Ah, the packed lunch. So full of possibility and yet such a source of stress, too. The trouble lies in the delicate balance of finding nutritious options that your kids will actually eat and, most importantly, won’t add hours of prep work to your evenings or rushed mornings.
As a dietitian, the bit about the meals being nutritious is also pretty important to me. So over the years of packing lunches for my two girls, I’ve refined my method. Relying on balanced yet easy-to-prep meals like these, again and again, gets us out the door in a hurry on busy mornings. For my own sanity, I use a combination of items I’ve prepped in batches on the weekend as well as grab-and-go meals I can slap together in less than five minutes in the morning. Convenience products that aren’t junk are essential for simple side dishes, and I make a point to include a small treat or snack food to keep the meal fun for the kids.
But no matter how streamlined I’ve made the process, packing lunches for my littles remains a chore when the couch and my nightly glass of wine beckon. I’m looking forward to the day when my now-preschoolers can start fixing their own lunches from the healthy options I’ve stocked, but I don’t think the food will change much. The items in the meals below, in more substantial portions, work just as well for middle schoolers as they do for younger kids.
Prep in Advance
If I’ve prepped some of these options on the weekend, I’ll include these items in my kids’ lunches towards the beginning of the week and reserve the grab-and-go options for the end of the week.
Lunch option 1:
- Ham, cheese and spinach egg muffin
- Sliced cherry tomatoes
- Kiwi halves
- Whole wheat pretzels
Why I love it: Egg muffins are one of my favorite lunch options because they’re savory, packed with protein and veggies and most importantly of all, they’re freezer-friendly! After making a batch, I’ll let them cool and freeze them in individual zip-top bags, which defrost by lunchtime. Whole wheat pretzels double as both a snack food and the lunch’s carbohydrate while tomatoes and kiwi are easy to pack and add even more produce to the meal. Older kids can eat the kiwi halves with a spoon, while younger ones might prefer slices.
Lunch option 2:
- Tuna or chicken salad made with Greek yogurt and celery
- Pita wedges
- Chocolate chip cookie
Why I love it: I’m a particularly big fan of fish or chicken salad for lunch because I can easily prep it mid-week when we have one of these proteins leftover from dinner. Plus, it’s an option my husband, and I love as well, so I’ll intentionally make more than we need for dinner to reserve for everyone’s lunch. Of course, canned tuna works just as well. I’ll pack this with pita wedges on the side, so the bread doesn’t become soggy and round it out with grapes and an oatmeal cookie (homemade if I have time, but typically store-bought).
Lunch option 3:
- Quesadilla with refried beans and cheddar cheese
- Single serving guacamole cup
- Pineapple chunks or mandarin oranges
- Veggie straws
Why I love it: Quesadillas are so quick to prep, and they store well in the refrigerator throughout the week. Single-serving guac cups are a fantastic product because there’s no worry of the guacamole turning brown. I’ll pack fresh pineapple when I have it, but I also keep pineapple cups packed in 100% juice or super-convenient mandarins around for when I don’t. I And let’s face it, veggie straws hardly count as a vegetable (that’s what the guac is for), but they’re crunchy and fun.
Grab and go
Sometimes, I’m out of pre-prepped options and need to rely on meals I can quickly put together. Tip: That little devil on your shoulder who tells you it won’t be too much trouble to make a beeline for the couch and put off packing these lunches until the morning? She’s right. These can indeed be made in three minutes, as you’re rushing to the door.
Lunch option 4:
- Low-sugar yogurt (I like Siggi’s cups or HappyTot pouches)
- Whole wheat crackers (I love ones with simple ingredients, like Triscuits)
- Apple slices
- Celery sticks
- Chocolate chip granola bar
Why I love it: This lunch is the ultimate toss-in-a-bag, dash-out-the-door combo. A low-sugar yogurt is a tasty, individually-packed source of protein. Each of the other items is available in pre-prepped individual bags, which I’ll stock up on when I know our week is looking particularly busy. Of course, I can also pre-portion crackers, carrot sticks, and apple slices and make my own granola bars when I have time. Tip: If you’re packing the apple slices yourself, try cutting the apple with an apple corer, then putting the fruit back together and securing it with a rubber band to prevent browning.
Lunch option 5:
- Nut or sunflower seed butter sandwich on whole wheat bread (jelly optional)
- Pre-bagged carrot sticks
- Single serving hummus cup
- Trail mix
Why I love it: Also known as the “safety lunch,” this lunch is super quick to pack and typically accepted by most kids. My girls generally eat a variety of foods but sometimes become more selective during periods of stress and change, such as starting in a new classroom at school or when their dad is out of town. On those days, I pack old standbys like PB&J, hummus and a fun trail mix. I like pre-made trail mix bags, but they often contain nuts, which aren’t permitted by many schools. So we make it ourselves in bulk with favorites like dried fruit, cereal and chocolate chips and store it in snack-sized zip-top bags.
Lunch option 6:
- Whole wheat tortilla roll-up with Greek yogurt, turkey and sliced cheese
- Sugar snap peas
- Freeze dried strawberries
Why I love it: This lunch is balanced, fun and incredibly easy to put together. Kids can enjoy this sandwich as a long, hand-held wrap or cut up sushi-style. Swapping Greek yogurt for mayonnaise adds a tangy punch, but mayo (and a little mustard) works too if your kids prefer those flavors. Sugar snap peas store forever in the fridge, and freeze-dried strawberries (or other freeze-dried fruit) are the ultimate packed lunch secret weapon: convenient, nutritious and adored by kids.
Diana K. Rice, RD, LD, is known as The Baby Steps Dietitian and is the founder of Diana K. Rice Nutrition, LLC, where she works with families to eat well and reduce the stress surrounding their food choices. She specializes in pre- and postnatal nutrition as well as feeding young children and is a strong advocate for cooking with kids, family meals, and body positivity. Her expertise has been featured in Fit Pregnancy, Parents, U.S. News and World Report, Today’s Dietitian, and many other publications. Follow her blog at dianakrice.com and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.