first day of school - school lunches

Balanced School Lunches for Picky Eaters

Written by Katie of Good Life Eats

School is just around the corner for us, and I think we’re all glad of that in the Goodman home. We had a great summer and had a fun family vacation, checked out tons of library books, attended swimming lessons, and more. But I think we’re ready to get back to our regular school and work routines. Part of that routine is packing school lunches.

The problem that many moms, myself included, can have is that packing school lunches often becomes too routine. Meaning, that my kids can sometimes see the same items day after day in their lunch boxes. Here are several ideas to help get you started on the right foot.

After last year, I learned that mealtime at school was the perfect opportunity to mix things up. Why? Positive peer pressure. My picky eater wasn’t going to throw a tantrum at the school lunch table when offered something new. School was a more neutral ground for trying something new because I wasn’t present.

I always put enough food in the lunch that even if he doesn’t try the new food, he will still be full. Then it is completely up to him whether he eats it or not. Simply being presented with the item is the first step to trying new foods.

Tips for Packing Balanced Lunches

Beyond the Sandwich

A lunch box doesn’t need to contain a sandwich as the main dish.

One of Madeline’s favorites from last year were All-Natural, Uncured (no MSG, Nitrates, etc.) Chicken Cocktail Sausages that I found at Trader Joe’s. They weren’t an every day item, but once in a while it was a nice alternative to mix things up.

Also, both of my kids love yogurt, so I’ll definitely be sending them with Cheri’s Yogurt, Cottage Cheese, Fruit, and Granola Parfaits in their lunch once in a while.

school lunch granola parfait

Photo by Cheri

Offer a variety of choices that you can alternate throughout the week. Bagels, English muffins, pasta, wraps, homemade lunchables (sliced cheese, meat and whole grain crackers), and last night’s leftovers are all great choices to mix up the typical PB&J offerings.

Speaking of PB&J…

I know this is a heated topic, so I’m not going to get into the hows, whys, rights or wrongs. If your child has a peanut allergy or you attend a school with a no-peanut policy try some of these other spread options to replace the beloved peanut butter sandwich.

We’ve found that we actually prefer Almond Butter to Peanut Butter anyway.

Is a Microwave Available?

Find out of the school has a microwave available. This will definitely depend on the school and teacher’s policy, but having the option of a hot lunch can greatly increase the variety of food that you can pack.

We are lucky at our school that the kids eat in class rather than in the cafeteria and teachers are happy to reheat as long as it takes less than a minute.

No microwave? Try using an insulated thermos to pack things like soup and stews.

Fruit and Vegetables

It’s easy to toss and apple or a banana and a bag of carrots into the lunch box, but it is fun to present fruits and vegetables in an out-of-the-box manner.

freezer smoothies for school lunch

Photo by Shaina

Try serving fruits with dips, like yogurt or almond/peanut butter. Vegetables are great for dipping in cottage cheese, guacamole, or salsa.

One of my favorite ideas is to make smoothies ahead of time and store them in the freezer. By lunchtime, they’ll be soft enough to enjoy in the lunchbox, plus they’ll help keep any other perishable foods in the lunch box cool.

Try some of these smoothies:

Healthy Treats

It’s fun to have a treat with lunch, but my kids are known for eating their sweets first and picking at the rest of their lunch when I’m not there to encourage eating fruits and vegetables first.

how to make homemade fruit leather

Photo by Katie

I often try to add healthier versions of their favorite treats to their lunch so I don’t have to worry about them filling up on empty calories during their lunch time.

Some of our favorites include:

Get the Kids Involved

Often I will let Logan help me make the lunches. He is entering 1st grade this year and is an avid reader. I write him a list that goes something like this and let him do the rest:

Put this in your lunch box:

  • Bagel, Sandwich, Muffin, or Pasta
  • 1 fruit – your choice
  • 1 vegetable – your choice
  • Yogurt, String Cheese, or a “Circle Cheese
  • Fruit Leather or Dried Mango
  • Fill your water bottle
  • Napkin

xoxo, Mom

I offer deliberately easy foods for him to prepare. Being involved in the lunch making gives him the opportunity to make food choices within healthy parameters and helps him practice his reading skills.

Need More Lunch Ideas?

Are you ready for school to start?

About Katie G

Katie’s lifelong interest in food has shown her that part of the goodness in life is enjoying delicious food with friends and family. Katie Goodman is the cook, recipe developer, and self-taught photographer behind GoodLife Eats. It is there that she shares what she finds good in the kitchen and in life. A mix of great recipes, family memories, and yummy photography is what Katie serves up each week.

