I’ve become a somewhat expert at school lunches after doing them for 10 years (so far). My lunch boxes started out looking a lot like the picture below, with a lot of processed, pre-packaged food. I’m not here to make anyone feel guilty for throwing together pre-packaged lunches! It’s just over the years, I’ve focused on what’s important to me in regards to food for my kids, and have refined the processes over time to achieve that, and I want to share my tips with anyone who wants to know.
Here’s a snap shot of the lunches I make for my kids at school these days.
Lunch boxes used to stress me out but I’m surprised to say that, while I wouldn’t say I enjoy doing school lunches, I find it quite easy now, plus I do find myself thinking about creative ways to fill the lunch box with nutritious food my kids will enjoy. This transformation comes down to this: you need to have a system.
1. Have goals
It’s important to have a sense of direction when it comes to what sort of lunch boxes you want to create for your kids. You don’t necessarily need to achieve them straight away but it’s good to have goals and work your way towards them. For me, I strive for mostly rubbish-free lunch boxes that contain wholefoods, including a fresh fruit and vegetables. I also like to provide variety, and a bit of fun sometimes. One of the key turning moments for me in my lunch box journey, is the challenge I created for myself by converting 5 dinners into lunch box food, and you can read about it here. I’ve come a long way in my goals, and next on my agenda is to experiment with healthier baking options.
2. Invest in great products
I’ve tried many different lunch boxes over the years. To achieve what I want with my children’s lunches, the lunch box needs to have compartments. I like the Bentology lunch boxes (used to be called Laptop lunch boxes) which I review in detail here. They are on the expensive side, but do last well. I will be reviewing other compartment lunch boxes (like the Planetbox lunch boxes, and Go Green Lunch Boxes) this year so keep an eye for that. Another more affordable way to achieve this is to buy an insulated outer case and simply fill with different sized containers which are filled with food (like Decor and Sistema containers you can get from the supermarket).
Update: I now use Go Green Lunch Boxes for my kids. I still really liked the Bentology boxes featured in this post, and used them for many years, however now my kids are getting older, I found I needed a bigger lunch box and the Go Green Lunch Boxes are huge.
The drink bottles I buy for my kids are the Contigo brand. I reviewed them here. There are a lot of different Contigo styles and I’ve used many different ones over the years and they are all great.
Another product I have found REALLY fabulous for the lunch box are silicone muffin cases. I use them to cook bakery items. Then, I freeze them in the cases, and they go straight into the lunch box of on a school morning. Anther way I use them is when they are empty, they are a great way to section small food in the lunch box (there are examples at the end of the blog post).
Using the freezer is imperative to my lunch box success (which I go into further below) and so I have dedicated containers to store lunch box food in. These Sitema containers are great, and they are clear so I can see what is in them easily.
I also have a few fun things to include in the lunch boxes to make things interesting. My favourites are the eye food picks I bought from Lunch Boxes With Love. However, I don’t do fun stuff all the time, maybe about once a week or fortnight. If you head over to my Instagram @beafunmum and search for the hashtag #BAFM_Lunchbox you will see many examples of the realistic lunch boxes I make for my kids. Sometimes they are fun, and sometimes they are boring!
My Lunch Box Product List
- Bento Laptop Lunch Boxes / Go Green Lunch Boxes
- Insulated Case
- Ice Brick
- Silicone Muffin Cases
- Sistema containers (for freezable items)
- Food picks
- Contigo Drink Bottles
- Miscellaneous small containers (like the Tupperware Snack Cups)
3. Have a dedicated lunch box storage section
The system I use requires the need for containers. This is a bit of a pain, but it really makes it quick in the mornings. I have lunch box items stored in my pantry in baskets. One for drink bottles and lids, one for the containers and one for the lunch boxes and other bits and bobs I don’t use everyday.
Of a school morning, I line up four lunch boxes, fill with containers and then throw in the food. Last step is to place a lunch box size freezer brick in the insulted case and place the entire lunch box inside.
4. Use the freezer
My freezer is my best friend when it comes to the lunch box. I mainly just freeze all my bakery items that are one component of the lunch box. Food items can be taken out of the freezer in the morning and put straight in the lunchbox. They will be thawed and fresh by eating time. You can find a baking freezer challenge full of great recipes here.
The following items will keep for 2 weeks in the freezer.
I tend to make sandwiches fresh, because I prefer to do that, but if you have a mad busy week ahead, it’s good to know you can freeze them ahead of time.
Make sandwiches with fillings like cheese and ham, vegemite, jam, tuna or egg. It’s easy to include some fresh salad in the morning if that’s a preference.
