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My Top 5 Hacks for Packing School Lunches

My Top 5 (Time & Sanity-Saving) Hacks for Packing School Lunches – here’s what I do to save time, energy, and sanity while packing school lunches every day.

Emily from One Lovely Life packing school lunches

We’ve been having so much fun with this school lunch week! I’ve shared 2 Weeks of Healthy Lunch Ideas (+a free printable planning sheet!), 2 MORE weeks of lunches, AND we’ve talked all about our favorite lunch boxes and reusable bags for packing school lunches. Today, I wanted to start with a few tricks to simplify lunch packing. For me, two of the big challenges are:

  1. I REALLY DON’T WANT TO SPEND A *TON* OF TIME ON THIS. I love (LOVE!) my children, and generally don’t mind lunch-packing, but the last thing I want to do at the end of/start of the day is make a highly intricate, fancy-shaped lunch on top of whatever other dinner/breakfast I’m working on. If that’s your jam, YAY! That’s so fun! If it’s not, you’re not alone. I’m looking for easy-to-make, reliable lunch ideas that I can get done FAST.
  2. I GET INTO A RUT. If I’m not thinking about it, I can easily make the exact same lunch for my kids every single day. That’s totally fine in different times and seasons, but providing at least *some* variety is a great choice nutritionally (more varied food = more varied nutrients), for expanding their palates (more exposure to new foods = more accepted foods), and keeping things interesting (no need to be bored!).

So here’s what I do to save time, energy, and sanity while packing school lunches every day:

Lunchbots stainless steel large lunch box with strawberries, dairy-free cheese, gluten-free crackers, pepperoni, green olives, and cucumbers

1. DON’T OVERTHINK IT. NUTRITION IS CUMULATIVE.

You don’t have to spend time meticulously cutting cute shapes into slices of cheese to be a good mom. Your child will be happy to have a yummy lunch to eat!

This also means don’t stress about it being a “perfect” lunch. I’m a health-minded mom with quite a bit of training and education in nutrition (my degree is in Public Health with an emphasis in Nutrition and Fitness), but I also don’t get panicked if my child has chocolate chips in their trail mix (sugar–gasp!) or some pretzels or chips here and there (gasp! empty calories–I know!).

Nutrition is cumulative. Your child will get their nutrients over the course of days and weeks from the different foods they eat. It’s okay if every single meal isn’t “perfect.” Just aim for a general trend of balanced choices. Do the best with what you have, when you can, and let go of the rest.

School Lunch Packing Cheat Sheet

2. FOLLOW A FORMULA.

I shared this in our lunch ideas post, but when packing our lunches, we shoot for a rough formula for a balanced meal. With our basic formula, I don’t worry about making a brand new lunch every day. I only choose 2-3 kinds of lunches to pack each week.

My kids do plenty of repeat meals and don’t mind. Yours might not want repeats (and, in that case, YOU DO YOU!). But if they don’t mind, you don’t have to pack something totally different every day if you don’t want to! Plus, cycling through choices frees up decision-making time and maintains enough variety to keep things interesting for your kids.

I keep a little school lunch planning sheet on hand with LOTS of ideas for each category. That way, we can just mix-and-match our way to different, fairly balanced lunches. If the kids get bored of one thing (sandwiches), we have TONS of other ideas to choose from!

Our basic formula is: protein + carb + fruit/veg + something fun.

HERE’S WHAT THAT FORMULA CAN LOOK LIKE IN REAL LIFE:

  • PROTEINS: Hard boiled eggs + Hummus + Turkey + Ham + Chicken + Pepperoni + Salami + Yogurt + Nuts + Almond Butter + Beans
  • CARB: Pretzels + Sweet Potato Chips + Crackers + Bagels + Bread + English Muffin + Tortilla + Waffles + Pancakes + Muffins + Sweet potatoes + Rice + Pasta + Granola
  • FRUIT: Applesauce + Strawberries + Blueberries + Blackberries + Raspberries + Watermelon + Cuties/Clementines + Pineapple + Mango + Mandarin Oranges + Raisins
  • VEGGIES: Carrots (carrot chips, carrot sticks, baby carrots) + Bell Peppers + Snow or Snap Peas + Cucumber + Jicama + Celery sticks
  • FUN: Energy Bites + Fruit Leather + Cookie + Trail Mix + Granola Bar + Chocolate + Fruit Snacks

It’s certainly not rocket science, but it helps us figure things out and still gives kids plenty of choice. If Milo wants a sandwich and chips, I’ll tell him to choose a fruit/veggie. When Sophie wants yogurt and strawberries, I’ll ask her if she wants granola or muffins to go with it. If we’ve got dinner leftovers from the night before, I can use those as my starting point and ask the kids to choose some things to go with it.

School Lunch Packing Cheat Sheet

get your school lunch planning sheet!

Make lunch packing a breeze with this mix-and-match set of ideas to choose from. Or, use our blank form to come up with your own!

Get The Planning Sheet

Blue Omie Box with yogurt, raspberry sauce, gluten-free granola, energy bites, and fresh strawberries

3. CONSIDER MAKING LUNCHES AT NIGHT.

School-years are often BUSY with sports, music, work, school activities, homework, and all the other things you need brain space for during the day. There’s a LOT going on every day!

