Lunch Box Basics

Lunch boxes and lunch menus are a private obsession of mine. I can spend hours pouring over lunch box descriptions, thermos manuals and sandwich cookbooks. With so many of my brain cells invested in lunch box knowledge, this article is a personal favorite.

Doing the Math
There is a myth in some frugal circles that packing lunches doesn’t save enough money to be worth the work. For most families, this isn’t the case. Most school lunches cost between $1.50 and $2 per child. Homemade lunches can be prepared for less than 50¢ a piece. Assuming 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month, and 9 months a year, this saves between $270 and $360 a year for 2 children. If you have 5 children in school, you can save $900 a year. Adult lunches offer even more opportunity for savings. An adult who spends $3 a day for lunch, will save more than $500 over the course of a year if he eats a home packed lunch for about $1 a day. If an adult is spending $5 a day for lunch, then reducing it to $1 a day for a very hearty, home-packed lunch saves over $1000 a year! As you can see, packing lunches really does pay off over time.

Packing lunches is a bit of a bother. It takes a few weeks to get used to thinking about it and making time for it every morning, day in and day out. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a minor element of drugery to it.

Still, there are really good reasons to bite the bullet, put up with the drudgery, and pack your own lunches anyway. Home packed lunches are usually more nutritious than school or fast food lunches. It’s easy for us to offer skim milk, fresh fruits and vegetables in season, and low-cost, protein-filled soups and casseroles. The lunches we make ourselves are more filling too. I have noticed that school lunches serve a lot less food than they used to. The portions are smaller, and they serve fewer items to the children too. I know my 11-year-old can easily eat twice as much as he is provided with in a school lunch. Home packed lunches can be adjusted to accommodate growth spurts and other changes in appetite. Homemade lunches taste a whole lot better too. At home we use more love and care in preparing them, and are more likely to use better quality ingredients. After all, we have a personal interest in the quality and contents of the lunch, seeing as we are personally vested in the person who consumes it. To sum it up, home packed lunches taste better, offer more food, are healthier and cost a quarter to half as much as a purchased lunch. They are one of the greatest bargains we can produce in our kitchens.

Free & Reduced School Lunches
One of the best things that the National School Lunch Program offers are their free and reduced lunches. When I was a child we always qualified for free lunches and breakfast, and we loved them. If you qualify for free or reduced lunches, then by all means, take advantage of it. You will save time and money in the long run, and you children will eat a hot, nutritionally adequate meal, provided by the American tax payer. I can think of very little that I would rather pay for with my tax dollars than lunches and breakfasts for school children. If the lunches are too skimpy for your hungry children, then pack them extras to eat in addition to the school lunch. That way your morning work load is still somewhat diminished and the kids won’t leave the lunch table hungry.

For folks who don’t meet the income requirements for free or reduced lunches, it is well worth the extra work to prepare your own lunches at home, and send them to school or work with the family.

Lunch Bags & Boxes
The first thing you will need is a container in which to pack the lunch. It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money. For adults a small cooler makes a great lunch box. Fred uses a medium sized cooler. He is usually gone for 24 to 48 hours, so he needs a lot of food to keep him going. For children and teenagers, you can usually find inexpensive lunch boxes and insulated lunch bags at yard sales and thrift stores.

Small children often prefer a plastic lunch box with cartoon characters on the side. I suggest you buy these as cheaply as possible. They only last for a year or two before the children drop them or the latch breaks. At $6 to $10 a piece, buying brand new boxes has never been a good investment for me. I have purchased them new when I desperately needed the thermoses that came with them. After the plastic lunch box broke, I purchased replacements from my local Goodwill. I continue to use the same thermos year after year.

If the art work on an older lunch box is shabby, you can easily replace it. Use rubber cement to glue down a new picture (cut to size) and then cover the picture with clear contact paper. I’ve done this, and it lasted almost 2 years, until the lunch box cracked and became unusable. Amy D. describes the process in detail in the first book of The Tightwad Gazette.

For older children insulated lunch bags work best. They don’t have the juvenile connotations of plastic boxes with matching thermoses, so older kids usually don’t object to carrying them. I like them because they don’t break when they get drop-kicked across the living room by a budding football player. Since they have soft sides, it is easier to fit more food and odd-shaped containers in them too. They usually have zipper closing and shoulder straps for carrying them. I buy the largest ones I can find because I find them easier to fill. Many modern insulated bags have several extra zipper pockets and sections on the outside to carry little extras like napkins, spoons and salt or pepper packets. My boys like these but they aren’t really necessary. Purchased brand-new, insulated lunch bags cost between $5 and $15. If you wait until back-to-school-sales you may find them cheaper. Over the summer they can often be found at yard sales. Insulated lunch bags usually do not come with their own thermos, so you will have to use some you already have or buy them separately.

Mother and son packing a healthy , frugal lunch

The Thermos
Which brings us to the next item you need for lunch packing: a thermos. If you have a thermos left over from older lunch boxes then use it. Whenever you can use something you already have it saves you money. If you don’t already have a thermos, then try your local thrift stores and yard sales. They can often be found for 50¢ to $1. Objectionable artwork can sometimes be removed with fingernail polish remover. If that doesn’t work, then cover the picture you don’t like with another picture you do like. Trim a piece of clear contact paper to fit neatly over the new picture and press it firmly into place. Be careful when you wash the thermos. Don’t soak it in the dish water for hours and hours. This will help preserve the new artwork.

