Lunchbox packing tips and recipes | Great ideas for packing school lunches
- Never leave perishable foods out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours. If the food is exposed to temperatures above 90°F (like a hot car or summer picnic), refrigerate it within 1 hour.
- Invest in an insulated lunchbox and thermos.
- Don't forget to pack utensils, napkins, and a healthy beverage.
- Start a lunch meal-plan calendar.
- Try packing small amounts of a variety of foods.
- Keep a supply of shelf-stable foods for easy packing: crackers, packaged pudding, canned fruits or meats, dried fruits, or beef jerky.
- Lunches should include protein, whole grains, and a fruit or vegetable.
- Be sure to check with your school or daycare about any specific meal requirements and allergy restrictions.
Along with the new school year comes the daily challenge of preparing a healthy and nutritious lunch for your child that they will actually eat – AND that doesn’t break your budget. With a little preparation, you can pack lunches that your kids will eat and you can feel good about sending with them.
Start a Lunch Meal-Plan Calendar to Save Time
A well-packed lunch is key to overcoming the mid-day lull and ensuring your child has the energy to power through the rest of the school day. Make sure your lunches include protein, whole grains, and a fruit and/or vegetable. We've listed some of our favorite options below.
- tortilla wrap with lean turkey, spinach, and cheese rolled and cut in half or into pinwheels
- hard-boiled egg, grapes, whole-grain crackers, and cucumber slices
- kebabs – cherry tomatoes, ham rolls, cheese cubes, & popcorn
- caprese salad of tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella with chicken or turkey (try the salad in a pita pocket for a quick, healthy sandwich)
- whole-wheat pasta salad (with veggies, chicken or tuna) and low-fat yogurt
- "make-your-own” tuna salad on crackers with cheese sticks and grape tomatoes
- grilled cheese sticks with marinara dipping sauce, cherry tomatoes and orange segments
Pay Attention to Portion and Growth
Understanding portions can be helpful when deciding how much to pack in a child’s lunch. Recommendations are based upon age and can be found at ChooseMyPlate.gov.
Girls and boys between the ages of nine and thirteen should eat one and a half cups of fruit and two to two and a half cups of vegetables. Since that serving size is for an entire day you could aim for half a cup of fruit, which would be one 4-ounce snack container of applesauce or 16 grapes and three-fourths of a cup of vegetables, which would be three-fourths of a cup of edamame or six baby carrots.
A great way to know if you are providing too much or too little food is to watch your child’s growth. If they are on track at the doctor’s office you can feel confident that you are providing the right amount of food for your child.
Important Lunchbox Food Safety Tips
- Always keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
- Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili, and stew hot.
- Fill container with boiling water.
- Let stand for a few minutes.
- Empty the water and fill container with PIPING hot food.
- Keep container closed until lunchtime to keep food hot – 140°F (73.9 °C) or above.
- Freezer gel packs will keep foods cold until lunchtime, but are not recommended for all-day storage.
- If you don’t have a freezer gel pack, freeze single-sized juice packs overnight and place the frozen drink in your child’s lunch. The juice will thaw by lunchtime, but it will still be cold. Pack perishables between these cold items.
- Throwing away food at the end of the day is also important. The rule of thumb is to empty the lunchbox at the end of the lunch period.
- Always wash your hands and food preparation surfaces thoroughly.
Follow these food safety rulesto keep your family safe from foodborne illnesses.
7 Lunch Box Treat Ideas
1. Easy Pinwheels
- 12 (10-inch) flour tortillas
- 1 (8 oz.) package fat-free cream cheese
- 1 head lettuce or salad green such as spinach
- 1 (6oz.) package sliced deli-style turkey or ham
- 2 cups shredded carrots
- 2 cups minced tomatoes
- Spread cream cheese evenly over tortilla.
- Top the cream cheese with salad greens.
- Arrange deli-style meat slices in even layers on top of the lettuce.
- Sprinkle the carrots and tomatoes over.
- Roll tortillas into wraps.
- Cut the wraps diagonally into bite-sized pieces and secure with toothpicks.
2. Cheeseburger Quesadillas
- 8 oz. ground turkey sausage, cooked and crumbled (with or without onions)
- 2 (8-inch) flour tortillas
- 1/2 cup shredded cheese
- 1/4 cup lettuce, shredded
- 1/4 cup cherry tomatoes, diced
- Mustard and ketchup for serving, optional
- Heat a skillet sprayed with butter-flavored non-stick spray.
- Place tortilla into the pan and cover tortilla with cheese.
- Top tortilla with cooked ground turkey.
- Once cheese begins to melt add tomatoes and lettuce.
- Fold tortilla in half and cook until golden. Serve with mustard and/or ketchup for dipping.
3. Fruit Yogurt Parfait
- 1 cup low-fat yogurt (any flavor)
- 1/2 cup fruit, bite size (your choice)
- 1/4 cup granola
*Don't forget to pack a spoon.
- In container with tight fitting lid, layer yogurt and fruit; repeat layers.
- Package granola in a separate container for your child to sprinkle on top.
4. Trail Mix
This recipe can be tweaked to fit your child's personal tastes.
*Be sure to check with your school/daycare about any restrictions on using nut products.
- 1 cup toasted oat cereal (honey nut, plain and apple cinnamon)*
- 1 cup goldfish crackers (or other cheese cracker)
- 1 cup cherry-flavored dried cranberries
- 1 cup cashews or other nut*
- 1 cup chocolate candies
- 1 cup peanut butter or butterscotch chips*
- 1 cup miniature pretzel twists or sticks
Throw everything together in a sealed container. Store in cool, dry area (to prevent melting of soft ingredients). Package in snack-size baggies or container with lid for your child.
5. Sandwich on a Stick
Use your child’s favorite deli meat, cheese & veggies to whip up an easy lunch that’s much more fun to eat than the traditional sandwich. Anything goes with this recipe!
*Some schools might not allow wooden skewers for safety reasons.
- Cheese cubes
- Lettuce (or other salad green)
- Wooden skewers* (coffee stirrers or craft sticks)
Try making fruit kebabs with grapes, pineapple chunks, blueberries, and strawberries.
Thread an assortment of olives, tomatoes, cheese, meats and greens through the skewers.
Does your child love lunchables? Try a homemade version instead!
Many kids love the pre-packaged “lunch” containers with pizza or lunch meat, crackers and cheese. You can make a healthier – and less expensive – version at home with a little advanced planning. The best part is you know exactly what your child is eating. Just be sure to round the meal out by adding raw fruits and/or vegetables.
6. Cracker & Cheese Variety
- Start with lean turkey or ham and cut into squares or circles.
- Slice a favorite cheese and cut into shapes using small cookie cutters.
- Add whole-wheat crackers and you are ready to pack.
7. Pizza Variety
- Use sandwich thins as the crust.
- Make your own sauce or try a low-sodium canned version.
- Add grated cheese and favorite toppings, like miniature pepperoni slices, ham, pineapple, or green peppers.
- Package them in snack-size zip lock baggies or pack the items in a divided plastic container.
You are not limited to lunch meat, crackers, and cheese or pizza. Try chicken strips with a smoothie or turn a boring sandwich into a pinwheel. Send with a ranch-style dressing or salsa.