school lunch ideas for kids

From cartoon character sandwiches to bento boxed lunches, putting food on the table is suddenly an undertaking. How do working parents work it?

Eggs are a foul foul way to go through lunch. Don’t get me wrong, we all love fresh egg salad and hard boiled eggs, great protein. Win. But in a lunch there’s just something wrong. There’s the faint egg smell, a mild air of sulfer. Same goes for Tuna. I will not touch a can of tuna. If Phil wants them to have tuna for lunch, he will have to make it. I truly won’t go near it. Like those people who hate cats or cilantro, or those who call themselves “texturtarians,” the ones with an irrational fear of peaches, I detest any type of meat in a can.

Figuring out what to pack for school lunches sucks so hard. I hate making decisions, especially the ones that don’t matter. But when the decisions involve the kids and health, I at least try. But my God, I hate making school lunches. I hate cleaning little plastic containers of their bento boxed lunches, being green, trying to come up with inventive ways of serving up health. It’s exhausting. I can’t simply buy them Lunchables or some such prepackaged meal because a glance at the preservatives and fillers makes me twitch, despite the fact that they’ve eaten far worse at a movie theater. Still, to serve it up daily, I’d reek of guilt. I also don’t want to do what my mother did–what almost all mothers did once upon a time ago–pack a boring lunch. Turkey sandwich, mustard, a lone leaf of white lettuce, with the dreaded apple or box of raisins. I like to keep it creative, like breakfast for lunch or peanut butter and fresh strawberries served up in a waffle cone. Lunch should be enjoyable and nutritious. I’ve scoured the web and made a list of foods I could include, but it’s my own personal torture. And don’t get me started on the cookie cutters that come out, shaping veggies into flowers and bread into trains. Trying too hard is too fcuking hard.

Cherry tomatoes (Abigail will eat them, Lucas will bring them home untouched)
Sugar Snap Peas (same)
Cheese and whole wheat crackers will always be devoured
Apples sliced and shaken with cinnamon work
Hummus with carrots is an OK at home, but at school, it’s a NO
Jicama is good, as is endive (so long as you stand it upright in a cup of sugar to draw the bitterness out before serving)
Abigail loves red peppers, Lucas does not
Abigail adores mushrooms, only when they’re cooked. And when they’re cooked, and cold, they’re wet leaky messes of sponge.
She can devour an artichoke. But then that’s all she’ll eat, and lunch time will be over before she is.
Neither of them will touch jelly, which is fine by me. It’s all sugar, anyway.
They’ll both eat pretty much any fruit, aside from blueberries (this is a new phase)
All Lucas wants to eat is meat. Any type of meat.  And peanut butter. Or waffles and cereal. Right now he’s sitting on the sofa eating Kashi in a cup wearing a tee shirt that reads, “I (heart) bacon.” The heart shape is of an egg white with a yolk.

I hate spending time on this, figuring out the fiber, ensuring their meals are balanced. Even if they only eat half of it, at least it’s an attempt. And to do this FIVE DAYS IN A ROW is hellacious. I realize that mothers across the country deal with this and manage it without complaint. I am not one of those mothers. Why don’t they sell these prepacked healthful meals, fruit kebabs and veggie t-Rex sandwiches? Why must I be the one to do this?

However, when I frame lunch as a way to offer different themes, suddenly an eyebrow is lifted. Theme, did someone say theme? Hello, lover. I perk right up.

Asian pear, coconut rice cakes with mango, stir-fry, California rolls.

Be a Jew: smoked salmon, a cheese blintz, a mini bagel, a kosher pickle and bacon.

Castle Cuisine: tea sandwiches, mini scones, a decaf iced-tea

Mambo Italiano: Chicken cutlets with tomato sauce dip, burnt broccoli, meatballs, mozzarella stick

It’s still a lot of work and planning, time I should be spending working. And don’t get me started on dinner! Phil walks in the door and wants dinner ready, on the table, so we’re able to eat as a family, with time enough for baths and books and a proper bedtime. Kids need sleep–it’s perhaps even more essential than the variety of nutritious foods. But getting it all done is proving impossible unless I’m defrosting. Because once I start writing, once I’m in a zone, I don’t want to stop or be distracted. I’m in it. And the rest of the world falls away. How can a woman work and plan lunches and play dates and after school shlepping, not to mention COOKING a dinner, and buying the groceries for said dinner? And make it to the gym and count her Weight Watchers points? Oh, the overwhelming hell. I wonder if there’s a theme for that.