If you absolutely need to buy new thermoses then the greatest selection is in August, right before school starts. I prefer wide-mouthed thermoses, sometimes referred to as insulated food-jars. They come in a standard 10-ounce size, and look exactly like regular lunch box thermoses on the outside. Inside however, their mouths are large enough to put chunky foods inside, like casseroles and beanie-weanies. They are also much easier to clean because of their wide mouths.

I have also seen small cold-only thermoses. They usually hold about 4 to 6-ounces, or about 1/2-cup. The lids go into the freezer overnight, and then chilled food is placed inside the thermos in the morning. By lunch time, the food is still fresh and cold. This works well for homemade pudding, jello, chilled fruit, yogurt, and the like. I used to try to use these for hot things too, but it turned out they only work for cold things. Live and learn.

Plastic Bags & Resealable Containers
In addition to the lunch box and thermos, there are a few extras you will need. These include small resealable containers and plastic flip-top baggies. If you have any small leftover yogurt tubs, the kind with resealable lids, they are excellent for lunch boxes. If you found a sale on 8-ounce containers of store-brand yogurt, it would be worth it to buy a dozen or so. Eat the yogurt. Wash and save the containers for lunch boxes. If this isn’t possible, then you can buy reusable Glad, or Zip-Lock containers in 8 and 4-ounce sizes. They last a long time, and are just the right size for jello, canned fruit, pudding, cobbler and salads. By the way, there is no rule that you must to fill a container all of the way full. You can fill a container half full of jello, yogurt, or pudding and send it to school just like that.

Sandwiches, popcorn, fresh fruit, veggies sticks, and boiled eggs go into flip-top baggies. I let my boys throw the bags away when they are done with them. Store-brand bags cost about 1/2¢ a piece, and save me having to wash any extra plastic bags. The plastic containers come home for a good sudsing everyday.

Keeping Cold Things Cold
A few years back it was very difficult to keep lunches fresh and cool all day. Homemakers were warned about foods spoiling while waiting to be consumed at lunchtime. This need be a concern no longer. With modern freezing ability and commercially available cool-packs food can be kept cold and appetizing for several hours.

Blue freezer-packs are inexpensively available at most discount stores and many supermarkets. They go in the freezer overnight, and in the morning they are popped into the lunch box along with the food. The freezer pack keeps everything in the lunch very cold. I use them in conjunction with the insulated lunch bag and find that I don’t even need the thermos any more. Instead I use a pint sized sports bottle for each boy. With the thermoses they were only getting 8 or 10 ounces of beverage, which they complained was never enough. Now they get a full 16-ounces, which seems to satisfy them much more thoroughly. I fill the sports bottle and chill the beverage overnight. Then it sits in the insulated lunch box with the freezer pack for 4 or 5 hours. By the time the kids eat lunch, the milk is still very cold. I really like using the cold pack in conjunction with the sports bottle.

If you don’t have a freezer-pack or don’t want to buy one, then you can improvise your own. Fill a sports bottle or other beverage container about a third-full at night before you go to bed. Screw on the lid and place the bottle in the freezer overnight. When morning comes the beverage will be frozen solid. Fill the bottle up with more of the same beverage. The frozen drink will melt as the morning wears on and will keep the beverage and the lunch box cool and fresh until lunch time. Experiment with the amount of frozen beverage you need to keep everything cold, while still giving it a chance to melt by noon. Ask the kids about it and make a mental note when you hit on the right balance.

The beauty of using the freezer-pack or frozen beverage system is that it frees up the thermos for more exciting things like tomato or vegetable soup, hot chocolate, casseroles, spaghetti and meat sauce, enchiladas, burritos and other things which will fit into the wide mouth thermos. Meanwhile, the lunch box itself holds all of the cold things, like pudding, yogurt, salads bound with mayonnaise, lettuce and other vegetables, cut up fruit, and anything else that is best kept cold. This little bit of lunchbox technology has really revolutionized my lunch menus.

Keeping Hot Things Hot
Cold items are easier to keep in a lunch box than hot items. There are still ways to manage it if you have a thermos. If you don’t have a thermos then stick with cold lunches. If you do have a thermos then get ready for a bright variety of hot lunch additions.

In order to keep things hot in a thermos both the food and the thermos must be heated in the morning. Liquid foods like soups and beanie weaines can be heated on the stove top. Bring them to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 5 full minutes. You want the food to be well heated, all the way through. Meanwhile, fill your thermos with your hottest tap water. Place the lid on the thermos and allow it to sit while the food heats. When you are ready to fill the thermos, dump out the water and quickly pour or ladle in the hot food. Be careful not to overfill. Usually there is a fill-line inside the thermos. Check yours to see if you can locate it. After filling the thermos, carefully screw on the seal and the lid.