And often the thought, “it’s so crazy tonight. I’ll just do it in the morning.” pops into my head. But, at least for me, putting making lunches off till the morning somehow doesn’t make them any easier/quicker to face. And often actually makes it feel even crazier because of the time crunch to get everyone dressed, fed, and out the door on time in the morning. Or to juggle zoom calls and work and at-home assignments.

At our house, we make lunches while we’re cleaning up dinner. My husband will work on dishes, and I help Milo and Sophie pack their lunches, as needed. That way we’re not creating a mess in between meals, and we can get all of it taken care of at once. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s at least something to consider if you’re feeling a time crunch. Any time you can spend in the evening will give you more time in the morning. 

Emily from One Lovely Life packing school lunches

4. INCLUDE KIDS IN THE LUNCH-MAKING PROCESS WHEN YOU CAN.

At our house, we all clear the dinner table dishes and, while my husband loads the dishwasher, the kids and I get started on lunches and snacks for the next day. That means we’re saving time by not making an extra mess in between meals (the lunch packing clean-up gets rolled into the dinner clean-up!).

Yes, it does take a bit longer at the start, but now we’re so into the routine that my kids know the drill. My thought is that, once everyone is in the routine, many hands make quicker work. Whether that’s helping you put the items into the lunch boxes (ideal for younger kids), or helping to spread, mix, slice, wash, or prep (great jobs for kids as they get older), having them help is a great way to take things off your plate as the parent and help them learn this skill for themselves.

I’m also helping teach them how to pack a lunch and put together a pretty balanced meal on their own. It helps when they have a list of ideas to choose from and they know the formula we use for packing lunches. This gets easier and easier as kids practice and grow up. You can also check in with them regularly–did you have enough for lunch today? Should we pack more of something for tomorrow? Was anything hard to eat/open? This helps them pay attention to their body’s needs (which are constantly changing as they grow!) and helps them learn to problem solve. On that note…

Child choosing a granola bar from a basket of snacks on the counter

5. MAKE IT EASY FOR KIDS TO HELP. 

Keep a basket of grab-and-go items in your pantry or set aside a lower section of your fridge with options your kids can easily grab. If your school requires individually packaged snacks or disposable items for lunch, keep things like favorite store-bought snacks or lunch items easy to reach. If you can use reusable lunch boxes and bags, you can prep a few days’ worth of things at a time and keep them in an easy-to-reach place. Make it as easy as possible for your kids to be involved.

Earlier this week, I shared all our favorite lunch boxes and reusable bags. Having lunch boxes that are divided makes portion sizing and lunch building as easy as possible. Using the already-divided lunch boxes and our little lunch planning sheet formula for packing school lunches means that it’s really easy to fill in the blanks.

I also moved our lunch boxes and reusable bags to a lower cupboard so my kids could easily grab theirs when it’s time to pack. They’re also responsible for emptying their used lunch box each day. Anything they can do to help means one fewer thing to worry about!

Emily from One Lovely Life packing school lunches

BONUS: Feel free to give yourself a day off.

No shame in the sanity-saving game! With our gluten and dairy intolerances, we can’t do hot lunch or something like Lunchables, but I have a few tried-and-true easy lunches I KNOW my kids will eat, and I don’t worry at all about working those into the routine on the regular. Don’t stress about using some store-bought shortcuts, pre-portioned snacks/produce, dinner leftovers, or what your school has to offer!

Now that you’ve read my favorite sanity-saving tips for packing school lunches–what are YOURS!?

PS – Want more? Sign up for my free newsletter to access to even more tips, tricks, and recipes to get you on your way! 

8 Comments

  1. Mine are teens and we all still struggle with packing our school lunches. I always start out with the intention of packing the night before but then get lazy. Where is the cute pink ruffle sleeve top from?

  2. Oh, manny! My child eats almost the same thing for lunch every single day. It’s pretty healthy (fresh fruit, veggies, cheese stick, gogurt, maybe some crackers and always an apple for snack). How, how do I get him to try something (anything!) new?

    When we’re settled again, I’m going to use your printable and let him choose what to pack from the list.

    So I just answered my own question—and thank you for providing the answer!

  3. The last 2 years I packed my son’s lunches on Sundays during my meal prep (I always make 4 and he buys one day). This year my daughter is starting kindergarten, so I’ll have twice as many lunches to make. I may do 4 on Sundays (2 each) then repeat on Tuesday/Wednesday evening. We shall see.

    One thing I have realized is to not stress over the complexity or how balanced it is. I have learned that veggies generally come home uneaten, but he will always eat fruit. PB&J is a staple as well. They eat pretty well the rest of the time, so my main goal is to pack something they WILL eat so that they are fed and happy.

    I also have the rule that they can’t throw food away – they are instructed to bring it home. This helps me monitor what they will and will not eat at school. Plus if they get off the bus “starving” they have to finish any uneaten lunch FIRST.

    Great post!

    1. Taryn – Great tips! We’re in the same boat with veggies/fruit. I know that the fruit will almost always be eaten and the veggies almost never will. I try not to worry too much about it!

  4. Thank you so much for this! I LOVE the forumla of protein + carb + fruit/veg + something fun! This will be our second year of packing school lunch, and to be honest, I easily got into a rut. We still have some time before school starts this fall, but I’m already planning on how to involve her in packing her lunch and being organized to make that happen. Thank you! 🙂

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