From cartoon character sandwiches to bento boxes, putting food on the table is suddenly an undertaking. How do working parents work it? They learn to say fcuk it.

Image source: Funky Lunch


  1. I think even variety helps, like not the same thing every day. Here’s some things I put in:

    a little fruit container – which I vary what fruit goes in:
    – pineapple, strawberries, raspberries, seedless grapes, maybe some fresh natural yoghurt with sliced strawberries and a drizzle of honey.

    I also sometimes put nuts: walnuts freshly broken out of the shell, or cashew nuts lightly salted.

    Ptherwise I frequently put in half of a freshly bought wholemeal bun (as we have a bakery a few doors down) with a very thin slice of cheese and sometimes a slice of salami.

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  3. I thought you were better, tougher than this. Your kids have been in KG for what- two days- and you are already bitching about making lunches, spinning into the fantastical theme lunches you will never make?

    Keep yourself in the real world and make lunches from a few selected favorites or go to Whole Foods and buy the healthy prepackaged meals you described. That is what parents do.

    Also, you have years ahead of you of lots of work. If your kids get really good at any sport, you’ll be traveling all over and dealing with tryouts and competition. It gets a lot more complicated.
    How you ever get anything done is a mystery.

  4. I always tucked a little note in each one of their lunches – ‘good luck on the test’ or ‘keep smilin’ babe!’… with a smiley face and a heart. Moving daughter to college this week, I found a drawer FULL of lunch stickies.

    1. Love to hear your daughter hung onto them… Just tucked a “good luck at cheer tryouts” note in my 12 year old’s lunch this morning. It goes so fast, no?

  5. Cut yourself a break.

    1. Go to TJ Maxx or Homegoods or Macy’s.


    3. Snag 5-7 non-matching, fun cloth napkins, singletons from the redline area marked down because only one or two are left and nobody in her right mind would want just one, right?

    4. Pay and GET OUT.

    5. Throw one in the lunchbox alongside the boring lunch with the cut fruit and the sandwich and maybe pretzels or little carrots.

    6. Whenever you are feeling up to it (close to holidays you’ll find tons), go snag 1 or 2 more new ones to throw into the mix.

    Easy-peasy you are a mom whose lunchbox is exciting. 15 minutes to shop, roughly $15 invested.

    If you’re a secret fabric stasher — and I suspect you may be — you can even whip a few up with a quarter hour and less than a bobbin.

    Also if shlepping the kids hither, thither and yon afterschool is stressing you out then STOP. Nobody has ever died from quitting ballet class.

  6. They sell kids Bento boxes from Whole Foods and then you can fill each little box with different food. Some easy, healthy, prepared lunch ideas come from Fairway! Zucchini Latkes, Blintz’, chicken meatballs, broccoli slaw (w/o mayo), grape leaves, satay, etc. There’s a Fairway in Plainview and I think a new one is opening up in Westbury.

    1. Author

      These are all fun suggestions, thank you! I checked out the new Fairway on opening day. There were Long Island riots, basically. Some people arrived for the opening at 7am, hoping to get door prizes, while the store didn’t open until 11am. When the 7am crew feared people were cutting into line… well, watch the food out, yo! I of course filmed it.

    2. Author

      Oh, and yes, we have the Bento boxes from Whole Foods… those are the pain in the ass containers I’m always washing. I love the idea of these, especially for older kids. I think mine still have trouble getting all the lids off without spilling, salad dressing, say, all over the person sitting beside them.

  7. How is bacon jewish?

    Just stop over thinking lunch. It’s just lunch. Sandwich with fruit/veggie side and your done. Also, I started making my own lunch in like 4th or 5th grade. You don’t have to do it forever. Its a good way to give kids a little bit of daily responsibility and personal choice (as long as its not candy, etc).

    1. Author

      Bacon was my attempt at humor. Perhaps people would’ve gotten the joke had I added Pork fried rice. Or not.

      I currently let them choose their fruit for the day. You have to keep in mind that I’ve been making lunches for them for years now, and each year I make myself a little crazed, wanting so much for them to actually eat their lunches, especially since snacks in our house are only allowed to be fruits, veggies, cheese and nuts. And come dinner, if they don’t like what the family is eating, it’s tough ta-tas. Phil and I refuse to offer them alternatives like a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. Either they eat our dinner, or they starve until breakfast.

      1. “Either they eat our dinner, or they starve until breakfast.” I actually love this attitude, because come on, they WON’T starve. My parents were fairly non-adventurous eaters, very European meat-starch-two-veg, but I grew up eating exactly what they ate every night. If I ever had a hard time with it at the beans’ age, I got used to it and grew up eating and loving those foods! None of this chicken-fingers-for-kiddo dinner crap.