Other foods that are chunkier like casseroles, macaroni and cheese or spaghetti with meat sauce, will have to be heated in the microwave or in a double boiler. To use the microwave, place a serving of the food in a glass bowl and heat at HIGH until very hot. If it is cold from the refrigerator, then 3 to 5 minutes should suffice, depending on your wattage. Preheat the thermos while the food is cooking. Empty the thermos, fill with the hot food and seal. To use a double boiler, bring about half a pot of water to a boil in the lower pot. Place your cold food in the upper pot. Position the lower pot over the upper pot and let it slide into place. With the bottom water boiling, the food in the upper pot should heat for at least a full 15 minutes before placing it into your preheated thermos. If there is a lot of food in the upper pot, or if it is exceptionally cold, then 25 minutes will probably be long enough.

I have a special trick for burritos. Prepare bean or beef burritos in your normal way. Wrap each burrtio individually in tin foil. Heat in the oven at 400° for about 15 to 20 minutes. When they are hot all the way through, slip them into the preheated thermos, and screw on the lid. The burritos will be hot and delicious come lunch time. Tommy is especially fond of this meal.

Planning Ahead:
At first, it takes about 20 minutes to pack good lunches, if you do all of the work in the mornings. One of the nice things about lunch packing though, is that most of the work can be done the night before. It turns out that good lunches don’t happen automatically. Lunches need thought and preparation well ahead of time. I was really slow to understand this. I tried to make lunches in the wee hours of the morning, when I was cranky and tired, and failed miserably more mornings than not. The kids complained. They wanted to eat good food like the other kids. They were getting bazaar sandwich combination like brown beans and mayonnaise, because I hadn’t thought ahead. I would need lunch meat and cheese for sandwiches, or tortillas and cheese for burritos. The poor boys ended up with a hybrid bean-salad sandwich with pickles and stale popcorn for lunch. That was pretty much the low point of my lunch making endeavors, and I am proud to say, the beginning of a new standard of lunches for the boys.

Now I plan out my lunch menus each week, ahead of time. Saturday afternoons, or Sunday on the way to church, I ask the boys what they want in their lunches. They always say pudding and grilled cheese sandwiches. I always agree and then they suggest other items too. If I’m planning menus for the week (which I do sometimes, but not always) I include their suggestions on the weekly menu. If I don’t have the time or inclination to make up the menus for the full week, I still jot down five lunches, so that I’m never lost in the morning, before the coffee kicks in and my brain begins functioning in earnest.

School lunches are required by law to include a specific amount of nutrition in each lunch. For elementary children it includes:

  • 8 oz of milk
  • 2 servings of breads or grains
  • 1/4 cup of vegetables
  • 1/4 cup fruit
  • 2 oz meat or its equivalent in beans, cheese, or yogurt
  • less than 30% calories from fat
  • Reduced sodium
    Less sugar
  • about 600 or 700 calories

I decided to use this as the standard for my homemade lunches. When I know what is involved in making a balanced lunch, I find it easier to plan ahead. With this meal plan as my guide, I do my pre-packing the night before. Vegetables like carrots, celery or broccoli are cut up and placed in plastic flip-top baggies. Muffins, popcorn, or cookies are baked and cooled before packaging and placing aside until morning. Any sandwich fillings, like egg, tuna or chicken salad can be mixed up the night before. This gives them a chance for the flavors to blend and makes the finished filling better tasting. Canned fruit and yogurt can be portioned out into their small containers and allowed to chill until morning. Sports bottles are filled with milk, and freezer-packs are placed securely in the freezer to work their miracles the next day. Pudding and jello can be prepared at night, and by morning they will be set and ready to surprise the lunch box crowd.

Anything which will need to be reheated and put into a thermos the next day will benefit from pre-packing too. Usually I measure out the amount of soup, or casserole I will need the night before. Then I put it into a small saucepan, put the lid on it, and chill it overnight. In the morning, I only have to pre-heat the thermos with hot water, and bring the food to a good rolling boil. Then I spoon it into the empty thermos and screw the lid on tightly. Hot chocolate, can be made from scratch the night before and reheated in the morning. Inexpensive canned soups are good for a hot meal when you are pressed for time. Vegetable and Tomato Soup (prepared with milk) are the two favorites at my house. During cold spells I will often send a hot soup in their lunch box every day. I think it helps to dispel the chill of an impersonal school cafeteria in the wintertime.

Remember to tuck in a spoon or fork when you send food in the thermos. Use plastic ones if you children are trained not to throw them out. Otherwise metal ones are sturdy and less likely to be thrown away. While we’re on the subject, do not send plastic or metal knives to school! Schools these days have zero tolerance for weapons. Myself, I never considered a plastic butter knife a weapon, but most schools do, and it is best not to tempt the fates. So rather than having a big, overly publicized media event centering around plastic knives in elementary school lunch boxes, just think ahead and keep all the knives at home.

Be sure to wash the lunch box, thermos, and any reusable containers every day, preferably right after the kids get home from school. Then let them air dry before putting them away. This step will prevent any bacteria or peculiar odors from forming. On the weekends give everything a thorough scrubbing, preferably with a little bleach water. I take the time for this extra step because it assures me that my kids are only receiving wholesome, loving, nourishment from their lunches, and not any contaminated bacteria beasties. Other folks are not as fastidious about this step as I am, and their kids are perfectly healthy, so you really have to set the standards according to your own comfort level.