Cakes and slices, muffins, canned fish, baked beans, zucchini slice, quiche are some snack ideas that are able to be frozen.
Organising the freezer:
- It’s helpful to have dedicated draw in the freezer for lunch box items.
- Separating portion size is easy with zip-lock bags. For a more environmentally friendly option, use individual containers or freeze in batches and place directly in the lunch box of a morning. For layering in containers, use a sheet of baking paper.
This is a heap of food I prepared ahead of time to freeze (expect the eggs I just put them in the fridge for a few days).
To aid the morning rush, much of the lunch preparation can be done the night before and the weekend. I don’t always do this, as I usually have time in the morning, but it can really help if you know you have a busy morning.
- Cut up fruit and vegetable pieces
- Portion yoghurt and crackers. I also make custard the night before sometimes and let it set in the containers that fit into the lunch box. Then in the morning, they get slotted in.
- Make a batch of sandwiches and place them in the freezer
- Bake home goods and freeze in portion size
6. Break it down
Instead of thinking morning tea/lunch food, I break the lunch box down into food types. So in each packed lunch I aim for this balance:
- 1 x Fruit
- 1 x Vegetable
- 1 x Snack Food (baked goods, energy balls, crackers, egg, cheese, yoghurt)
- 1 x Lunch Item
- 1 x other (if needed, depending on the child)
This system allows for seasonal variety and helps me to shop smart. I’m fairly consistent with this system and so my kids are used to seeing vegetables in their lunch box.
7. Lunch box staples
It’s great to have your lunch box staple foods you can fall back on (like the humble sandwich). I have certain foods that I know work well in the lunch box and here are some of the items on my list:
Vegetables: corn on the cob, cucumber, snow peas, carrot, celery sticks, baby corn, tin corn, avocado, cherry tomato
Fruit: small apple, tin fruit, stone fruit, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, kiwi fruit, small pears, watermelon pieces, pineapple pieces
Protein: ham, salami, salami sticks, bean dip, cheese, boiled egg, hummus, yoghurt
7. Make it safe
I have a guest post from a dietitian you can read which gives great tips on making the lunch box healthy and safe: Lunch Box Tips
8. Make it fun
Once you have a good system down, it’s easier to find ways to make lunches fun. I don’t do this all the time, just a few time a month to mix things up. Try new foods and different ways of presenting them. Below are a few links:
9. Get Feedback from Kids
I often say to my kids, “How was lunch today?” I like getting feedback on what they like and don’t and what works (sometimes I’ve tried something and it didn’t work in the lunch box). I think including kids in the process is a good way for them to try new things and be engaged with food. You can read more about how we establish a food culture in our family here.
10. Lunch Box Examples
Below are a few lunch box examples and you can find even more ideas by looking through the lunch box tips on the blog under Lunch Box Ideas or in this post on my @beafunmum Instagram feed. Just search for the tag #BAFM_Lunchbox.
Tip: Depending on what is on the wrap, I separate the fill ingredients from the wrap in the lunch box and the kids make it up themselves fresh at lunch time.
Tip: Energy balls are fabulous in the lunch box and they freeze well.
Tip: Silicone muffin cases are great for separating food in the lunch box.
Tip: Leftover rice or pasts can be turned into an easy lunch box food.
Tip: Food picks work well with cut up fruit and veggies.
Tip: You can make a big batch of pizza and freeze in small square portion for the lunch box (if kids like cold pizza)
Tip: Try growing cherry tomatoes in a pot in the backyard. They are so easy to grow and it’s wonderful to be able to include food you grow yourself in the lunch box. Here’s a guide: Plant Pot Garden.
Tip: Make sandwiches a bit more interesting by cutting them in different shapes sometimes, or make soldiers.
Tip: Try new foods! The kids may not like it, but they might too, and it’s all about building your lunch box repertoire.
Tip: Make quiche in muffins trays so they are in individual sizes. This make it easy and quick to use in the lunch box. This is the recipe I use: Quiche Recipe.
Tip: Think outside the box! My kids love it when I put plain corn chips and dip in their lunch box. The bean dip recipe is here.
What a Typical Lunch Box Making Morning Looks Like
- Take lunch boxes from drying rack and lay on bench.
- Pull out bakery item from freezer and place directly (frozen) in respective boxes.
- Add fruit (cut if necessary)
- Add veggies (cut if necessary)
- Add lunch component (either from freezer – e.g. scrolls – or whatever I have for lunch like a ham, cheese and mustard sandwich – made fresh).
- Take freezer brick out from freezer.
- Ice brick in insulated case, lunch box in case and leave on the bench for children to collect.
All this takes under 10 minutes to make 4 lunch boxes.