How to Simplify School Lunches

How to Simplify School Lunches

If the thought of packing school lunches for your kids makes you want to tear your hair out, this post is for you! We rounded up some of our members’ favorite ways to make school lunches easier, because easy school lunches make for a better — and smoother — school year.

  • By Leila Kalmbach
  • August 11, 2020

In a year that hasn’t looked like any other, many parents are still unsure what school will look like in the fall. Will kids return to classrooms or continue to distance learn at home? Will classrooms be configured differently? Will class sizes change? 

But one thing is certain: Kids gotta eat! And for parents around the world, school lunches often inspire a familiar groan of resignation. It’s a lot of work to create five complete school lunches per week, per kid! And all the more so if you’re trying to come up with new ideas every single day, and fit in packing lunch after an already hectic day.

That’s why we turned to the experts for advice — parents. We spoke with Cook Smarts members to get their best tips for taking the stress out of packing school lunches, so that at least one thing about this year can be easier than last! Read on to see what they recommend.

8 Tips to Simplify School Lunches

1. Know the rules

Assuming kids are eating at school this year, it’s important to start by knowing the rules. Each school is a little bit different in what they do and don’t allow at lunch, so if you’re not already familiar with the specifics at your kids’ school, read up! Allergy restrictions are particularly common; most schools don’t allow peanut butter, and many don’t allow nuts at all. Some schools also restrict candy, sodas, or chips.

2. Prep for multiple days at once

Several Cook Smarts members we spoke with mentioned that they like to batch school lunches to make prep easier. “We do 3 days’ worth on Sunday and then pack 2 more on Wednesday,” says Jessica F.J.

Tara P. does the same, adding that she continued packing lunches a couple times a week while distance learning in order to make her life a little easier. “[My daughter] could just grab them when she was ready to eat,” Tara says. 

3. Prep freezer meals

Many meals freeze well, which means you can prep them weeks in advance, if necessary (and if you have the freezer space!). This works for pasta dishes, pot pies, casseroles, stir-fries, and more. 

Even PBJs — or sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches, if peanuts aren’t allowed — do well in the freezer. “I’ve read when freezing to put the peanut butter on both pieces of bread and jelly in the middle to avoid soggy bread,” Terri T. advises. Then simply pop them in a lunchbox in the morning to thaw until lunchtime.

4. Divide lunches in categories

Several members recommended dividing lunches into categories such as main course, vegetable, fruit, and snack, or alternately — carb, protein, dairy, fruit, and vegetable. That way, you or your child simply chooses one item from each category to create a complete lunch, and they can make suggestions for what they’d like you to buy at the store from each category as well. 

Nancy H. even creates a lunch “menu” for her categories. “The kids can pick their meal based on what is on the menu after shopping,” she says. “Puts them in control and uses up what I bought.”

Leah M.F. likes the category approach as well. Her kids generally get a main dish, such as a sandwich, soup, mac ‘n’ cheese, or crackers and cheese; a veggie, sometimes with dip; a fruit; a side, such as Cheerios, Goldfish crackers, or SunChips; and a treat, such as a fig bar or fruit muffin. “If their main item lacks protein, I throw in a hard-boiled egg or something, too,” she adds. 

5. Use bento boxes

Several Cook Smarts members mentioned that bento boxes have made their lives easier when it comes to packing a lunch. Nancy N. shares that “I have had the most success (easiest to prep and also unpack / wash, kids actually eating it) packing bento-style lunchboxes, but I don’t get fancy. Usually one section is something left over from dinner that can be at room temp or kept cool with an ice pack, and the rest are crackers, cheese, and raw fruits and veggies.” 

She also recommends getting a dishwasher-safe bento box, and trying out a single box of whatever brand interests you, so you and your child can make sure you like it before investing in several.  

Jessica B. recommends Bentgo brand bento boxes, and fills them with lots of finger foods, such as turkey pepperoni, cheese sticks, Cheerios, fruit, and red bell pepper. “The little hole in the middle is for whatever treat my older kid picks,” she said, “usually yogurt-covered raisins or those Gerber yogurt melt drops.”

Members also recommend EasyLunchboxes and Yumbox brands. 

6. Don’t reinvent the wheel each week

Some families use a standard weekly lunch menu throughout the school year. This is Amy H.’s preferred method of simplifying school lunches. She says their menu has “been talked through with my daughter, so it works. When she gets tired of something, we make a swap and keep going.” 

For Amy’s daughter, the menu is:

  • Pasta with white beans, pesto, and pine nuts (served cold)
  • Cold panini with chicken, cheese, roasted bell peppers, tapenade, and spinach
  • Ravioli kept warm in a thermos
  • Fried rice or rice with stir fry
  • Leftovers from dinner
  • Potstickers

Knowing exactly what each week’s lunches involve means Amy can throw lunches together in 5 to 10 minutes each morning. 

7. Send leftovers

Making extra food at dinner is one of the easiest ways to make school lunches, and it’s member Shawn W.J.’s favorite strategy. She sends her kindergartener with Cook Smarts leftovers (sign up for a 30-day free trial here!), then adds in a serving of fruit, such as sliced apple, pear, kiwifruit, or peach, plus a small snack, such as a granola bar, vegan cheese stick, vegan yogurt, or raw veggies. 

David S. agrees. He makes 6 servings of every meal to have enough for lunches for both kids and his spouse. “Make more and get ‘em used to eating leftovers early!” he exclaims.

8. Do what works for your family

Lastly, there’s no need to over complicate things! “For a couple years I felt guilty / bad / lazy for making a PBJ, fruit, yogurt lunch every single day,” recalls member Megan H.E. about her son’s lunches. “Finally I realized I was lucky it was so easy. No plans to make any changes for senior year. That’s what he likes.” 

Similarly, Megan recommends doing what works for you and your family, even if it’s not what others would do. “I also felt guilty for not forcing [my son] to start making his own lunch,” she said. “Life’s too short. Do what works for you and your fam. What works for my other son is to keep his hot lunch account filled.”

Back to School Lunch Ideas

Now that you know how to simplify school lunches, you’ll know that you can really get creative and do what works best for you and your kids. However, if you need a starting point, here are some of our members’ favorite ideas for what to send in school lunches:

  • Homemade “Lunchables” (“I usually do cheese and turkey sliced small (cracker size) plus crackers, a fruit like a clementine or apples or berries, and veggies like carrots / celery / cherry tomatoes,” says Emily W.)
  • Burritos
  • Quesadillas
  • Sandwiches
  • Pizza
  • Pasta
  • Stir-fry
  • Bagels with cream cheese and / or other toppings
  • Frittatas baked in mini muffin tins
  • Cheese and crackers

For even more easy school lunches, check out our free download for 5 favorite dinner recipes that make great lunch leftovers. We also include dozens of lunchbox snack ideas! Download the recipes and snack chart here:

Free Download

From Dinner to Lunch

Get 5 simple dinners that make delicious lunch leftovers, plus simple snack bag ideas.


For more helpful lunch resources, check out 5 Tips for School Lunches Your Kids Will Actually Eat, 6 Ways to Bring More Fun to Bento Lunches, and School Lunches Made Easy with Laura Fuentes of MOMables.

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