Speaking of comfort levels, next we come to Mayonnaise. I send my children sandwiches with mayonnaise in them. Not everyone does this. Some people are worried about the mayonnaise going bad. I have found that using the blue freezer-packs keeps the food cold enough to eliminate any worries I might have had about the mayonnaise going bad. Before I stated using the freezer-packs, it was common for me to send tuna or chicken or egg salad bound with mayonnaise, or baloney and cheese sandwiches with mayo and mustard. The sandwiches would sit probably about 4 hours before they were consumed. My children never suffered any ill effects from the mayonnaise in their sandwiches. I will admit though, I have more peace of mind, know thing that the sandwiches are kept cool until they’re eaten. Each mom has to make her own decision about these things. If you choose not to use mayonnaise, you could substitute homemade salad dressing, which is cooked, or prepared salad dressing from the store, or choose sandwiches which do not require mayonnaise at all.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Candi - April 29, 2009

How do you send grilled cheese sandwiches? In the thermos?

    The Hillbilly Housewife - April 29, 2009

    I fry them up in the morning, then wrap them in foil and stick them in an insulated lunch box.

Patti - August 18, 2009

Those Go gurt tubes yogurt things are awesome to send too. Aldi’s has a version of them. I pop them in the freezer and they’re perfect by lunch time. Also those kool aide kool burst things are great for keeping lunches cold too if you freeze them over night

Judi - August 27, 2009

For a thermos lasagna try this. Heat spaghetti or pasta sauce. Into a thermos layer tortillas, sauce, and cheese. Optional ingredients could be sliced olives, chopped onions, green peppers. Remember what ever else you add needs to be ready to be eaten-this won’t cook them.

Sarah - October 20, 2009

We always used to pack our lunches. There were 4 kids in our family, and my parents sent us to Christian school. We just didn’t have a good option for eating at school since it was so small, and with the money my parents were paying for our tuition, there wasn’t a lot left for lunches.

Our process was pretty simple. We each had a different colored cooler bag (like the size of a 6-pack cooler). They had their own shelf in the fridge. Each night after dinner, we had to make our lunches & put them in the fridge. Mom kept one of the crisper drawers full of fruits (apples, oranges, pears) and we had to put one in our bag. We got to take leftovers from dinner that night, but we had to box it up in a rubbermaid container & make sure to put the appropriate silverware in. If we didnt want that, we could make a sandwich (PBJ, baloney, etc). Sometimes we would get sodas, but most of the time we had a water bottle that we filled up. We could then take a bag of chips (large bag, we filled up a baggie), or we could grab one of the Little Debbie type snacks to put in our bags.

Mom would help supervise, but this saved her a lot of time & we all got exactly what we wanted for lunch the next day. We had a microwave available so we never had to use thermoses. Come to think of it, this is still the process I use when I pack my lunch now to take to work :)

Amber - December 15, 2009

A cool thing to do is put a soup on in the crockpot overnight right before bedtime. Then by morning it’s ready to put in thermoses for children and adults. I have 3 crockpots so another thing I like to do is set up one or two with breakfast items and turn it on right before bedtime. You can do a variety of things like hashbrown casserole, oatmeal with dried fruit and brown sugar, apple crumble or an egg and veggie fritatta (don’t sprinkle on cheese until breakfast time or it gets rubbery overnight.) THE KEY IS TO PUT THE FOOD INSIDE A DISH THAT FITS JUST INSIDE THE MOUTH OF THE CROCK POT (a 9 inch glass pie plate works perfect for the fritatta) AND PUT WATER IN THE BOTTOM PORTION OF THE CROCK POT-OTHERWISE THE FOOD WILL BURN OVERNIGHT. This was not my idea, I got it from another website it has to do with using the crock pot as a bain-marie almost like a double boiler. (It makes cleaning the crockpot a lot easier!) If I had a breadmaker and I could set it up to have a fresh baked loaf of cinnamon swirl bread ready for me at breakfast time, that would be fabulous. And I do have a dedicated automatic drip coffee maker that’s never been used for anything but tea (something aromatic like peppermint), 1 teabag per 2 cups of water-imagine waking up to a FULL breakfast already made and smelling delicious.

    Jessica - August 12, 2010

    WOW! This is so cool. I’m thinking hot breakfast besides pancakes and french toast. Thanks!!

Amber - December 17, 2009

you could take this idea one step further by putting a half portion of a somewhat thin soup on the bottom of the crockpot and then fitting a pie plate or bowl down into the top with the hashbrown casserole or fritatta in it and starting this at bedtime. by morning, you have hot breakfast and hot lunch ready to be packed into a thermous.

Christine - January 24, 2010

My girls take lunch everyday and never liked using plastic utensils. Instead, I bought a package of 4 metal spoons and 4 metal forks for a dollar. They take these to school and though they have never lost one, it wouldn’t be an expensive loss if one were missing (as it would be if they lost a piece of my good silverware).

My daughters’ favorite lunch is homemade pizza. Every Tuesday night I make pizza for supper and set aside a few slices for the next day wrapped in foil. My kids love cold pizza, so it’s a snap to pull it out of the refrigerator on Wednesday morning and pack it up.