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  1. Great tips! I love it that PB&J ingredients are certainly versatile these days.

    • Unfortunately, most schools nowadays are NUT free zones, so no almond or walnut butters either. And no chocolate hazelnut spreads, etc. It’s more challenging.

      The soy and sunflower seed butter options are good, but they require sending your kid to school with stickers and notes explaining that it’s not peanut butter. In some schools, even these look-alike butters are banned because of fears that they could cause confusion.

  2. I used to have such fun packing my son’s lunch box and slipping in little notes of love and encouragement. I really thought this was “Mother of the year” material. Now he is 17 and at boarding school and tells me that the notes were without a doubt the most embarrassing thing in his life – he would throw away his lunch to avoid opening the notes!
    Shows – you win some, you lose some!

  3. Great post! I love the smoothie idea.
    My oldest kids are big enough to make their own lunches, which is such a relief! Lately, my 12 year old daughter has gotten into Bento Box lunches and it’s SUCH FUN! She does some sophisticated sandwiches, eggs, and other things. But sometimes when she’s rushed, she does simpler things like blueberries skewered on toothpicks, or a few cupcake holders filled with an assortment of grape tomatoes, small crackers, and hummus. The little sectional bento box (we have a tin one) makes it pretty and appealing even when it’s nothing especially fancy.
    What’s nice is that now she’s excited about preparing and eating her lunch, and in the past it was a ‘drag’ for her because she is such a picky eater.

  4. alison @ Ingredients, Inc. says

    Great post with great info! I will retweet it for you now. I may feature this on my facebook fan page this week as well if that is okay with you

  5. Homemade apple chips….I had no idea. Yum! I’ll definitely be trying these, and soon.

    So grateful for the delicious-looking recipes using coconut milk and sunbutter!

  6. This is a GREAT article! I will be sharing this with my readers – lots of SAHM’s in my group, so I know they’ll appreciate this.

    We love to make a pot of basic soup weekly, then add different items to make it special on different days. Homemade biscuits are another hit – especially with raw butter and homemade jam!


  7. Susan @ Our Family Eats says

    This post is going in my bookmarks folder immediately. I’ve seen lots of back to school information but this is by far my favorite. We are staring kindergarten next week so I’m in full panic mode about lunches and schedules!

  8. What fabulous suggestions! My kids also love popcorn in their lunches, and pesto, mozzarella and tomato or basil on a soft baguette.

  9. What a great post! I love all the hyperlinks to more information too!
    I’m lucky to have my daughter in a daycare where the meals are actually quite healthy. I’m glad I have 4 years before I have to start packing. By then, I should have my head wrapped around all the options!
    I’m curious though – doesn’t the peer pressure ever go the other way? Like if your kid’s diggin on hummus & carrots, another kid might tease them while digging into their lunchable?

    • I haven’t had a problem with the negative peer pressure on eating yet, though I’m sure that can be a problem. In our school there is no school lunch, everyone brings sack lunches (it’s a Charter and we don’t have a cafeteria) and the parents all seem to send healthy lunches. They also have a snack table in their class with a variety of fruits or vegetables, cheese, crackers type things that they can choose from after lunch in the afternoon if they’re hungry.

  10. Steve @ HPD says

    Is that a Bell freezer canning jar in the smoothie pic? Any problems with leaks? Wish they made an intermediate size, between the small purple and the large green.

    The parfait in the jelly jar is another great idea. Some folks probably think glass is dangerous, but those jars are small enough that the sidewall thickness is large in comparison to the total volume, so it’s pretty darn safe.


    • I’m not sure what size that those are, but I have these Ball Plastic 8-Ounce Freezer Jars and I think they are perfect for individual size smoothies for the kids. You could use the same plastic jars for the parfaits if you didn’t want to use glass. It’s shows in glass for the photo, but you can serve it however you like, even a simple tupperware container.

  11. Great tips, Katie. This is a hot topic this time of the year. One of these days, we really have to try making our own fruit leather. It looks delicious! xo

  12. Wonderful tips, thank you! As a feeding therapist who visits many schools, I especially loved the smoothie idea! Katie, I’d love to send you a review copy of our chlidren’s CD – Dancing in the Kitchen. It’s my way of encouraging more adventurous eating – feel free to email me and I would be honored to send one to you. I’ll post your ideas on my Facebook page – thanks again!

  13. Kristen T. says

    I too was wondering what kind of container was used for the smoothie…I love that idea!!! My kids also love quesadillas (room temp is fine for them), along with little containers of sour cream and salsa for dipping.

