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How to Pack a School Lunch

Posted on by on August 22nd, 2012 | 13 Comments »

The count down to the first day of school in on! This will be my first year packing lunch for a full day. The lunch you pack your child provides the energy and nutrients he requires to learn and play at school. Without adequate nutrition he may feel tired and struggle to concentrate. That puts a lot of pressure on us, parents, who pack the lunch.

What will I pack? How will I pack it? Will it be enough? Will it fuel him all day? Will he eat it?

I have been mulling over these questions for weeks. I needed a plan. Stat!

Operation School Lunch

Step 1: Secure a lunchbox.

I looked at MANY options. I didn’t want a bunch of small containers. They seemed too tedious to wash every night and the risk of loosing containers was assessed at highly probable. I narrowed it down to an all-in-one system. But there were still choices (PlanetBox, GoGreen, LunchBots and Goodbyn). My next concern was the lid. Would my children be able to take the lid off and put back on? Because our school operates on a Balanced School Day, the children will be opening and closing their lunch containers two times a day. If they do not secure the lid after the first nutrition break, they risk a leaky lunch mess at the second break. Not appetizing. After weighing pro and cons, I settled on the GoGreen lunch box. Right now, it suits our needs best. An all-in-one system, a snap top lid, a carrying case, and all components are replaceable.

Choose a lunch system that suits your needs.

Step 2: Plan a menu.

For this part I mapped out the lunch box and assigned a title to each compartment, as a way to direct our menu planning.

Then I recruited my top food critic, my first grader. Include your children in the menu planning. Allow them to choose their favourite foods, so you can be assured that they will eat their lunch. I started by making a table with the five columns representing the five compartments and then added five rows to each column, so we could add five options for each compartment. My intention is that each day my son will choose one food option from each column to create his own lunch.

 1. Main Course

This is the largest compartment and will include a protein source and a whole grain.

Protein is required by the body for the growth, maintenance and repair of all cells. Protein is vital for metabolism, digestion and transportation of nutrients and oxygen in the blood. It is also necessary for the production of antibodies, which fight against infection and illness.

Whole grains are rich in fiber, B vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that help children build muscles, bones and are important for cognitive function.  Fiber and complex carbohydrates in whole grains help regulate satiety and blood glucose levels throughout the day.

  • seed butter and jam sandwiches (on whole grain bread)
  • humus and (whole grain or seed) crackers
  • quesadillas or burritos
  • pasta
  • chili
  • sushi
  • bean salad
  • chickpea curry
  • quinoa salad

2. Vegetable

Vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, fiber and other phytonutrients that are imperative to good health. School aged children should eat 3-5 servings (1/2 cup is considered a serving size) of vegetables a day. When choosing vegetables remember to incorporate vegetables of all colours and aim for one orange and one dark leafy green vegetable every day.

  • carrots
  • cucumber (not technically a vegetable but eaten as a vegetable)
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • spinach salad
  • peas
  • peppers
  • roasted seaweed (nori)

3. Fruit

Fruits are packed full of vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and other phytonutrients that are essential to health. Fruits are also an excellent source of soluble fiber. School aged children should eat 2-3 servings of fruit per day.

  • apple
  • pear
  • orange
  • grapes
  • dried fruit (raisins, etc)
  • banana
  • peach
  • mango
  • berries (strawberry, raspberry, blueberry)
  • kiwi
  • pineapple
Serve fruits and vegetables that are in season, when available, or consider using frozen produce during the winter months to maximize the diversity of nutrients offered.

4. Snack

When choosing snacks for school lunches be mindful of sugar content and portion size. Make baked goods  yourself and then store in the freezer for quick packing.

5. Extra

This compartment is flexible and may change depending on the activities during the week or school year. For example, you may need to pack more hydrating foods in the fall and spring when the weather is warmer. This compartment can be used to pack an extra snack for your child to each after school on the bus ride home, to fuel up before an after-school activity. If you have a picky eater, use this compartment to explore new foods and flavours.

Other Tips:

  • If your child’s school offers a school lunch program, consider mimicking the menu with healthy alternatives. For example, our school has pizza day. On this day I will pack a quesadilla or left over pizza we make at home the night before.
  • Make each day a theme lunch.
    • Meatless Monday
    • Thai Noodle Tuesday
    • Wraps on Wednesday
    • Thursday…
    • Fish on Friday

Download and print this School Lunch Menu Worksheet and plan a lunch menu that works for your family. Then hang it in the kitchen for easy reference.

Step 3. Accessorize and organize for easy packing.

My children can eat their body weight in humus and babaganouj. I predict that both these options will be frequently packed in school lunches, so I purchased a set of the Kinderville Storage Jars for serving humus. As an ‘extra’ I plan to serve green smoothie ice pops in the Kinderville Ice Pop Molds (a great way to sneak in that dark leafy green vegetable). And finally, I also purchased a spork for salads and bean dishes.

Store all lunch supplies in a child accessible drawer or cupboard for quick assembly. Encourage your children to help you or do it themselves by choosing one food item from each column.

This might be my favourite part;) Once the menu is finalized have it laminated and then let your child use a dry erase marker to circle his food choices. This can be done as part of your bedtime routine, that way you can prepare lunch the night before or first thing in the morning.

Step 4. Grocery shop.

Now that you have a menu in place, make a list, grocery shop, and stock the kitchen. By providing five options for each compartment there are endless lunch combinations. There will be no need to change the menu week to week. Just grab your list and go!

Bottom line: Pack whole foods that offer a variety of macro and micro nutrients to provide your child with the physical and mental energy he requires for a day of playing and learning.

Operation school lunch complete!

I will post our menu soon…for those who are curious.

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  1. Posted on: 8-23-2012

    I did something similar when my kids started school. We made a big chart together with items for each food group, including mom-approved treats and we used that as a guide for packing lunches. We would mix and match proteins and whole grains for endless main meal combinations and it prevented the kids from getting bored with their lunches. It also helped them pack their own lunches, they had to ensure that their lunch contained something from each column on the chart (plus an ‘extra’ if they wanted). As they got older we went from packing them together, to them packing their own with me checking it, to them packing their own lunches independently (although I still do random spot checks, haha!). Another bonus to having a list like that is it is a LOT easier to make your grocery list! Just scan the list for ideas for the following week.

    I was going to update our list for this year but now I’m going to print yours and have the kids do it! Thanks! :)

  2. Laura
    Posted on: 8-23-2012

    Brilliant! This is my first year packing lunches for a very picky eater who could live off peanut butter and cucumbers. I can’t wait to try the laminated list – she will love it!

  3. Crystal
    Posted on: 8-23-2012

    This is a great method! I would include a wide-mouth stainless steel thermos.

    • Posted on: 8-23-2012

      Yes, my kids take a thermos lunch very often! Great for leftovers, eggs, hot cereal (my Kindergartener’s fave lunch) and more.

  4. Posted on: 8-23-2012

    BRILLIANT I love this thank-you :)

  5. Posted on: 8-6-2013

    Very good article. I am facing some of these issues as well.


  6. Posted on: 8-15-2014

    Hi Jayda – LOVE this post (& shared it on Twitter & Pinterest) – Just FYI that the pdf of the chart doesn’t seem to come out properly (chart seems devoid of text – but on FB post you can see the text). Either way, you don’t have to approve this comment to show up on your site if you don’t want to, just thought it was the easiest way to let you know. Thx! Leesa

  7. Posted on: 8-15-2014

    Yikes! Maybe you intended the chart to be completed on FB, but it was supposed to be printable to be filled out by us??? Sorry ’bout that! Cheers! Leesa

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