      2. LOL! I got the Chinese food joke! Seriously, how can you be a Jew in North America and not get it? What did you do Sunday night?

  8. Why do you make easy hard? You make a really big deal out of everything, and it complicates your life and obviously stresses you. Learn to let some things go….give them a sandwich, apple and bag of chips.

    1. Author

      Yes, I do make easy hard, don’t I? It’s very true. I start off thinking big, then lunch deteriorates into the world of boring. Peanut butter might be off limits at school. I’m not sure yet, as we haven’t officially started yet. We had to be very creative when they were at schools that kept things kosher, no meat of any kind for lunch. The protein had to come in alternative sources and it became a challenge. It’s true, this year lunches will likely be cake… without the cake. Still, it’s right there on my to-do list taking up space beside organize closets and set out the outfits for the week, so there are no morning discussions over their clothes for the day.

  9. Be a Jew: BACON?????? Are you kidding?

    And what the hell is wrong with a PBJ? Why are you obsessing? Lunch is lunch.

    Soup, sandwich, salad. How complicated can it be?

    1. Author

      How complicated can it be? Extremely complicated when you put ME into the mix. I do make easy hard. This will have to be a chapter in my next book.
      Making Easy Hard, A Love Story of Hate

      I think PB&J is off the option table, given the peanut factor at school, and given that my kids find jelly too sweet and want no part of it, I refuse to let them eat cream cheese on a bagel every day, as I did growing up and out, aside from the occasional salami sighting. It’s not complicated, it’s details that linger on my to-do life list, details that I want to clear out so I can focus on writing about how deranged I can make myself.

      1. My message was not so much about the specifics of PB&J’s as it was about the memories of lunches. I HATED PB&J . . . hated the PB and the J. And lunch was usually nothing more than two slices of bread, a dab of mustard, and a slice of meat, which I didn’t really like either. But that’s not the point. Mom made a boring lunch every day, but more importantly, she cooked a gourmet meal FROM SCRATCH every single night. And while we had the regular homemade chili on Wednesdays, or meatloaf once or twice a month, we also had duck ala orange, or beef wellington, or scallops, shrimp, or lobster. I’m almost 60 and I still have never had Kraft Mac and Cheese. I didn’t know mac and cheese came into a box until almost high school. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to like liver which we had almost weekly – cooked perfectly, I must add. It’s about the memories – not if we had cutesy lunches – but that we were exposed to excellent eating opportunities. And, you said it best . . . you’re making yourself crazy. In your best advise, your worrying about the small things rather than focusing on what you CAN do to my you and your children happy. (And then you write an entry that focuses on people criticizing you. I am not a hater – I am just flummoxed reading your posts sometimes wondering how you can go from clarity to insecurity so easily.) No harm intended on my part.

        1. Author

          No harm taken. I’m flummoxed by it too. I think part of it is these hormones (okay, I don’t really think that). I think it comes down to letting the word “should” needle its way into my mind. Should. Says who? I get torn between shoulds sometimes, when I’m not in a grounded place. But all the panic of school lunches is actually bullshit. Maybe it gives me something to do to avoid doing what’s actually hard. That’s my guess anyway. Sometimes, I have off days where all I want to do is complain. Which you’ll see in some blog posts. Other days, I’m more grounded and am able to look at the long game.

  10. I am totally with you on tuna in a can. Although I am not a picky eater, this is one food that I cannot stand, honestly, even the smell of the can left in the garbage turns my stomach.

    As for the lunch ideas, I agree with others above that you are over thinking this, but I suspect you already know this.

    I do no pack school lunches, but one thing that has really helped me in my own cooking is to have nights, Taco Tuesday, Sandwich Thursday, whatever. Sometimes there are too many choices and you have to narrow the field to get creative.

  11. Sorry Stephanie- I only got to skim but I’m in the camp that you’re over-thinking. I don’t know about your kids but most like repetition. E has been eating the same lunch every day pretty much since he could eat. Slight variation but not much. He likes those whole grain or multi-grain deli flats, either cream cheese or pb&j on it. A horizon milk box, cut fruit, an organic low sugar granola bar of some sort (Trader Joes Fig ones, revolution foods, or Annie’s) or some unsalted mini pretzels. Give or take a horizon Colby cheese stick and/or an organic fruit/veggie puree pouch. If they’re frozen-ish they’re sort of like an ice pop. Those are my components. I add or subtract as necessary (what I have in the house).