  14. Faith | Minimalist at Home says

    We homeschool so I get to avoid packing lunches every day, but we could still do a better job about making healthier lunches. I love the smoothie idea to make a bunch ahead of time! The recipes for everything all sound delicious. I’m definitely bookmarking this to refer back to again soon. Thanks for the great article.

  15. You are great mother!!!!!!
    I am learning, learning and learning from you. Thank you. will stay here for more

  16. This is a good one! I’m bookmarking this post!!! thanks a lot Katie

  17. Love these lunch ideas!!

  18. I love your idea with the smoothies. I never thought of that before. My daughter is borderline obsessed with smoothies so I will have to try this in the upcoming year.

  19. Your mention of cocktail sausages reminds me of the lunch phase I went through in high school where I had a ziploc bag full of turkey bacon for lunch every day. No bread, no mayo, no tomato or lettuce – just. turkey. bacon. Actually, I could eat that right now.

  20. Melissa Lindsey says

    Thanks for these ideas. One of my daughters won’t eat sandwiches! I have a terrible time finding things for her lunch box.

  21. Love the ideas… we start school tomorrow (Aug 8th) so I am looking for ideas! How do you make the dried fruit leather?

  22. Love these ideas! I have the small Ball plastic containers. I think I may buy some more and freeze smoothies in them with the parfait topping and let them defrost during the day. I may have to wrap something around them to prevent wetness in the lunch.

    My dh does the actual packing, though this year with 4 in school, I think my coming up with a plan for lunches would help him a lot in the morning. I’m also thinking about having the kids do a bag-a-snack session right before school starts.

    And yes, I’m sharing this on Facebook and Twitter!

  23. Love this post. I came across your blog by searching for lunches for picky eaters. 🙂 Thanks for all the great ideas! I have a horribly picky eater and this is one of my big fears of him going to kindergarten this year. I know we will get in some ruts when it comes to food but it is nice to have other ideas to fall back on that are healthy and tasty. He loves smoothies so I think the idea of freezing them and then letting them thaw by lunch is great.

  24. What a terrific idea – freezing smoothies! I have never thought of this.

  25. Excellent and very helpful lunch ideas!

  26. Sarah Miller says

    where did you get the cups for the smoothies?

  27. Great ideas, Katie!

    Our son has a peanut/treenut allergy and our school has a no peanut/treenut policy, so we’re always looking for creative nut-free ideas. (Much to our two daughters’ chagrin. LOL.)

    My daughters love making their own lunches and it certainly makes life a bit easier for my husband and me. (We alternate lunch making…)

    Wishing everyone a happy, healthy school year!

  28. Does anyone have an idea for a nut-free AND wheat-free lunchbox? My son will be starting next year and I have no idea what to give him. He gets tired of ham and cheese all the time. And just fruit and veggies doesn’t fill him up enough. Right now, we heat up leftovers at lunch time, but the school does not have microwaves available.

    • If you do get suggestions, PLEASE pass them on! I am transitioning to the Paleo Diet after witnessing so many health benefits when I went gluten-free. I’d love to move the kids that way (because of health issues as well), but fear with nut/egg/dairy allergies they would not have much left to eat!
      Everyday Paleo offers some good suggestions… “wraps” of veggies around nitrate-free lunchmeat, almond flour pancakes (again, not an option for my kids but I love them even cold and they are very filling), egg “muffins”, etc.

  29. My son is one of those dreaded peanut allergy kids (and my daughter will be as well once she starts). His nut allergies are so severe that he is even afraid to try sunflower seed butter… combined with his other food allergies and preferences, I am very limited in my brown bag lunch menu. However, you have offered some great new ideas and gave me great “food for thought” as I look to this week’s lunches! I especially like the smoothie idea as my son has been honest enough to share that he often throws away the organic carrots I drive across town to get and lovingly peel and cut up each night… I have been wrestling with that dilemma for weeks now – save the budget and stop packing them or keep them in there just on principle alone. I think sneaking some veggies in a smoothie might be a good alternative! Thanks again!

  30. Love this post! Great ideas, especially the frozen smoothies, so creative!

  31. These are awesome tips! My youngest starts school this Fall and he loves to eat a variety of foods. Because our oldest is so picky his lunch consists of almost the same thing everyday. I am looking forward to doing more creative things with my little guy. After all, they are at school for 2 meals a day( our school board has them eat twice 11 and 1:30). I think we could definitely do the smoothie idea in a thermos. He would love that!

  32. Carolyn Powers says

    I have been asked by my frustrated daughter to help come up with something her son will eat in his school lunches. I need ideas! She is ready to give up and he is clueless as to any suggestions!

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