Shae - February 2, 2010

My kids go to a private school that serves hot lunches for $3.25, I work in the cafeteria for the school 2 days a week and I see so much thrown away! It is so important for kids to be included in what is in there lunch boxes! Also for kids to know it okay to not finish it all, some kids will throw away food because of mom or dad. I try to tell them, hey if you don’t eat the apple, or grapes, save if for a snack after school or ask your teacher if you can eat it at recess. The same for for any untouched food or drink. It drives me nuts to see kids throw away fresh whole fruit, or unopened fruit bowls.
No hot lunch is offered for my preschooler so I pack hers everyday, and I let my oldest pick one hot lunch a week and pack the rest of the week. This gives her some control, and variety as she picks foods I don’t offer in the lunch box.

Sandy - April 28, 2010

Another source for lunch boxes or bags (as well as coats, backpacks, etc.) is the lost and found at school when they are getting ready to send the stuff to goodwill or throw it away. You might have to clean a “peculiar” odor out, but it would be free. Watch school newsletters or ask the secretary, she will KNOW.

Joy - June 26, 2010

I’m single, no kids, live alone. I got tired of trying to cook for one person, and now just cook the full recipe for lasagna, soup, stew, whatever. Then I immediately divide the food into single-serving containers and stash them in the fridge or freezer. Packing lunch each day is very fast and easy, because I just toss in a container of food, along with a “blue ice” thingy, can of soda or a juicy-box, some fruit, some homemade cookies or whatever, and I’m ready to go. My lunches are a lot tastier and more nutritious than the McDonald’s or Carls Jr stuff I see my co-workers buying everyday, and by not going out to purchase lunch, I can spend my lunch-hour reading or surfing the web. Nice! p.s. just found this website — LOVE it!

    Mrs_Koehn - August 11, 2010

    I do almost the same thing for my hubby! : )

Rachel - July 19, 2010

Thanks for a great article! i found it by accident but there is a lot of good information in here. it’s mostly common sense, but you’ve put it together in an organized way, and i do appreciate it!!

Amber - July 31, 2010

Last year, we qualified for the reduced lunch program at school, so I started sending my oldest eating school food, Breakfast, Lunch, and Snack. He gets on the bus at 7 am, and we would get home at 6:30 pm, by the time Dad or I got off work, picked up him and his brother, I’m sure everyone knows how this goes. Well he always came home starving and his teacher remarked on his behavior being extreme thorughout the day. I found that breakfast frequently consisted of pancakes and syrup, no meat and milk, lunch was thinks like chicken nuggets, fried potatoes and corn, snack was a cookie. No wonder he was off the walls. Well, I had been on the South Beach Diet for a while and they had a pancake reciepe that my son LOVED, made with oatmeal, wheat flour and wheat germ, served with sugar free syrup, So I got the idea that maybe his behavior was due to all these blood sugar spikes and crashes that he was being given.Any of you who have done any research in this area will see where this applies. So I decided he could get his milk from school, but I’d do the rest. I made him the pancakes with turkey sausage, or oatmeal (real not instant or quick cooking) sometimes with rasins or nuts, or scrambeled eggs, or I would send regular cheerios for breakfast, Lunch was either leftovers from dinner or PB & J, but Natural PB on whole wheat bread, jelly sweetened with fruit juice, Carrot or celery sticks, apples, grapes, or an orange, cheesestick or yogurt tube, and I’d send a re-fillable water bottle. My kids have an extended day (8-4 with an 1.20 hours of PE EVERY DAY) and we live in south Florida. Anyway, I started all this around THanksgiving and by Christmas, my Principal stopped me one day and asked what I had done to improve his behavior so much. I told her and she didn’t believe me. We are a charter school so all meals are brought in by an outside catering company. I told her with as many kids that are in this school that have “ADD/ADHD” if we changed waht they were served through the day, I’d bet it would go away. She agreed, We are building a new building right now, but I think we’re gonna try it in 2011-2012

    Jessica - August 12, 2010

    It is amazing the connection between diet and behavior that we have lost in our ‘convenience’ food. Good for you! Great for those kiddos!!

    Katie Bugs Mom - January 23, 2011

    I’ve had the EXACT same experience with my daughter. She needs to eat a constant amount of protein throughout the day or Bad Things Happen. I feed her a protein-rich breakfast at home and then pack her a good lunch and several protein-rich snacks to tide her over. If she ate cereal for breakfast or had commercially-made cookies for her snacks, I can’t even imagine what would happen. Actually, I can imagine what would happen, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

Felicia - August 11, 2010

My daughter’s school has a lunch policy called “healthy kids/smart kids.” Absolutely no junk can be provided by the school or packed in lunches. They encourage parents to send healthy snacks in lunches as well as fruits, veggies, milk, and whole grains. I typically make my daughter a sandwich or wrap with deli meat of her choice. I use or make a spread for her wraps and include baby spinach so she gets a veggie in. I also send baby carrots with low fat ranch for dipping. We freeze her juice boxes which is juicy juice or any other 100% juice boxes I find on sale. For snacks I buy pretzels, baked chips, granola bars, fruit cups, natural applesauce and natural fruit roll ups (found at Costco). I also buy the Gogurt tubes and freeze them. My daughter is going to 5th grade and she began packing her own lunch last year. She knows what she’s allowed to pack and what needs to stay home and she was really good about packing her lunch in the morning. This school year we will prepare everything at night so all she has to do is throw it in her lunchbox along with a few of the blue ice packs in the morning.

