How to Master School Lunches | Pamela Salzman

My kids do not like to buy lunch at school, even if I wanted them to.  The options aren’t that great, but they also complain about long lines and then not having enough time to eat.  That definitely doesn’t fly with Mr. Picky who is very anxious to play ball as soon as possible after eating.  So with my children’s participation, I make lunch every day.

taquitos, yellow peppers, oat bar, blueberries

When I give lectures to parenting groups, lunchbox food is always a hot topic.  Believe me, I too feel pressure to make a well-balanced lunch that my kids will eat.  After all, lunch is different from breakfast and dinner when I am sitting next to them, making sure they eat their protein and encouraging them to “just take one bite” of something new.  Kids need to be well fueled to get through the school day and lunch is a big part of that.  For about the last year, I have been posting my kids’ school lunches once a week on Facebook and more recently on Instagram.  I don’t think I’m the most original lunch-maker out there, but since my cooking class students and readers often ask me for new lunch ideas, I thought it easiest to show you in a post just how we get it done around here.  Obviously, my kids have different likes and dislikes from yours, so there are many, many more options out there than what I am showing you!

vegetable frittata, salad, chocolate oat bar, tangerine

Here are my tips for stress-free lunch-making:

Plan the night before.  This doesn’t mean you have to make lunch the night before, although you can, but at least you’ll have a plan and you don’t have to spend a minute figuring it out in the morning when time is limited.  Coming up with lunch the night before also helps me sleep better.  It sounds crazy, but I have had restless nights while my brain ruminated lunch options for the next day.  It’s not too early to think about lunch options at dinnertime either.  Leftovers are my favorite source for a good lunch!

salads, fruit, hummus

Ask your kids for their input.  I asked Mr. Picky to make me a list of his favorite lunch foods so that I would have it handy.  But the way I really get my kids’ input is getting them in the kitchen with me (the night before) to help me figure it out.  This helps me know that they’re actually going to eat whatever is in there.

Go for a balanced meal.  I look to include protein, complex carbs (those that contain fiber and/or protein), a vegetable and a fruit.  Protein digests more slowly and helps us feel full for longer.  It also helps fuel the brain and keeps our moods stable.  Protein can be animal protein such as turkey, chicken or fish, eggs, quinoa, cheese or yogurt, edamame, beans, peas or lentils, peas, nuts or seeds.  Protein can also include baked goods made from almond flour.  Complex carbs are whole grains like brown rice or barley, or pasta, bread or tortillas made from whole grains, beans or lentils.  A lunch consisting of a bagel with jelly, an apple, some pretzels and carrot sticks is lacking in protein.  This lunch could be made more balanced with the addition of some protein like a hard-boiled egg, hummus, a yogurt or some cheese, for example.  My kids don’t expect a sweet treat, but sometimes I add one, and sometimes I don’t.

couscous, carrots, strawberries, yogurt, cookie

Stock substantial basics in the pantry and the freezer so you always have something to fall back on.  Let’s say you didn’t make it to the market the way you thought you would and there aren’t any leftovers from dinner to work with.  Being able to pull from your pantry or the freezer can be a lifesaver.  The items I need to have on hand for my kids are spelt or sprouted grain tortillas, shredded cheese, canned beans, different types of pasta, canned tuna, quinoa, nuts and seeds, and nut butters.  I try to keep the freezer stocked with corn and peas, edamame, homemade muffins and quick breads, pesto, meatballs, cooked brown rice.  I have a friend who freezes sandwiches for the entire week and I am considering freezing poached or grilled chicken for salads and sandwiches.

Brown rice, beans, cookies, peach, cucumbers

Make the most of leftovers from dinner.  This is where I look first.  My kids will take a thermos with soup, lentils, reheated stir-fry, or rice and beans, for example.  Leftover chicken or steak can be cut up to top a salad or tucked into a quesadilla.  Frittatas can be eaten at room temperature either plain or in a pita.  See below for more ideas.

Brown rice and kale bake, nectarine, red peppers, pecans, cookie

Get the right equipment.  I am partial to stainless steel and BPA-free plastics.  I use thermoses from the camping section at Target or from Lunch Bots.  My son has two different lunch boxes, one from GoGreenLunchBoxes and another from Planet Box.  My daughters use stainless steel containers from Lunch Bots.  I also like the containers from Sistema.  My trick with keeping things warm in the thermos is to fill it with boiling water and allow the thermos to heat up for 10 minutes.  Empty the water and add your hot food.  It won’t stay hot, but warm is good enough for my kids.  I also give the kids reusable water bottles which if filled with ice and water can double as an ice pack.

Examples of our lunches: 

SANDWICHES and WRAPS:  grilled or poached chicken (sometimes with barbecue sauce or pesto instead of typical mustard), poached chicken turned into chicken salad, turkey, leftover steak, panini with leftover grilled or roasted vegetables and cheese or pesto, tuna salad, hummus and vegetables, nut butter (or sunflower butter for nut-free schools) w/all-fruit preserves or sliced bananas, frittata in a pita.  You can even use toasted waffles or plain pancakes as the “bread” for sandwiches.  If your kids don’t like bread or wraps, put everything in a big lettuce leaf.  You can even take the same ingredients you would put in a sandwich and skewer them on toothpicks.

poached chicken w/BBQ sauce & avocado, trail mix, tangerine

QUESADILLAS:  I make these the morning of and they’re warm when they go in the lunchbox so I don’t want to wrap them in plastic.  I use aluminum foil here.  Mr. Picky doesn’t like cheese, so he’ll take a plain tortilla with chicken or beans on the side.  My daughters like pizza quesadillas with or without spinach or leftover vegetables and/or pesto, black or pinto beans with cheese, any leftover chicken or steak can be added easily.

