Eat Well, Spend Less: The Art of Back-to-School Lunches

This month’s Eat Well, Spend Less topic is all about back-to-school, from breakfast to creative lunch ideas to easy snacks to last-minute dinners. We’re breaking down the process of how to feed those school-bound mouths.

In exactly 13 days, I will be getting ready to pack the first school lunches of the year. This year, Lene is joining the ranks of school-bound kids, which leaves me with three lunches that need packing five times a week. While this can be a bit overwhelming, I instead look at it as an exciting challenge, a chance to prove I can provide for those children I birthed, a stepping stone towards…Let’s get real.

Packing lunches is not one of my favored activities. In fact, I kind of dread the whole process. There’s a lot to consider, especially when you’re trying to pack healthy lunches that will be consumed by three wholly different and unique children.

What’s more, there is lunch bag envy. Lunch bag envy is what happens when your child glances at their neighbor’s lunch that includes cookies and juice and all the things that make it seem cooler than their sad sack of carrots and cheese cubes. To a 6-year-old, even the pile of gray chicken nuggets can be more attractive than whatever it is mom put in the Star Wars lunch bag.

And so it is. Three children, three different sets of likes and dislikes, one mom on a mission to provide a healthy lunch that each will eat and enjoy all while spending a minimal amount with the least amount of waste.

Reusable Containers

Let’s start at the beginning. What to pack a lunch in? Sure, you could go the brown paper sack and sandwich baggie route. I remember unpacking several sandwiches at the lunch table out of just this setup.

Rather than constantly be spending money purchasing plastic bags, however, I’d recommend a few good reusable bags and containers to send to school with your kids. Despite spending more up front, you’ll be saving in the long run, and thermal containers can increase the variety you’re able to pack. A few of my favorites:

  • Lunch Boxes: With three kids and the need to clean in between sometimes, we have quite the variety of lunch bags from a old school Star Wars box to a shiny new bobble one.
  • Reusable Bags: My favorite are Lunchskins. These bags have a velcro closure, making them easy for small hands, but less likely to spill. Plus, they slip right into the dishwasher to clean.
  • Thermal Containers: I like the Food Jars from Thermos for hot foods. They do a great job of keeping soups and rice dishes hot from the time my kids leave to when they arrive at school. (Make sure you prep them first.) Plus, if you wait until after school starts in your area, start checking the clearance aisle for them. I’ve been able to pick them up for $3-4 instead of the regular $11-14. We use the bottles to send water to school with their lunch. Yes, my kids are juice deprived.
  • Bento Boxes: These make it easy to grab and go, plus, they’re more likely to fit in the lunch box you have when everything snaps together. I have an Annabel Karmel Baby Bento that I send to school with all my kids. Bonus: It has its own fork and spoon in the lid.
  • All-in-One Systems: These lunch bags and boxes come complete with containers and bottles that fit snugly into them. A few favorites include Goodbyn Boxes and Lunchopolis.
  • All the Rest: We have a mishmash of bottles, containers and food wraps that get packed daily. My newest addition was a bobble water bottle that filters the water as you drink. The real test will be to see if it makes the tap water at school fit for consumption.

Your Child as a Food Eater

Before we go any farther, there are a few things we should think about in regards to your kids and their eating habits. Packing a school lunch is an art. You’re not there to remind them to also eat their carrot sticks or to make sure they remember about the lovely piece of fruit you packed. How do you pack a lunch that won’t go to waste? Obviously, wasted food means your kids aren’t eating well, and you’re definitely not spending less if they toss food and come home hungry for more.

First, consider what your kids eat regularly when you sit down with them at the dinner table. If you have a child who always goes after the rice or reaches right for the chicken, then you know these are things that will most likely go over well. Pick the healthiest options that your children eat and eat well as a starting point for what to consider when packing up their lunch box.

Next, think about what your children eat like when you’re in a public setting. Do you have a child who is easily distracted or who reaches only for dessert? If you do, you’ll want to make sure you’re limiting sweet treats in their lunch box, instead filling it with more substantial food. If you still want to include something sweet, make sure it is a one-bite snack that won’t fill them up or distract them for long. We love homemade fruit rolls for this purpose.

Finally, think about the time your child has from home to lunch and back again. Most kids also get a snack time somewhere in there, and you’ll want to be cognizant of that as well. Choose foods that will stick with your child and keep them from feeling hungry throughout the day. It’s hard to concentrate when all you can hear is your stomach rumbling.

Ideas on What and How to Pack

Keep your kids involved when it comes to packing their lunches. After all, they’re the ones who will be eating them. Ask them for suggestions, and while you’re at the store, let them pick out their favorite crackers or cheese to include. For my daughter, this means we purchase Gouda often, and she eats it with a smile. Then when she’s tired of it, she chooses something else.

Also, don’t forget to mix it up. It can be as simple as choosing rainbow-colored fruits and vegetables and packing them all in a rainbow row or slicing up a wrap and skewering it with toothpicks or tiny cocktail forks for finger food fun.