tracy - August 11, 2010

When my dd was little she went to a special preschool. I would save even the tinest bits of leftovers in 4 oz gladware containers. They went straight into the freezer. I found that 3 of the containers were the perfect size for her lunch. So I would just choose from the variety that was available. 1 chopped up chicken with 1 mac and cheese and 1 peas etc. They had a microwave at their school. The teachers always commented to me about what great lunches she had. Now she is in private school and they have heat up days on certain days of the week this method still works great and saves me from having to figure out so many varieties of sandwhiches.

jeanna - August 11, 2010

I worked at an elementary school for 5 years. One idea I thought the kids enjoyed alot was when parents sent a homemade lunchable. Just some meats (ham/turkey/even pepperoni), cheeses, wheat crackers or regular crackers, veges and dip,fruit chunks and fruit dip. Little ones like finger foods and this way the white bread thing gets avoided. We had an unbelievable amount of kids who brough all prepackaged things – like a cookie, chips, and a fruit rollup. And some of the parents thought that WAS a balanced lunch. Of course, those kids also had behavior problems. I agree with the poster above who said behavior is related to nutrition.

My high school daughter loves to take peanut butter rolled into a tortilla. Just soften the tortilla in the microwave a few seconds to make it roll up easier. Then we cut it in half and still in tupperware or a baggie. Also those cream cheese/salsa tortilla pinwheels make good lunches with some salsa for dipping. She also likes homemade lettuce salads, cold pasta salads, homemade subs, and sandwiches like turkey with BBQ sauce is a variation she likes instead of mayo.

I’m trying to remember my list of lunch ideas though because school starts next week around here!

Ginny - August 11, 2010

Great suggestions! Two of my kids started school on Monday, and I’ve been kind of at a loss as to what to pack. So far, it’s been meat and cheese sandwiches or wraps, yogurt, a piece of fruit and some chips and/or granola bars. It’s ok, but I really needed more ideas and I’m glad I came here. One thing my kids loved last year was homemade chicken nuggets served cold with ketchup to dip. I know they will love grilled cheese in their lunches! Thanks!

Amy - August 11, 2010

So many great, practical ideas! Thanks for the tips.

One thing though, does anyone have a good idea to keep the bread from getting soggy before my dh and dd get to eat their lunches?

    LisaE - August 12, 2010

    This depends on why the bread is getting soggy. If you are making sandwiches with mayo and/or lettuce, tomato type ingredients, pack them all separately. If you are using only a plastic baggie to pack the sandwiches, makes sure they are not near or placed beside an ice pack…..when my older dd was little her sandwiches were always soggy because I placed them by the ice pack-only way I even knew of this is the day I ate with her at school-she never said anything…yuck.

      CRiches - August 24, 2011

      toast the bread, especially for tuna or anything with tomato.

    Sue Ann - December 17, 2010

    I solved the problem of soggy sandwiches by folding 2 paper towels into a square that would fit in a zip sandwich bag. Zip closed with a little bit of air in the bag and place it as a buffer between the sandwich and the cold pack.

TRISH - August 11, 2010

I commend all of you who have your kids participating in packing their lunches. Without them knowing, you are teaching them about nutrition as well as responsibility. It’s much easier to transition to the adult life when these patterns are engrained at a young age.

Sue - August 11, 2010

Peeled hardboiled eggs, plain or deviled are easy & nice in the lunch. Can be made up ahead and have in refrig. Maybe a fresh whole baked or microwaved baked potato would fit and keep hot/warm in a thermos. Send favorite toppings along like shredded cheese or dipping sauces.

Sue - August 11, 2010

If your children feel left out not buying a school lunch, you could compromise and let them buy once a week on a favorite day and then pack lunch the other days. When they are older you could offer them the $2.00/week to buy lunch one day/week or offer that they could choose to save it for something special. They may soon see the savings they can have by economically packing their lunch with the free food from home. Maybe even buy that extra fancy lunchbox or lunchbox snacks, that they have had their eye on with their own saved lunch money. A teaching moment on frugality paying off.

jeanna - August 12, 2010

My daughter and I were brainstorming last night. We liked the idea of warming a burrito, wrapping in foil and sticking the hot burrito into a thermos. This evolved into putting leftover sloppy joe meat (& cheese maybe) into a tortilla (which we have tried before and its delicious), wrapping and keeping in the freezer for packing this way. And we even thought we make italian sloppy joes (hamburger with a little spaghetti sauce) and either pack in small tubs (to heat and send in the thermos) and send with a hamburger or hotdog bun (like a meatball sandich) or to even put that italian sloppy joe meat in a tortilla. I have also made little individual pizzas using canned biscuits rolled out a little bit, put in a sprayed muffin tin and filled with the hamburger/pizza or spaghetti sauce mixture and cheese and baked. I think you could also store these in the freezer, warm and put in a thermos. I think I plan on cooking just a little bit extra in the next couple of weeks and preparing some of these things in an individual way so that I can take them out of the freezer, warm and packing in a lunchbox. Sandwiches are okay but a little variety makes you have something to look forward to. Keep posting those good ideas.