SALADS:  My daughters love salads for lunch and that makes my life very easy.  Wash your lettuce when you get home from the market and roll it up in damp kitchen towels until you need it.  I always have a jar of my Everyday Salad Dressing #2 which goes with everything!  I will make a salad out of anything:  any lettuce or spinach, cooked pasta, cooked beans (canned is fine), feta/pecorino/parmesan, leftover cooked chicken or steak, quinoa, leftover cooked vegetables, corn, winter squash, dried fruit, nuts/seeds.  I just make sure I get some protein in there.

salad, banana bread, grapes

PASTA:  My kids will eat any kind of pasta with practically anything mixed in.  Again, I just make sure it’s a high fiber pasta like whole spelt or brown rice and I want to get some protein in there.  For example, even if it’s whole spelt penne and tomato sauce, I will add cooked white beans, pine nuts and/or parmesan cheese.  The girls will eat pasta with pesto, but Mr. Picky will not.  I have also mixed pasta with Everyday Salad Dressing #2, chickpeas and vegetables for a great pasta salad and my kids love Asian Noodle Salad with a peanut butter-based dressing and whatever vegetables you like. Both of these can be done the night before.

2 versions of lunch

pasta with white beans, tomatoes and spinach

SOUP:  I make a lot of soup during the fall and winter, usually once on the weekend and once during the week.  My kids’ favorites are lentil, white bean and potato, minestrone, tortilla with chicken, and chili.

minestrone soup, granola bar, tangerines

YOGURT:  Plain, whole yogurt topped with granola or “faux granola,” i.e. nuts, seeds, dried fruit and coconut.  Or turn yogurt into a dip for vegetables.

FRUIT and VEGGIES:  I’ll pack whatever is in season, cooked or raw, whole or cut.

leftover lentils two ways


cut apple trick

Have you mastered making school lunches?  Please share your favorite tips and tricks!

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  1. Hi Pamela, I came looking for the lentil recipe you use for Mr. Picky! Missing my monthly class with you!

  2. How did I miss this post?! Fantastic stuff, thx for the great tips! xxx Julie

    • Too kind, Lori. Thank you. Just doing the best I can. 🙂

  3. where did you get the lunch boxes??

    • I think I provided links in the text above. the green box is from go green lunch boxes, the stainless box is from planet box and the stainless containers are from Lunch Bots. There is also a BPA-free plastic salad container made by Sistema, which I bought at Old Navy!

  4. This was very helpful and gave me some great ideas to mix it up! One tip on salads…my daughter says the salads are too soggy by the time lunch comes around. So now I put the dressing in a small bag or cup n she mixes it herself at lunch time. Many thanks Pam!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jenny! I should have mentioned I always pack the salad dressing in a separate container unless it’s kale salad. 🙂

  5. So detailed and filled with great ideas Pamela! I cannot stress how much we rely on leftovers. I would much rather reheat something than make a sandwich from scratch at 7am. The same goes for storing the freezer – always a life saver for lunch or a last minute dinner. I sometimes wait a day in between with leftovers for the girls’ school lunch. So it all seems new again. My almost four year old has been known to make proclamations like “no dinner for lunch Mama!”. My husband and I pack our lunches too. Honestly – it’s better than anything we could buy in a rush and much more economical.

    • In complete agreement with you, Naz!

  6. What a superb article and presentation…so helpful for busy families. Even though I don’t make lunch boxes anymore, your excellent suggestions are great for at home lunches as well. Thank you for your usual wonderful nutritional inspirations for all.

    • So sweet. Thank you, Lois!

  7. You are amazing! The lunches look like still life paintings…such delicious and HEALTHY combinations. We’ve come a long way since my brown bag sandwiches back in the “Dark Ages.”

    • Mia, you are way too kind. I was actually embarrassed to include some of these images since they were taken on my phone very early in the morning with incredibly bad light! But thank you!!!

  8. I think the key is packaging. if the lunches are packed in such cool containers as these, they will definitely be eaten.

  9. absolutely amazing! I am rethinking what I just packed in the lunchboxes for tomorrow 🙂

  10. These lunches look AMAZING!!!!
    Forget the kids, I am taking them to work!
    Thank you for such great ideas.

    • You are so welcome, Kim! I am excited that you think there are some good ideas here!

  11. Oh my goodness!! These are such great ideas, but wait, for kids’ lunches? These are amazing ideas for adults! I would eat any of these any day!! Greet options!! I’ve been trying to get my 13 year old to try some of the healthier choices to take to school and at this point he’s meeting me about half way but ill keep trying!! Love your suggested menus!! Thank you!

    • Thanks, Lillian! You’re right, I would eat the same lunches I give to my teenage daughters!

  12. Whilst some of these seem ambitious for my kids, it is good to have something to reach for. Really though, you can start simple ie pasta and quesadilla and continue health it up as time goes on. What I really really love, and what I encourage my clients in Australia to do it to go savoury. So many parents tend to put sugary, snacky items in lunchbox or just a sandwich. It’s always great to expand the repertoire. Thanks for the inspiration! Marla

    • Excellent point about starting with a basic and continue to “health it up” going forward! I agree about the sugar, too. Awful for kids who need to stay alert and focused. Thank you, Marla!

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