Creating balanced school lunches can be overwhelming, especially when there are so many things going on during the school year. These tips and ideas for creating balanced school lunches will help eliminate decision fatigue and have you making easy nutritious lunches with your child in no time. I’ve also included a free printable planner and a list of mix-and-match ideas.
The thought of packing school lunches can be stressful. You want to pack a nutritious lunch that your child will eat; you don’t have a lot of time, and you struggle when you do a Pinterest search for ideas and see all of the picture-perfect bento box lunches.
Believe me, I’ve been there! I’m here to tell you that your child’s lunch does not have to have teddy bear-shaped sandwiches, fish-shaped hard-boiled eggs, or cheese cut into stars to be nourishing and delicious.
Components Of A Balanced School Lunch
Following this easy formula will provide your child with essential nutrients, give them energy, and help them feel satiated during the school day.
Fruits/Veggies + Complex Carb + Fat + Protein = Balanced Lunch for Kids
It’s important to try to include an item from each category when you are planning your child’s school lunch. This actually goes for all meals. But, remember that nutrition is cumulative so don’t sweat it if every meal isn’t perfect!
Fruits and veggies contain essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Examples: peppers, cucumbers, carrots, celery, frozen peas, tomatoes, apples, blueberries, cantaloupe, clementines, grapes
Complex carbohydrates provide sustainable energy. Examples: whole grain bread, brown rice, quinoa, beans, whole grain/plant-based crackers
Fat and protein are important for brain and growth development and help kids feel full longer. They also stabilize blood sugar, which will help prevent a sugar crash between meals. Fat Examples: avocado, nuts, seeds, full-fat dairy Protein Examples: turkey, chicken, beef sticks, hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, meatballs, full-fat yogurt
Several foods fall into more than one category. For example, nuts are a fat, protein, and complex carbohydrate. See the freebie at the end of this post for a list of mix-and-match ideas.
Tammy’s Tips for Creating A Balanced School Lunch
Have a Plan – If you have been following me for a while, you know I’m all about having a plan. Having a general idea of what you’re going to pack for the week will assure that you have everything that you need on hand, and will eliminate the stress of trying to pull something together at the last minute.
You can download my free planning printable at the end of this post along with some mix-and-match ideas to help you out.
Get Kids Involved – Giving kids choices from each category and letting them help put their lunch together has several benefits. It helps to foster independence and responsibility, and it teaches them about nutrition. Best of all, they will be more likely to eat what is in their lunch!
I recommend trying new foods/recipes at home rather than having your child’s first experience with a new food be at school. If you choose to add a new food to their school lunch, I recommend making it a small portion.
Prep –Doing a little prep on the weekend goes a long way. Washing and cutting up produce will make assembling lunches during the week a breeze. Packing lunch the night before can also help your mornings go much smoother.
Containers and Accessories – Make sure you have all of the tools you need to pack your child’s lunch. There are a plethora of lunch boxes, bento boxes, and accessories for kids’ lunches on the market today. They range in price from $$ to $$$$$$.
Having a container with individual compartments makes it easy to pack a balanced meal. My daughter, Tricia, and I like the Bentgo Kids Lunch Box. The one pictured below is recommended for ages 3-7. My 3-year-old grandson can open it himself, and he loves the fun dinosaur print. It’s also easy to clean and doesn’t leak. (Stay tuned for a post all about containers and accessories.)
Balanced Lunch Ideas
Here are some super simple balanced lunch ideas that Trish and I came up with and put together for Jack. The food is cut in age-appropriate sizes for Jack and the serving sizes are perfect for him. Adjust items as needed for your child.
All of these ideas can be easily adapted for an adult as well. While you’re packing your child’s lunch, you can incorporate some of the same components into your own lunch. This will assure that not only are you feeding your child a nutritious lunch, you’re fueling yourself as well! 🙂
These lunches are not fancy, but they all contain foods we know Jack likes. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee he will eat everything, or that he will like the same foods next week. LOL!
Mediterranean Lunch – peppers/grapes, whole grain pita bread, hummus, cashews, and olives
Using a theme can be helpful when trying to come up with ideas. You can check out my theme idea post for a list of 20 different theme ideas.
Kabobs – turkey, lettuce, and tomato kabobs, kiwi, Mary’s Gone Super Seed Crackers, cashews, and Grammy’s Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies
Kabobs are an exciting alternative to sandwiches. They are easy to assemble and keep things interesting.
Tricia includes “fun” foods in Jack’s lunch a few times per week. I made these cookies mini-sized which is perfect for a little sweet treat. When you load kids up with the nutritious items found in the balanced lunch formula, you can add a few treats here and there. This helps kids to learn that fun foods can and should be part of a healthy diet.
Thermos Lunch/Leftovers – homemade slow cooker creamy potato and cauliflower soup, a slice of Simple Mills Gluten Free Artisan Bread, sliced apples, peanut butter, cubed cheese
A thermos gives you so many more quick and nutritious possibilities for packing a school lunch. It also adds variety. Tricia and I both like using leftovers for lunch the next day or freezing them in lunch-size portions for another day.
This lunch isn’t winning any prizes in the color department, but it was easy to put together using leftovers from dinner the night before. It also follows the formula and contains Jack’s favorite soup.
Grab n’ Go Lunch – hard-boiled egg, sliced cucumbers, cantaloupe, seaweed snacks, dark chocolate chips
When you do a little prep on the weekend, a grab-n-go lunch takes just a few minutes to put together. At the bare minimum, I like to wash my produce, cut some of it up, and make hard-boiled eggs for the week. This makes it easy to throw together a quick breakfast, lunch, and/or snack for kids and adults.
Yogurt Parfait – Greek yogurt, mixed berries, carrot sticks, celery sticks, and homemade granola
How yummy does this look? Another easy one, but be careful because the added sugar can add up quickly if you use flavored yogurt and purchase store bought granola.
When purchasing yogurt, I recommend buying full fat plain yogurt and adding your own fruit and toppings. A lot of the flavored yogurt on the market contains a crazy amount of sugar and other unnecessary ingredients like modified food starch.
If your child is used to their yogurt being sweet, you can add a little honey or maple syrup to the plain yogurt along with fresh fruit. I like using Greek yogurt because it contains more protein than regular yogurt.
Purely Elizabeth is one of my favorite packaged granolas because it only contains a small amount of added sugar, it’s made with coconut oil instead of inflammatory oils, and does not contain additives.
I hope these tips and ideas help to eliminate the stress of packing school lunches. Remember, it doesn’t have to be Pinterest perfect to be perfect for your child! Don’t forget to download your free list of mix n match ideas and menu planners. I’ve included 3 different planners for you to choose from.
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