Easy school lunches in 4 steps for busy families

A group of cheerful small school kids in canteen, eating lunch and talking.

I went into the new school year wanting to tune up our family routines.

Home life always runs smoother with some structure and rhythms in place. And top of mind this school year is a new approach to school lunches.

I admit that preparing weekday meals and snacks is one of my most dreaded school-related tasks.

As a pediatrician, I want to provide my kids with healthy lunches. But as a mom of three, I have ample experience with how challenging this is to achieve!

If you’re looking for tips to simplify school lunch preparation, you’re in the right place.

Below, you’ll get four helpful steps for easy school lunches—tips guaranteed to make this task less stressful.

Shall we get started?

school lunch box packed with berries, carrot sticks and a sandwich with a jar of juice and apple beside it on a wooden table

Step 1: Easy school lunches starts with intention

What are your main priorities when it comes to preparing school lunches?

For example, do your goals include any of the following:

  • Providing healthy options
  • Offering a variety of foods
  • Keeping things basic, sticking with foods your child loves best
  • Opting for easy to prepare snacks and meals
  • Keeping costs to a minimum
  • Getting your children more involved in lunch preparation
  • Cutting down on food waste
  • Serving up food in creative ways

Parenting with intention allows us to hone in on what matters most. And this clarity ends up saving us a lot of time and energy in the long run.

But a friendly word of advice.

When determining your top school lunch priorities, be kind to yourself! There’s already so much pressure on moms—especially when it comes to feeding our kids.

Ultimately, we all want to provide our children with nourishment during the school day. But there are many roadblocks along the way. These barriers include limited time and money, picky eaters, dietary restrictions, as well as medications that diminish appetites.

And while it would be reassuring to see our kids eat well throughout the day, I really suggest taking the long-term rather than short-term view.

A gentle word of advice

We can set our kids up for eating success to the best of our current circumstances, but we can’t force them to eat.

And what our children chow down on during school time, is only part of their overall diet. It’s often easier to ensure more balanced eating over the course of a week rather than during a particular time of day or on particular days.

It’s also hard to avoid the trap of comparison, especially when we scroll through school lunch ideas (or other parenting related tasks for that matter) on Instagram and Pinterest.

But the truth is, no mom can do it all. We’re all struggling to do the best we can with the time, finances, and other limited resources at hand.

The point here is uncover your top priorities then use this valuable information to develop an approach to school lunch preparation—one that works well for you and your unique family.

Mother and child packing backpack for the school, smiling at each other
Photo by ozgurcankaya

Action step:

Take some time to reflect on your top priorities when it comes to feeding your kids during school hours. Write your school lunch goals down to help keep them top of mind.

Do you notice any external expectations or guilt cropping up during this exercise?

If you do, acknowledge these thoughts and feelings without judgement. Then give yourself some words of kind encouragement, such as: “No mom can do it all.”

Because we really can’t! A good dose of self-compassion can go a long way when it comes to all aspects of parenting.

Step 2: Set up your environment for school lunch success

Before my latest overhaul of our school lunch system, we had related supplies scattered throughout our kitchen.

This included lunch bags stashed in a hard to reach upper cupboard, food containers in a bottom drawer on the far side of the kitchen, and school snacks tucked away in a cabinet within deep pull-out drawers.

This system was difficult for adults to navigate and likely even more so for kids.

So, setting up the kitchen for easier lunch preparation was one of the first steps I took towards a streamlined school lunch system.

Given limited space in our current kitchen, I purchased a small spare cabinet. The cabinet allows us to keep all school lunch supplies in a single location. This includes snack items, containers of various types and sizes, cloth napkins, lunch bags, and water bottles.

This year, we’re trialing cotton reusable food bags and various bento boxes.

My kids typically like snack sized portions. In the past, I’ve packed these various food items in different containers including Ziplock bags. However, this makes for more time spent finding appropriately sized containers and afterwards cleaning-up.

The bento boxes mean only one item to clean and the cloth sacks can be thrown into the wash. This means no longer having to individually wash Ziplocks and containers by hand.


Another step towards optimizing school lunch preparation was placing the new cabinet by our kitchen table and fridge. This location offers an easily accessible surface for packing lunch bags and quick access to cold food items, respectively.

We store school lunch supplies—such as preprepared vegetables, cheese cubes, and yoghurt containers—in a designated tray on the bottom fridge shelf. These items can be retrieved from the tray, directly, or the entire container pulled out and placed on the kitchen table.

Action step:

Where are your family’s school lunch supplies currently stored?

Is there an alternative system that would make it simpler for you and your kids to access these items

Would different supplies help with school lunch preparation and/or clean-up?

Finding a system that works well, takes time. And I expect that my family will continue to tweak our new set-up and supplies in the months to come.

With this in mind, consider scheduling regular check-ins with your kids to see what parts of your system are going well and which ones could do with improvement.

Young girl packing her school lunch into her backpack with her parent's help
Photo by gpointstudio

Step 3: Assign clear school lunch roles

When it comes to preparing school lunches, it’s helpful to clearly define and assign roles.

