Packing lunch for your kids every day is something that can quickly become monotonous and a little overwhelming, especially when you’re dealing with picky eaters. You want to provide them with a balanced school lunch that is nutritious, something they’ll actually eat, and fast enough to put together in minutes. Add to that concerns about food allergies in class and the mounting pressure from social media to make an aesthetically pleasing lunch box full of fun shapes and cute food picks, and you’re suddenly questioning the simplicity of a PB&J.
While making your kids’ lunch look Instagram-worthy can be entertaining, the most important thing is focusing on a balanced meal that will keep them satisfied — at least, until they get home and start demanding all the snacks. Once you’ve got the basics down, you shouldn’t need to overthink it.
What to put in a kid’s lunch
There are three primary components to keep in mind when planning your child’s lunch, according to Melanie Murphy Richter, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Wholistic Ritual. “One: making sure each of the macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) is included. Two: including at least two bright colors; and three: adding in some fun and flavor.”
If you're ever not sure where to start, begin with this general formula: 25% protein, 25% carbs, 50% fruits and veggies, and a dollop of healthy fats somewhere in the mix. More recommendations from Murphy Richter are below:
- “Protein is essential to building bones, muscles, teeth, skin, and hair, among nearly every cellular process in the body too.” Chicken, beef, fish, eggs, peas, nuts or nut butters, and beans are all great.
- Carbohydrates — like whole grain bread, cereal, or pasta — should make up just over a quarter of a balanced meal.
- Fruits and vegetables should take up about half the lunch, with a little more space for veggies than fruit. “[They] are rich in carbohydrates and fiber, and super high in vitamins and minerals.” Fun fact: “The colors of the fruits and veggies provide antioxidants and other immune-supporting nutrients.”
- Add healthy fats — like avocado, nuts, nut butter, or unsweetened yogurt — as part of the main dish or as a side.
Take a look at these school lunch ideas to try the next time you need some inspiration.
Breakfast for lunch
Breakfast for lunch can be a fun and unexpected surprise. In this breakfast-for-lunch box from Family Fresh Foods, there’s a good mix of protein, carbs, and fruits. Mini pancakes are cute and easy to pack, but regular-sized ones work too. Cut bacon into small and manageable pieces, and add some yogurt for extra protein and fat. A small container of maple syrup keeps the food from getting soggy. Fruit feels like a natural addition here, but you can also add some veggies — just add whatever your little one likes.
A mini taco bowl
It’s pretty difficult to pack actual tacos in a lunch box, but if your kid loves them, then a taco bowl is a great alternative option. This idea from @jacksbentobox includes ground meat with rice, cheese, beans, and corn. Add apple slices and crackers (in lieu of tortillas) on the side, sour cream (or guacamole) for dipping, and even a few chocolate candies as a treat.
Turkey club skewers
Instead of a regular-sized sandwich, make mini sandwich skewers using this turkey club skewer idea from Family Fresh Meals. Add small pieces of turkey, avocado, cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes with cubes of bread on either end to a kid-friendly food pick. You can make this picky-eater friendly by just doing sliced turkey and bread, or simply leaving out whatever they don’t like. It’s fun for them to eat and just changes things up in a simple way. Grapes (cutting them is the best way to avoid choking) and some chips or crackers make good sides.
Muffins and snacks
Instagram account @justlunchandlove_ has a great school lunch idea using bran muffins as the main dish. This one includes mixed nuts for a healthy fat, kiwi and blueberries for fruit, a tomato, cucumber, and bacon salad for veggies and protein, and some popcorn for a fiber-filled and fun addition (for children ages 4 and under, note that popcorn is a choking hazard, so keep that in mind if you’re packing lunch for a toddler).
A vegetarian-friendly snack box
This school lunch idea from @goodiegoodielunchbox on Instagram is so versatile and it’s easy to make swaps as needed. The main option is a small wrap with shredded carrots, lettuce, and cheese. On the side, there’s tomatoes as the veggie, edamame for some protein, yogurt for some protein and fats, mixed berries, some pretzels, and a chocolate bliss ball for a healthier sweet snack.
Fun extras to jazz it up
Sometimes, the basic act of turning a simple sandwich into a fun shape is enough to get kids really interested. The main course from @spaghetti.face on Instagram is a basic ham, cheese, spinach, and mayo sandwich cut into a star — you can add any fillings your kid likes, the key is to cut it into a cool shape like this. They also added some mixed berries, all-natural fruit gummies, yogurt, and chips. The sprinkles on the yogurt make it feel like more of a treat, and the cute food picks in the berries just add a little extra something.