(By the way, my daughter decided one day a couple of years ago that she had eaten her last horrible school lunch where she was left hungry. We started packing her lunch and even by eating leftovers like homemade pizza, burritos, etc., she lost 10 pounds. I think just staying away from the chocolate milk and all those calories the schools pack into those cheap lunches really satisfied her hunger better and was lots better for her!)

Jess - August 12, 2010

I am heading back to graduate school this fall and will be on campus for 8 hours most days. When I worked, I always packed my lunch but had access to a fridge so this article with the tips to keep food cold is great. To complicate things even more, my 18-yo sister moved in with me and will be starting her senior year in high school this year. She is perfectly ok with packing a lunch and is old enough to do it on her own. It is great to hear all these great ideas so that neither one of us get tired of PB&J!

Jessica - August 12, 2010

I have a page that I ripped out of the September 2007 issue of Parents that talked about red beans and rice, leftover chinese food, even bacon and eggs stuffed into a thermos. It was heated, stuffed then sent off to school. The articles says that the items stayed warm until lunch. The bacon and eggs even has a ketchup smiley face!! I homeschool so there is no sending off to school but I still have to feed the kids! I have a leftover lunch day where we eat what is in the fridge instead of making anything new! That way we save money by not wasting so much.
On another note my neighbor sends her kiddo to school with cutout shape sandwiches. She uses cookie cutters instead of the shape ones that you can get at the store and gives the leftovers to the baby at lunch at home. She buys the cookie cutters on sale after the holidays (Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.)

Krista - August 13, 2010

I’m a college student. I buy a loaf of bread at a time and make 10 meat & cheese sandwiches out of it and throw them in the freezer. Whenever I need to pack a lunch, I grab a frozen sandwich & my sandwiches are always thawed by lunch time! This way, I can spend 5 minutes making 10 sandwiches instead of taking the time to make one each day.

    Lydia - August 18, 2011

    Thats a great idea! I was just thinking about this today, and wondering how i could premake my sandwiches. Between work and school im often so tired that i hit the snooze button and then i dont have much time to make lunch in the morning and dont eat all day until dinner. Im going to try freezing now!

Viv - August 30, 2010

What size termos should you use? My son has one that is for his drink I think that is too small to put food in isn’t it? For the warm foods are they really warm/hot when its time to eat lunch.

suz - September 17, 2010

my son perfected the pb and banana sandwich by using a wrap spread with pb and rolling the banana up in it! no need to skice the banana! of course, we are not allowed to send pb to school now, but its a nice sandwich on the wknds!

sharon - September 19, 2010

One year when I had to leave the house with my youngest much earlier than my hubby and 3 older kids..I learned that you can prepare and freeze sandwiches!! I buttered the bread before filling and made pb&j, tuna fish and meat sandwiches. I had 3 large bins one fruit, one snack and one goodies ~ all pre-bagged and ready so hubby had to briefly check their choices, but they pulled a sandwich, a friut and a snack or dessert item…and they were ready for the day! A little planning goes a long way in the am cruch! Thanks for the tips everyone!

SHELL - September 30, 2010

You can rest a little more w/Mayo– usually it has vinegar- which is an acid and lots of bacteria hate that environment. I still put little frozen lifesaver shaped rings in the lunch box- because the rule is- 2 hours.

Thanks for all the fun ideas!

    SHELL - September 30, 2010

    I forgot the MOST important part… LOVE NOTES! I always put love notes in my kid’s lunches! They love them!

Dene Brock - October 8, 2010

Thanks for a great article and all of the tips in the comments section. Our school just changed their lunch menu and my kids have been complaining every day. I’m tired of paying @2.00 each for meals that get tossed in the garbage, so we are returning to the traditional “sack lunch”. My kids enjoy helping make their own lunches, so I feel this is the best way to ensure that they get something nutritious to eat during the day.

Rosey - October 25, 2010

One of my favorite things to do when I need to take dinner to work is to bake a potato (russet or sweet) and wrap it in aluminum foil, then wrap it up in a dishtowel and secure with rubber bands. I just throw it in my work bag and it stays hot until it’s time to eat.

Lisa Anderson - December 28, 2010

I like to hit the clearance sections of the party aisles and buy napkins for my daughter’s lunch. Seasonal ones, holidays, birthdays, etc. She loves them!

I use the little disposable containers for fruit, pudding, yogurt, etc. Way easier for them to open since they have a ridiculously short time to eat.

This is a great blog and I’m definitely taking notes!!

Heather - January 26, 2011

One thing that hasnt been mentioned here is that children dont get enough time to eat at lunch time and taking your lunch can many times give them more time to eat due to not having to stand in line for the school lunch :)

    Laura - July 27, 2011

    It didn’t take long for me to figure this out. I realized that she spent half her time chitchatting and being a little kid. Then after a while she actually started asking for more food, so she either had a growth spurt or spends less time socializing at lunch :)

    Try to remember to pack the utensils, because if they do have to go through the line to get them, that slows them up, too!!

