How to Pack a Healthy Lunch for Kids

My kids love packed lunches, but I hate all the additives, sugar, and fat in many processed lunch foods marketed to kids. Unhealthy chips, granola bars, and fruit snacks are expensive, too! After packing hundreds of lunches throughout the course of my three kids’ school careers (and I’m not even halfway done yet!), here are my best step-by-step tips for packing quick, healthy lunch for kids that they’ll actually eat.

Healthy Lunch for Kids

Step 1: Get the right containers.

Homemade lunch foods are less portable than their processed, over-packaged counterparts…unless you know how to make bento box lunches. I use a combination of EasyLunchBoxes and Laptop Lunches in my kids’ lunch boxes, because they’re interchangeable with each other and with various lunch boxes. They’re also durable (Laptop Lunches more so) and easy to clean (EasyLunchBoxes more so). Plus, they’re cheap enough that you won’t cry if your kid loses a piece at school. I pair my bento box systems with L.L. Bean soft-sided lunch boxes, but most will work (check measurements before buying).

laptop lunches

Step 2: Have plenty of fresh, whole foods on hand, pre-chopped and pre-portioned.

This sounds simple, but it’s surprising how quickly parents can get out of the habit of having fresh fruit, veggies, and snacks in the kitchen. I know I’ve been guilty. Creating a fun Tex-Mex salad or ‘ants on a log’ for your child’s lunch is daunting if all the prep needs to begin at 7 am on a school morning. If you already have items measured and sliced, however, healthy packed lunches are as simple as tossing packaged snacks into the lunchbox. We try to keep a zip-lock bag of cut celery, carrots, and other fresh veggies on-hand in the fridge at all times.

Step 3: Duplicate your kids’ favorite snack foods.

My boys love Lunchables, but they’re unhealthy and expensive. Instead, I fill three separate small bento boxes with whole-grain crackers, cheese slices, and lean lunch meat slices. My youngest son loves trail mix, so I skip the packaging and expense of the store-bought variety and let him mix up his own batch from organic bulk bins at our local grocery store. Then I pour a portion into a small bento box with lid for each snack time.

bento lunch ideas

Step 4: Think color and fun.

Bento lunches have become an art form. I’m not that creative, but I can still pair a peanut butter and honey sandwich with a cup of bright green edamame on the side. My kids love anything that can be dunked, so I slice apples with a cup of vanilla yogurt, or carrots with Ranch dressing. Since sprinkles are every kid’s best friend, I include a small container of granola to sprinkle on yogurt, and a cinnamon-sugar mix to sprinkle on cut fruit.

Step 5: Don’t try too hard.

My biggest healthy lunch disaster was the day tried to make my own granola bars to taste ‘just like Quakers’. Let’s just say they didn’t fool my kids. If you’re talented in the kitchen, by all means, go for it, but if not, it’s ok to set limitations. My kids’ lunches still include one packaged item–usually their beloved granola bars or an organic dried fruit bar–to make their school snack time a breeze. This allowance also makes the morning rush a little bit more manageable.

Step 6: Don’t forget drinks.

Because I have yet to find a truly healthy child’s juice box that also fits in our family’s food budget, my kids pack only water, all the time. Don’t feel too sorry for them: they don’t mind! I love that they’ve developed a taste for this healthiest drink option. We pack our kids’ water in stainless steel water bottles for durability (and yes, I do cry if these don’t make it home).

A comprehensive list of bento lunch meal ideas is continually updated at Laptop Lunches.

What do you pack in your healthy lunch for kids? What tips can you share for creating wholesome foods?

Photo credit: Stephen Cummings and I love egg