It’s hard to go wrong with pinwheel sandwiches. They’re easy to make and easy for little hands to hold, and they can be filled with anything your kid likes. These pinwheels from Two Peas and Their Pod are made with turkey, apples, lettuce, and cheese, but feel free to sub out whatever you need. Cucumbers and carrots on the side give them their veggie fix, some grapes are the fruit, and a small granola bar adds some whole grains. Add chips for a fun snack.
Fried rice for sneaking in veggies
This school lunch idea from @goodiegoodielunchbox on Instagram consists of fried rice as the main meal. Fried rice is one way to include protein (like small pieces of chicken, pork, or tofu) as well as extra veggies (corn, peas, and carrots are just some options) since everything is all mixed together. And while it can be homemade, there’s a bonus if it’s leftovers from the night before so you have less work to do. A small pizza pinwheel is a fun addition. Hummus makes a great protein-packed, healthy-fat option, and sliced veggies are good for dipping. Add some fruit for sweetness.
A mini charcuterie inspired lunch
A kid-friendly charcuterie lunch? Count pretty much anyone in. This salami and cheese lunch idea from Family Fresh Meals is so easy to put together and has something for everyone. Mini pieces of salami are cute and great to grab on the go. Sliced cheese is a good source of dairy and fat, apple slices add some sweetness, the crackers are a whole grain for stacking, and carrot sticks get their veggies in. You can also make this your own with whatever fruit or vegetable your kids like.
A creative presentation
If you have time in the morning or the night before, it can be fun to artfully arrange your kid’s food to make their lunch that much more exciting. This heart-themed idea from @kidsschoollunchbox on Instagram is a perfect example. You can use heart cookie cutters to shape mini pizzas and bliss balls. A mini heart cookie cutter is great for fruit, and putting the carrot into the cucumber is a genius way to offer a unique presentation. Slicing blueberries and putting them on a kid-friendly pick is also a fun idea.
Cream cheese and jelly sandwiches
Many schools don’t allow peanut butter in a lunch box because of nut allergies, so having a backup idea that is just as simple is ideal. Cream cheese and jelly rollups are a perfect option. In this school lunch from @kidsschoollunchbox on Instagram, the carrots and apples are crinkle-cut to make them a little more interesting for kids. Add some mini cucumbers, crackers, and fruit, and this is a fun option.
Lunchables are always fun for kids, but if you don’t want to buy them, you can easily make your own. This DIY pizza Lunchables idea from Family Fresh Meals looks so good, you’ll want one for yourself. For the pizza base, use crackers or even mini pieces of naan bread. Add a small container of sauce, mini pepperoni, and cheese, and throw in some fruits and veggies for the side.
Pasta for a hot meal
If you have a lunch container that can keep hot food warm, pasta is a simple way to use leftovers or meal prep school lunches. This idea from @jacksbentobox on Instagram consists of pasta with sauce and meatballs, fresh fruit on the side, and a cheese stick for an extra snack. Since pasta and meatballs is so filling, you really don’t need too much more on the side.
A croissant sandwich
If your kids are getting sick of bread, another option for a quick sandwich is a croissant. Ham and cheese is delicious on a croissant and the pastry adds a nice sweetness. In this lunch box, @justlunchandlove_ on Instagram added some snap peas and tomatoes, crackers, mixed fruit, and some packaged snacks, like beef jerky for added protein and a fruit bar.
A tip for making school lunches for picky eaters
For kids who seem to only enjoy three things, Murphy Richter stresses that simple is better. Here are her tips for planning and packing school lunches for picky eaters.
- Use a bento box-style container so that the foods don’t touch each other.
- Offer a food several times, even if they never touch it. “A picky child needs to be introduced to a new food many different times (sometimes upward of 15) before they will try it,” she says. Do this for at-home meals instead of their lunch at school, which can be a distracting and overwhelming experience for them.
- Focus on foods you know your kids love and get creative with presentation and fun designs. “Kids respond very well to foods that disarm them because it’s silly and fun,” she says. “Go out and grab some cookie cutters and start having fun with adding eyes and a mouth to your food. It’ll keep them smiling and more likely to eat what you’ve provided.”
Remember: A school lunch doesn’t have to look or be perfect, it just needs to be full of stuff your kids will eat and love.
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