have on your hands! As much as I want my kids to be healthy, I also have a busy life and want my kids to live a little! My husbands, my kids and I all have a very healthy bmi despite occasionally letting them have poptarts, or pudding, or something else “terrible” like that. Loosen up!!!

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