School Lunches and Snacks Made Easy, Healthy, and Delicious

Do you find yourself drawing a complete blank as a new year of school lunches and snacks is upon us?  If you’re like me, the quest is two-fold – sending food to school my son will enjoy AND preparing something that’s good for his growing body.

Here are some tips on planning and preparing healthy school snacks and lunches that are crowd pleasers at my house:

Involve your child in the lunch-making process
We’ve had a post-it note on our kitchen wall for a couple years now that helps my son remember the kinds of foods he needs to pack: “Fruit, veggie, protein, snack.”  We’ve had lots of talks about why these foods are important every day and how they help keep his “army” (my word for his immune system) strong, especially when pesticide-free.  It’s also helpful when your children accompany you to the store and/or farmers market so they participate in picking out healthy foods they will look forward to eating.  Often times our grocer or the farmers at the outdoor market will cut up their produce and offer free samples.  My son loves trying new things and making recommendations for what we should buy.

Reduce morning stress by packing and preparing ahead of time
Mornings are pretty rushed at our house, so we try to make lunch the night before.  As part of our evening ritual, my son packs his lunch while I’m cleaning up after dinner.  On Sundays, I try to organize the fridge and pantry to create easy to grab, healthy options like: cut carrots kept crispy in a sealed plastic container with water, precut bite-size melon pieces, pre-mixed green salad or pasta salad with veggies, tuna or egg salad mixed and ready to go, or a jar of raw almonds mixed with the dried fruit pick of the week (cherries, apricots, blueberries).  We’ve recently started picking out healthy muffin recipes and baking a batch over the weekend, creating easy to grab, healthy snacks for everyone.

Use packaging that facilitates the process
There are lots of great lunch-sized plastic containers out there that come in sets at low prices (I recently saw IKEA offering some very affordable set options). They’re reusable and easy to open and close, keeping food fresh and more likely to be eaten.  Reusable and washable cloth sandwich wraps are also great because they fold easily around a sandwich and the Velcro can be tightened to adjust to size.  We also have a small thermos we use for things like soups and pastas that help warm the belly on a cool day.  It fits great in the lunchbox and is dishwasher safe.  We’ve been reusing our lunch things for years and really like that we’re not adding to the landfill every day.  For items that need to stay cool, don’t forget the ice packs. (This study says to place one ice pack on either side of the foods that would normally be refrigerated to avoid tummy ache-causing bacteria.  They also suggest putting your insulated lunch box in the freezer overnight to help keep food as chilled as possible the next day.)

Healthy snack and lunch ideas:
  • Healthy Muffins, using whole-wheat flour (great ideas on
  • Pita bread, tuna or egg salad, tomatoes & lettuce (pack these items separately and your child can stuff the ingredients into the pita bread at lunchtime, avoiding the dreaded sog factor, or pack the salads with a side of pita chips or crackers for dipping).
  • Hummus (tomato-basil a favorite here) with pita bread, carrots and cucumber to dip.
  • Green salad with a mix of any of the following: carrots, cucumbers, apples, kalamata olives, garbanzos, cherry tomatoes, dried fruit, gorgonzola or feta cheeses, and favorite dressing on the side.  Since he’s big into finger foods, my son also likes to stuff it all into some pita bread.
  • Whole-wheat flat bread with favorite meat/cheese and veggies rolled into one and cut into grab-able pieces.
  • Thermos options: pulled pork, sloppy joe or barbeque chicken (your child can scoop it into a bun at lunchtime); leftover ANYTHING: pasta, beans and rice, soup, stew, stir-fry and rice, you name it!  Just don’t forget to pack a spoon or fork.
  • Baked tofu slices – my neighbor turned me onto baking cut super firm tofu (I use Soy Power Garden Tofu cut ½ inch thick and 3x4 -ish in shape.  Think good hand holding size.)  Dip in Braggs or soy sauce then bake about 10 minutes each side at 350 degrees.
  • Leftover cooked sausage cut up into easy to munch, bite-sized pieces.
  • Baked soy, whole grain, legume, pita chips and pretzels – all healthier low-fat and higher protein crunchy snack options than regular chips.
  • Fresh whole fruits in season or pre-cut, ready to go in a plastic container.
  • Packaged bars - Whole, fresh foods are always preferred at our house to fruit roll-ups but if the hankering is there, my son once a week is allowed to pick a “Friday favorite,” which might be a high protein Cliff Bar or a no sugar added fruit leather.

The beauty of these options is that they are not only healthy and delicious, but also easy for all involved.  Enjoy!

For more ideas, check out our Back-to-School Guide...

Originally published August 30, 2011

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