School Lunch Ideas

These school lunch ideas are bound to help make packing lunch every day a lot easier.

Are you constantly struggling with school lunch ideas? Not sure what to pack in your child’s lunch box? You’re not alone!

A healthy school lunch sits ready to eat. There are blueberries, carrots, an apple and a whole grain sandwich in lunch containers.
Photo Credit: Yulia Davidovich

Not so long ago, I had teachers and moms ask me if I could help with some ideas for school lunches, snacks, and those hectic school day mornings when you just have to get out of the house.

Some of these ideas are from my Facebook fans, and others are ideas I use now for Mini Chef.

School Lunch Ideas

Keep It Small

Kids, even the older ones, like to eat small things. Younger kids can get overwhelmed when they see a normal, adult-sized sandwich in their lunchbox (not to mention it could be just too much food for their smaller tummies). Making things smaller makes them more fun to eat, too. Even if you make a big sandwich, try cutting it up into little squares or using a cookie cutter to turn it into a fun, kid-friendly shape. Cut large fruits into small pieces. Break protein bars in half or quarters. But however you cut it, break it, or tear it, think small. In fact, you could pack a whole lunch with “snacks” (tiny pieces) of just about anything clean and healthy. Check out these Bento Box ideas as well!

Also, if your kids pack their own lunches, don’t breathe down their necks trying to get them to pack healthy foods. All you have to do is make healthy foods the only foods that are available to them. That way, they still feel the control of choosing what they take for lunch, and you feel good because you know they are choosing from healthy options. It’s a win-win. And if they really dig their heels in, allow for 1 or 2 non-clean snacks per week. Buy a fixed amount for the week or month, and let them know they need to pace themselves because there won’t be any more until the week or month is up. You can even help them look at a calendar to see what a good consumption pace would be for junkier food. This will give them some control over when they eat these things, but give you control over just how much they actually eat.

Cute Lunch Ideas

Kids often respond far better to fun food than the regular stuff. Cutting sandwiches into shapes with cookie cutters is a fun way to liven up that same ol’ sandwich. But what about veggies?? Cut them with cookie cutters into fun shapes, too!

Picky Eaters

Regardless of the reason for their pickiness, picky eaters can make packing lunches very frustrating. I can’t pretend to know how that is because Mini Chef is a very good eater. He eats pretty much anything I put in front of him, thanks in large part to our “1 Thank You Bite” rule. (He has to take one bite of anything I cook for him. This opens him up to new flavors and foods but gives him the control of saying no if he really doesn’t like something.)

But I don’t pretend that my method will work for everyone. So, instead, I’ve turned to other sites for help on this subject. And while some of these are obviously not clean, many can easily be converted. Here are some I’ve found:

School Day Meal Ideas

Quick Breakfast Ideas:

School Snack Ideas:

These also work great as fillers for Bento Box lunches.

  • Clean Eating Yogurt – plain yogurt or Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and maybe a little honey
  • Raw veggies with clean eating ranch dip or clean eating hummus
  • Grapes
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Kiwi
  • Plums
  • Edamame beans
  • Nuts
  • Clean eating crackers – Yes, they do exist. But it takes some searching.
  • Clean eating granola bars
  • Dried fruit
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Cheese chunks
  • Protein bars
  • Pita pocket sandwiches stuffed with things your kids like and you’re comfy with
  • Cheese sticks
  • Cucumbers
  • Whole wheat pretzels
  • Raisins
  • Mandarin oranges
  • Cucumber slices

School Lunch Ideas:

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (clean jelly, please – and make sure your school doesn’t have an anti-peanut rule)
  • Fruit salad
  • Potato salad
  • Macaroni salad
  • Rice salad
  • Quinoa salad
  • Whole wheat couscous salad
  • Wholegrain tortilla wraps
  • Tuna Wrap
  • Whole wheat or sprouted wheat bagels (cream cheese is usually okay for kids unless they are overweight. It’s clean, and under normal circumstances, they will burn off the calories just being kids. Especially if they have a bunch of other healthy options in their lunch box)

Tired-Mom (or Dad!) Dinner Ideas:

  • Quesadillas
  • Pizzadillas
  • Salads
  • Pizza – if you have clean pizza dough already in the freezer. Just top and bake.
  • Pre-made casseroles out of the freezer (make them on the weekend)
  • Sandwiches (real meats please)
  • Cheese and tomato sandwiches (toast the bread, then melt the cheese in the microwave, then add tomatoes.)
  • Burritos
  • Clean Eating Taco Salad
  • Pita pizzas
  • Pasta
  • Quiché – Yes, it’s quick to make!