For example, will kids:

  • Help with meal planning
  • Assist with weekend school lunch preparation such as peeling and chopping vegetables or baking
  • Pack their own lunches
  • Clear and clean the contents of lunch bags at the end of the school day

When designating school lunch-related tasks, it’s important to consider your child’s age and developmental stage. But, don’t hesitate to get all school-going kids involved in some capacity.

Even preschool-aged children can help with lunch preparation although this age group will require more guidance. Older children also benefit from clear instructions—and training—to help ensure they understand what’s expected of them.

Getting kids involved in lunch preparation may require upfront effort. But it’s work that pays off in the long run. For one thing, getting kids’ help lightens our parental load. It also means children are more likely to eat what they pack!

As part of assigning school lunch roles, consider the best time to pack lunches. For example, after-school lunch preparation works well for my family. We pair this process with unpacking used items and preparing supper. This gives us time time together to work cooperatively on a task while I hear about my kids’ days.

Your family may prefer to save school lunch preparation for the morning. Either way, it’s helpful to have a predetermined approach in place. That way, packing lunches is more likely to become a natural part of your family’s morning or evening routine.

Action step:

Make a list of school lunch preparation steps. Consider tasks such as meal planning, food preparation, packing of lunch bags, and clean-up. Which of these steps can be delegated to your kids?

Set aside family time to discuss school lunch preparation roles and responsibilities. And provide training as needed to ensure your children know what to do.

These family meetings are also a great time to decide the optimal time to pack school lunches such as in the morning, after-school, or later in the evening.

Side view portrait of young African-American woman packing school lunch while sending son to school
Photo by seventyfourimages

Step 4: Brainstorm food ideas for easy school lunches

Figuring out what food to prepare is one of my biggest school lunch struggles.

My husband and I are both foodies so having one severe picky eater and one moderate picky eater came as both a surprise and a challenge.

We initially packed a lot of school snacks and lunches for the kids that returned home barely touched or not eaten at all. After continuing this pattern for several years, I finally decided a new approach was long overdue!

What steps did I take?

I came up with a list of commonly purchased and prepared school-friendly food items, broken down by broad food categories such as fruit, vegetables, grains, and protein sources. I then reviewed this list, item-by-item, with my kids, writing their initial by preferred foods.

The marked-up list was then posted in our kitchen and used to inform weekly lunch planning and grocery shopping.

As an aside, we don’t currently pre-plan school lunches beyond hot lunch days. Once weekly, I sit down with each child to review the week ahead. This process includes choosing cafeteria meal days and jotting this information down on our weekly paper calendar.

However, some families find a predetermined weekly lunch schedule helpful. For example, this may include: breakfast food Mondays, left-over Tuesdays, bento box Wednesdays, thermos Thursdays, and hot lunch Fridays.

Easy school lunch in bento box
Photo by Tatyana Consaul

Check in on food preferences regularly

Kids’ tastes change over time. So, I review the list of preferred foods with my children mid-way through the school year. Between these planned check-ins, I keep tabs on what comes home uneaten.

As lunch bags are unpacked, I inquire—trying to keep my tone and words curious rather than judgemental—why my kids haven’t eaten certain items.

Their answers offer further helpful insights. For example, my kids have disclosed difficulty opening containers, food not staying warm/cold, squashed fruit, and leakage issues.

While a varied diet is ideal, I suggest you work towards expansing your kids’ eating repertoire during non-school hours. Your children’s overall nutritional status isn’t determined by a single meal but rather by their broader eating habits.

With this in mind, it’s okay to pack lunch bags with a limited selection of preferred foods. Kids don’t seem to mind this repetition as much as adults. Also sticking to favourites will help ensure your child gets some nourishment during school hours.

Action step:

Do you find it hard to come up with food options for school lunches?

Consider sitting down with your kids and coming up with a list of preferred food items. A weekly lunch schedule may also help.

And try to let go of perfection!

If your child has a limited list of preferred foods, don’t be afraid to offer these frequently. Raising good eaters takes time and patience. And there are lots of other opportunities outside of school hours to expand your child’s diet.

A close-up of mother preparing easy school lunches in kitchen at home with two young children nearby
Photo by halfpoint

Easy school lunches are within your reach

Preparing school lunches can be a stressful and thankless task.

But it doesn’t have to be so difficult!

There are ways to making school lunch preparation easier. In this post we’ve covered four of these steps including:

  • Step 1: Start with intention
  • Step 2: Set up your environment for school lunch success
  • Step 3: Assign clear school lunch roles
  • Step 4: Brainstorm school food ideas

I suggest starting with Step 1—determining your top school lunch priorities— as knowing what matters most will help inform subsequent steps.

Once you’ve sorted out top family school lunch goals, feel free to move on to whatever next step feels most important or doable.

Having a clear plan is an essential step towards improving home life for the better.

You and your family have got this!

I’d love to hear from you!

Does school lunch preparation get you down? Or perhaps it’s something you enjoy?

Please share your thoughts below as well as any tips you have to make school lunch preparation easier!

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