    As long as they like what they’re eating they’re going to eat it. Boring only comes into play if they don’t like it. I don’t care if it’s boring as long as he likes/eat it. I dont have time to get caught up in lunch insecurity. Oh and I have to do dairy too- not necessarily kosher- just dairy so I am limited.

    1. Oh, and just FYI, I ate PB&J, some drink, a fruit, and a yodel or ring ding (it was the 80’s) for lunch from K-12. My mom made the best, perfect PB&J sandwiches EVER. That’s what I remember about my lunches. Not that they were “boring”.

      I use PackIt lunch bags- and I LOVE them.

      If you need to be green they have those cleanable sandwich things that wrap up. They have them on One Step Ahead.

      I’m a baggie user for everything else. Oh well.

  12. Food is such a natural extension of our love and anxiety as mothers!

    Do they like soup? Children might need help opening a thermos without spilling, but it’s a shortcut for you. You can include multiple nutrients in one dish. My littles *drink* soup with giant bubble-tea straws, big enough to slurp up (minor) chunks and much less messy than spoons. Even if you aren’t “soup people”– I have siblings who aren’t– there might be a few versions that have new appeal as a drink. Carrot-ginger soup, pureed, is more of a sweet than savory.

    Good luck! I feel your pain. My kids are eat a wide variety of foods, BUT they take 2 hrs at almost every meal. Literally. One has a legit delay, with oral-motor issues, but still. It kills me to think how hungry she’ll be at school if she can’t eat enough in 20-30 min.

  13. When my life was busier, when my kids were small, I took every Saturday morning to write my menus for the week, write my grocery list and then do the shopping from the list for the week. This could work for the kids’ lunches. Maybe have them participate in creating the menu. Then stick it on the wall or the fridge. My kids used to L-O-V-E knowing what they would be eating before it was set in front of them. It will also give you a chance to know what works and what doesn’t then you can either keep it in the rotation or ditch it.

    Good luck!

  14. check out the Bento Boxes at Pottery Barn Kids – they’re easier to open I think. And please post the Fairway video-I’d love to see it! have fun dreaming up fun lunches!!!!

  15. Of course you’re stressing it too much and you’ll end up figuring out what works and the kids will eat everything some days and not much others and it’ll continue to be annoying, but whatever. You want to help your babies be healthy and happy. In my mind, that’s sweet.

  16. Do you have a prescription for Xanax? Perhaps you need one. While I appreciate the humor AND the intentions, this post stresses me out so hard. They’re kids. Sandwich, chips, bag of baby carrots, juice box, Ho-Ho. Every day, with the occasional divergence or treat – thermos of soup in the winter, fruit instead of veggies after good days at the farmers market. But it seems to me that you’re making a big show of your neuroses just for the sake of putting on a big show. Just pack their lunches, for crying out loud!

  17. Thank you for this post. School starts Tuesday, I’m a stressing about the same thing!

  18. I always sent my 3 off with a delicious lunch. It was a priority for me, viewing the school lunch menu was gag worthy. Though I aimed for a nutritious lunch, when it wasn’t possible, some chicken tenders and a container of honey mustard dipping still hit the spot. Last night’s leftover stir fry chicken & veggies tucked into a whole wheat wrap, worked for us. Wraps were our lunch staple, easy to fill and no container needed.

  19. I’ve been a sporadic reader of Stephanie’s since before Phil was The Suitor. And now I’m six years married with two littles of my own and I never comment. Apparently, our shared hatred of packing lunches has struck a chord. I did it for the daycare years and now that I stay home I’m doing it for preschool. I get it. We’re trying hard to create an appreciation for healthy food so that, when they are bigger and more in control of their food choices, they will make good ones. That and our perfectionism that is so useful professionally is hard to turn off when we’re mothering. I’m a bento boxer too and have 100 cookie cutters and still don’t seem to have the right ones. Packing lunch together has really helped it to seem like less of a chore. At some point, it has to just be enough!

    All that said, I’m not sure what all the snarky commenting fuss is about. Settle down, people!

    And Stephanie, you are handling it much more gracefully than I usually do when people pick for the sake of picking!

  20. The only thing I hated about school lunches, was the dirty cutlery/boxes coming home. It still gives me the creeps that a spoon/fork/knife, even if washed, was sitting in that horrible lunch bag. Nothing could get that clean enough. I seriously hope your kids don’t share my neuroses, but if they do, pack things like plastic bags that can be thrown away. Best of luck!

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