Is This You?

Many parents complain about their kids eating processed and “not-so-clean” foods. But here’s the thing. Most food items have healthy alternatives. Take yogurt, for example. You can buy the cruddy stuff with all sorts of chemicals, artificial sweeteners, and fake flavors, or you can buy a clean yogurt that tastes just as good. It may take a little leg work or creativity on your part to make or find these things, but once you do, you’re set. Or simply buy plain yogurt and mix in some fruit and honey. Generally speaking, they won’t notice much of a difference. So, take the time to find the healthy versions of the processed foods they eat now. You’ll feel so much better about packing their lunches!

Article from the Gracious Pantry® archives, originally posted 8/15/19.

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  1. Since trying to eat cleaner (I am not always the best at this) I have fallen in love with Greek yogurt! You can anything to it! I am not a big fan of it plain cause it is very tart but I do like to add 2 T cocoa powder (just plain unsweetened cocoa) 2 T agave nectar and mix… it is a cool chocolate yogurt that satisfies my cravings and the munchkins as well

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Carthey – Thats IS a good snack! In fact, my mom just made it for my munchkin today. He loved it too!

  2. or im on facebook as leslie ryan but anyway we need recipes for a friend thats real food vegan diet no diary no processed or additives only fresh fruit and vegtables is that possible no she is gonna use organic milk and almond milk id love to get my family with this diet but she is and we need help finding recipes snackfoods and kids lunches its awesome idea exspensive is my problem healthy eating is exspensive like fresh friuts here is outragiou please help me and my friend i so wanna help my kids but cant afford healthy eating we have one low income with two kids and barley grocery money left most of the time how do u manage healthy eating usually i grab debbie cakes for snack one box because they r 1.59 a box compared to fruit which is three times cost and my boys love it so it would be gone when it came in the door

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Leslie – That’s a tough one! I don’t know much about the vegan diet. But I will say this. If you really are just buying fruits, veggies and almond milk, I would think your grocery bill would go down. You have to remember you won’t be eating out, you won’t be going through junk food at an alarming rate (it may be cheaper, but you usually eat 2-3 times as much).

      Since we’re talking about kids here, I would really suggest doing your homework before you start this. Going from Debbie Cakes to a raw diet is a HUGE jump. Unless there is a medical reason involved, I would think that your kids (and hers) will not only need time to adjust, but YOU will also need time to invest in learning how to ensure your kids get the proper nutrition. Growing kids need a lot of nutrients. Often times, more than what a simple vitamin can offer. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. There are a lot of incredibly healthy, vegan kids out there. But what I am saying, is that you should really get the diet down pat before you put your kids on it. Otherwise, you may unknowingly rob them of something they need, not to mention possibly turning them off of the whole idea all together. Expose them to raw foods slowly. Don’t make the change overnight.

      As far as lunches go, I believe that certain grains (like oats) can still be eaten on a raw diet if they are soaked instead of cooked. (Great way to enjoy oatmeal. Can’t get a cheaper breakfast than that!) But you can also fix it up fancy for lunch. Dried fruits (I believe those are okay, not sure) can be added along with a natural, vegan sweetener. Mix in some nuts for protein and you’ve got a nice little meal. The obvious choices are cut up carrot sticks, celery sticks, cherry tomatoes and the like. Think “small” with kids. Even older kids like to eat little things. You can mix up a vegan trail mix, make lara bars at home, and also experiment at home with mixing different vegetable for different types of salads.

      Again, I’m not the greatest resource for a vegan diet. But I hope this helps.

      I wish you all the best!

      I’m sure there are a lot of vegan sources out there that could give you far better information than I can however. I encourage you to do your research here.

  3. Tiffany, What a great blog you have! I am so thrilled. Especially since I have a 3 year old girl born just a couple months after your son. I need to clean up her diet as well as mine and my husbands. I have been looking around and I feel this is going to really work for all of us. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! Candace

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Candace – That’s wonderful! Please let me know if you have any questions. I’m happy to help!