Shawsha - July 24, 2011

What great ideas! I am a teacher (trying to lose weight… not so much with school lunches!) and my daughter just got diagnosed with some food intolerances, so we will be packing lunches most of the time this year. It *IS* ridiculous how little time students (and teachers) have to eat! It certainly isn’t placing emphasis on healthy eating habits. You all have contributed some awesome lunch ideas!

    The Hillbilly Housewife - July 24, 2011

    Thank you, Shawsha. Yes, the lunch ‘hour’ could certainly be used as an opportunity to teach kids about healthy eating habits. We all are concerned about childhood obesity, yet lunchtime in school is all about eating as fast as you can. As a teacher, you may be looking at a new mission square in the face, Shawsha. 😉

Laura - July 27, 2011

My daughter’s LLBean bag and lunchbox got really grungy the first couple years at school. It’s really hard to clean that canvas material! Then it HIT me. I grabbed our can of sneaker cleaner (you know, the kind you spray on, it foams up, etc), sprayed it on, scrubbed and wiped away and WOW it made a difference. Now if only I can find an easier way to clean the INSIDE of the lunchbox..

    Tricia - August 17, 2011

    Every day when the lunch bag comes home I have the kids wipe it out with a wet wipe. Then on the weekends, we wash in hot soapy water in the sink just like you would a dish. The outside usually clean up well this way, too, with a little attention from a scrub brush. After a good rinse, hang upside down and air dry. We’ve had a lunch bag last more than one year this way (without smelling icky)

carol - August 17, 2011

We have a color coded chart in one cabinet of the kitchen. Anyone can help pack ALL lunches that are needed. Since everyone likes something different the list (color coded for each child) only has what they like. There are four squares and one item from each square must be in the lunch 1. sandwich, wrap, leftover 2. pretzels, sweet potato chips, whole wheat crackers 3. fruit of their coice 4. homemade cookie, natural fruit roll, Kashi fruit bar. When we have dinner letovers, I place them in small containers and they are ready to grab. Larger packages items get divided into small snack size zip lock bags or small plastic containers as well. We have all of our small plastic containers in a basket (with lids!) ready to grab. (Once a container doesn’t have a lid or a bottom-it gets used for something else or discarded). No hunting for containers or wondering what to pack for each person. This has worked so well for our family…even when they are 5 they can help to do the lunches.

cristina lou - February 14, 2012

to keep my kids lunch cool all trough lunchtime i use a Pack-It. i put it in the freezer at night and in the morning i take it out and pack it with all the healthy fresh foods my kids like. i dont have to worry about adding ice packs because the bag already has them built in. its the best lunch bag i have come across. i can finally pack my kids yogurt cheese and milk and know that onece its time for lunch it will be safe and fresh for them to eat. i love this new proiduct. PackIt Freez and go i beleive the name of the company is.

Christina Hylton - March 12, 2012

How do you do cold and hot stuff together?Say you put something hot in a thermos does it go into the lunchbox with the cold stuff?Seems like that would make the cold stuff warm and lessen the effect of the thermos!…..And what is the best way to pack a lunch…this is for my husband…….does everything go into the cooler or should I seperate the cold from hot?

    Carol - March 29, 2012

    Heat rises. I put hot stuff on top of cold or frozen stuff. My hubby has a large lunch box and a microwave at work. Anything that cools off can be nuked. Ha!

Jo Lee - July 18, 2012

Here is a tip on how to make sandwiches without them getting soggy within a few hours: When using mayo, spread it between the meat and cheese. If it’s not directly on the bread then it can’t get nasty. For your PB&J, spread PB on both slices if bread with the jelly in the middle. The peanut butter will coat the break and keep the jelly from making the bread a juicy, fruity mess!

Jenna - July 22, 2012

I am currently living in HI due to my husband’s military duty station. Not only are the school lunches here appallingly horrific, but they are $2.50 PER MEAL, PER CHILD! That is sheer insanity! (And that is a ‘bargain’ from re-working the budget, meals originally were slated to be $3.25 each!) I won’t have my girls eating the disgusting slop passed as ‘lunch’ (nor are they very interested in eating it, just from having seen their peers eat it). Packing lunches is for sure an expense saver. I am on the hunt for a way to keep quesadillas warm and crispy instead of going soggy. I am hoping to find some foil lunch wrap/bags that can perhaps prevent moisture from accumulating while keeping the quesadilla somewhat warm.

Amy - August 22, 2012

Include a little lunch note in lunch box every day. I post free lunch notes; jokes, fun facts, etc – please take a look at the link for free printables.

R - February 11, 2015

Great article! Thanks hillbillyhousewife! I especially love the tip on pre-heating the thermos! :) Do you have any special tips for packing sauteed chicken or homemade chicken nuggets?

Gabriel'sMom06 - March 24, 2015

My son starts preschool in the fall, so I am a little nervous. This it great thanks for great ideas.

When he gets older I might try Sloppy Joes & BBQ pulled pork, maybe even hot chicken sandwich filling in the Thermos.

For the fork and spoons I’m going to buy at Walmart the colored ones in the birthday party supply aisle (like bright blue and green) Also buy the character napkins to throw in there to make it alittle more fun.

Thanks again.

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