Here are a few of our favorite go-to lunches:

  • Lunchables: From home, of course. A few crackers, their favorite cheese and plenty of fresh produce on the side and a lunch is made. It’s quick and easy to throw together.
  • Freezer Smoothies: Frozen solid before they head out, by the time lunch rolls around these are slushy and refreshing. They’re great for mixing up the lunch box routine.
  • Salads: My kids will gladly eat a Caesar salad for lunch, but I also like to throw in a few more substantial salads like our Mediterranean Bean Salad or a quinoa fruit salad themed after one of their favorite books.
  • Hummus and Vegetables: Hummus is high in protein, and it’s great to pair with fresh vegetables. We like dipping carrots, celery, bell peppers in all colors and crackers and pretzels, too.
  • Leftovers: The ultimate in money-saving lunches. It’s always easier to make just a bit extra than it is to prepare and purchase for a completely extra set of meals. Fried rice makes an appearance in several school lunches over the course of a year. It packs tightly and retains heat well, which make it great for an option, but more importantly, it is full of vegetables and lean protein, and the kids eat it when it’s packed.
  • Hard-Boiled Eggs: These are easy to make ahead and toss into lunches when you’re in a rush. My kids are huge egg fans, and we can go from plain hard-boiled eggs to fancy deviled eggs in the same week without complaint.

As always, you can check out what others are writing in the Eat Well, Spend Less series and how they are preparing for the back-to-school season:


  1. Love all your ideas Shaina. That freezer smoothie is so smart. Next week my goal is the organize our freezer so I can stock it with lots of smoothies for lunches and snacks.

  2. Beautiful pics, genius tips. Definitely bookmarking!

  3. My kids eat school lunch. I’m bad mom… They get to take home lunch once a week, other than that they eat cafeteria food.

    Our cooks are actually really good though and we have a great, healthy school lunch program so I don’t feel quite as bad 🙂

    • I don’t think it’s bad if the food is good. For us, I know I can pack a lunch for less than $2.40/kid, so that plays a role in our decision to send lunch from home as well.

      • That’s my reason also. I can pack a lunch a whole lot cheaper then what they are charging at school. Plus at 15 he eats a lot so he gets full when we pack at home.

  4. Love all of these ideas, and those sliced wraps are the cutest!

  5. These are wonderful tips and again I have to say your kids are so adorable!

  6. Love how honest you are here. It’s not glamorous to pack lunches! Great ideas, too. I wish Noah liked more fruit than apples!

  7. Such great tips Shaina! I admit I hate packing school lunches too. For my son it is almost always dinner leftovers- he’s easy- but my daughter is tougher. She’s going into 4th grade and a lot of mornings I am still at a loss with what to pack for her!

    • Glad to know I’m not alone, Winnie! My kids go back and forth between wanting leftovers and not. Sometimes weeks will pass where my daughter wants wraps every day. Other times my son is not interested in anything I have available to pack. We just keep plugging away and mixing it up, and sometimes…sometimes I may even bribe them with a little bit of snack love. “Mom made these delicious brownies. It’s too bad you don’t want me to pack your lunch for school.” I would never do that. (Yes I would.)

  8. Great article! Would love it if my kids ate those colorful lunches, but mine seem to want the same sandwiches every day. Granted, I make them on whole grain bread with organic ingredients, but it’s the same old every day. I solved the daily packing grind like this Kind of radical, but it works for us.

  9. Fabulous post Shaina! So many useful tid bits for the often difficult lunch box packing.

  10. Christina says:

    Love this! I actually have the Lunchopolis!!! Under the All in One System in the article! Comes in great colors, BPA Free, CPSIA Tested. My little girl told me that all the kids said she had the “coolest” lunchbox. Check out their website it’s made by New Wave Enviro New Wave

  11. LOVE the frozen smoothie idea! This is great for adults too 🙂

  12. Great tips for back to school time!

  13. Love these ideas – I totally want some of those Lunchskins.

  14. Great ideas! We’ve been packing hummus for ourselves to take to work lately!

  15. Thank you so much for such a great article! Kids are already back in school, and I’m wondering what to fix.

  16. Great ideas for the teachers who are about to go back too! My lunches will be more interesting this term!

  17. So many great tips!

  18. I’d never thought to do the frozen smoothie idea. Great thoughts. I’ve got some great ideas now for toddler lunches while out visiting our friends and family on weekends.

  19. This is so timely – I will be packing my daughter’s first school lunch on Friday! Lamenting that I gave away my Annabel Karmel bento stuff to a friend (I think I won those in your giveaway, actually!) I could definitely use them now. Time for givebacks, lol. Thanks for all the great advice!

  20. These are great ideas. Often, my kids doesn’t finish the lunch I pack for them. I open their lunchboxes and see a lot of leftovers. I am worried since they don’t eat the right amount of food during lunch breaks and end up being hungry again just 2 hours after lunch. Providing a delicious meal that they would have fun eating is definitely the solution.


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