  4. Kristin R says:

    What “clean” crackers have you tried and liked (besides rice cakes)?? Thanks for your time!

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Kristin – The company “Back To Nature” makes some good crackers that are clean. Tasty too! I get mine at Whole Foods.

  5. Ants-on-a-log: celery cut into pieces filled with ground nut butter (we’ve used peanut, almond and cashew so far) or clean cream cheese and topped with 3 raisins or juice-sweetened .. .
    Dates stuffed with P-B. Or cream cheese.
    Sandwiches cut diagonally to make 4 triangles. Or vertically in thirds and horizontally so there are 6 fingers. Or like tic-tac-toe to make 9 little blocks.
    Slices or cubes of cheese.
    I used to put pasta and sauce in a wide mouth thermos. Also works for mac-and-cheese, soup or stews. Great for cold or rainy weather when a warm meal is ever so comforting. Or for kids who just aren’t too fond of sandwiches.
    I pack as much as possible in firm reusable containers. Things arrive at lunch time in more appetizing condition-more likely to be eaten than when things are gloppy or mushed. And of course less trash for the landfills.
    I also use small thermal containers with ice packs built into the lids-put in the freezer overnight they keep things like applesauce, cut up fruit, cottage cheese cold.
    For field trips I used to freeze a 100%juice box and pack it into the brown bag wth everything else wrapped in parchment paper (like you bake with) so when stuff did get thrown away it would be the least impact on the environment.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Love it Jodi, thank you!

  6. My son will be two in November and I can’t get him to eat hardly anything! He will only eat bread, bananas, pizza rolls (awful I know), a little yogurt, and the occasional pickle. Is this a phase? Ive been told multiple times that if he won’t eat something to save it and just keep giving him back the same thing until he eats it? But I feel like I’d be starving him! Any ideas on foods to try in that case?

    1. Anonymous says:

      Michele – This is honestly a question better suited for your pediatrician or a dietitian.

      I do recommend getting rid of the pizza rolls. Just make them disappear. Your son isn’t getting any real nutrition out of them anyway. Just empty calories. The bread should be whole grain at the very least, the bananas are great and yogurt is wonderful. Just try to find the 100% fruit versions like Cascadian Farms yogurt. Your child will never know the difference and you’ll have peace of mind when it comes to the yogurt.

      Every child is different, so I can only share what worked for Mini Chef. He’s always been a big eater, but he can get very picky if I let him. So it’s always been a rule that he has to take 1 thank you bite of anything I make him. This exposes him to other foods and textures (textures play just as big of a role as flavors do), without forcing things on him. I find that it’s really opened up his palate and he’s far more willing to try different things. This won’t work for everyone, but you might try it.

      I’m also a stickler with what I make. If he doesn’t want to eat it after that one bite, it’s fine. But he doesn’t get anything else either. Now admittedly, that might not work with a 1-2 year old. Mini Chef just turned 4, so my situation is a little different.

      My best suggestion is to talk to your child’s pediatrician. Find out what you have to do to change your child’s diet without doing any harm. And if you can, try to get in with a dietitian. They often have far more training in nutrition than doctors do.

      Wish I could be more help. Good luck!

  7. graciouspantry says:

    Kathy – Providing she is not allergic, nuts are a good snack for at home, as is fruit, greek yogurt, and smoothies. For school, hard boiled eggs, fruit, whole grain crackers, and veggies with dip are all good choices. I hope that helps.

  8. graciouspantry says:

    Kathy – Sure. I hope it helped.

  9. graciouspantry says:

    Thanks! My pleasure!

  10. graciouspantry says:

    Kristen – You can try sun butter. I believe it’s made from sun flower seeds. Many people with peanut allergies use it. It should sub okay in this recipe. I’ll try to work on a peanut free bar though.

  11. Would be great to see an “adult” version of school lunches for those that pack lunch for work. I do adopt many of the kids ideas here.

    1. The Gracious Pantry says:

      Candace – You aren’t the first to ask. Normally, I just use leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day. It’s the easiest lunch in town! But I’ll see if I can come up with something…

  12. Great post. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..