How I Simplify Packing Healthy School Lunches

How to Simplify Packing Healthy School Lunches

Tortilla, muenster cheese, pumpkin seeds, tomato & basil

I take whatever I have on hand and make it look neat with bento-style containers.  Fast and healthy is the goal, and I find that easier to achieve when I can just grab whole foods without combining them into complicated recipes.

I love how these compartmentalized lunch boxes make pizza and peaches look kind-of gourmet.

How to Simplify Packing Healthy School Lunches

Leftover pizza and peach slices

As you know, I’ve come to see that meals don’t have to be elaborate to be good.  Who has the patience for the kids’ lunch ideas we see in parenting magazines anyway?

White bean hummus Mexican veggie wraps, baked honey-lime drumsticks, and mock sushi stuffed with matchstick cuts of pear, cucumber and Jack cheese are wonderfully inventive, but for me, it’s setting the bar too high.  We still get excited about salami and French bread around here.

One of the reasons I bought these containers from Easy Lunchboxes was to keep sandwiches from getting squished.

How to Simplify Packing Healthy School Lunches

Turkey sandwich, potato chips, and an apple quarter

But I love how the compartmentalized containers make it easier for me to break out of the sandwich-rut.  Bits and pieces from the fridge and cupboard that might have looked sad or smushed by noontime, look kind-of fun presented this way.

Please note:  I have absolutely no connection with Easy Lunchboxes.  I don’t receive any commissions or free products or slaps on the back if you buy anything in this post.  I just wanted to share something that was working for us.

How to Simplify Packing Healthy School Lunches

Brie, dinner roll, apple and pear slices, and a gummy vitamin

I started looking for new lunch containers when my daughters complained that other kids had three or four foods to choose from in their lunches.  I found lots of adorable Bento boxes with matching lids that fit together like puzzles. But they looked like something I’d find really cute the first week, and then annoying thereafter.

How to Simplify Packing Healthy School Lunches

Yes, these containers are plastic, but the BPA-free parts are dishwasher-safe and, with only two pieces, they’re easy to wash and store.

Downsides?  The lids are loose enough for small children to open by themselves, but not tight enough to contain wet foods.  (I tried that once, and the girls still remember their orange slices coated with cottage cheese.)

I also wish the containers were a tad deeper.  They’re perfect for sandwiches and sliced fruit, but sometimes too shallow for a small apple, a roundish dinner roll, or even a diagonal stack of Saltine-size crackers.

How to Simplify Packing Healthy School Lunches

Strawberries, salami, and whole wheat Club crackers

The outsized food problem is solved with the companion lunch bag (also sold by Easy Lunchboxes and Amazon).  It’s deep enough that I can add a tub of yogurt or another plastic container of snacks, with plenty of room for a water bottle.

One small warning:  Even though these lunch bags are billed as “cooler” bags, the insulation is scant.  After a couple of washes (I forgot to use the delicate cycle), the insulation began to come loose — even though the canvas, handles, and zippers are holding up.

How to Simplify Packing Healthy School Lunches

All in all, I thought they were sturdy enough to buy for Mark, who starts pre-K on Friday.  And since the lunch bag fits the containers perfectly, the boxes stay upright.

Less Waste

Finally, I love how my kids are creating zero trash with their lunches.  No more little plastic bags, and since they use a cloth napkins which I throw in the wash at the end of the week, not even any paper waste.  For water bottles, we found an easy-to-clean loop-top bottle from Nalgene.  (Mini-Grip Bottle from Nalgene).

More Lunch Ideas

Here we are on the first day of school this year

If you’re looking for more inspiration, I’ve rounded up 21 food ideas for simple lunch combinations at Parentables today.

I try to stick to the basic formula of protein + grain + fruit or vegetable = good-enough lunch.   Even if I left off a food group, it would still be good-enough. Kids don’t have to get all their nutritional needs met in one meal, after all.

This post is part of a new series called How I Simplify.

How do you simplify school lunches?

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  • Javamom September 14, 2012, 9:52 am

    I have a container I dug out of my bin box that looks like the one on your pictures. This idea, of using a bento-style box without the fancy bento box knicknacks actually really appealed to me last year, when he first started staying for lunch in grade 1, because all of the food was presented to him in one place. He didn’t have to open several containers to find food.

    The first week has gone by ok. He didn’t eat everything but he’s slow to transition, and in a couple of week’s time I will re-photograph his before and after lunches for my blog (you can check my ideas here:

    I appreciate the tips in this post!!

    • Amy September 16, 2012, 10:28 pm

      Hi Javamom,

      What beautiful and healthy lunches you have compiled! I love the before and after pictures. Gives you a good memory about what they liked and what not so much.

      Thank you,

  • Fan in the 22301 September 8, 2012, 2:39 pm

    Do your kids get a snack in school, because it doesn’t look like a lot of food for lunch? Not to criticize your parenting in any way, you seem like an amazing mother in every way. Food is very important to me, quality, nutrition, taste, etc. my family is all of healthy weight, leaning on the thin side. We subscribe to a French method of eating as we are European family, and it works very well for my children who are 2 and 4. They ate all kinds of fruits and vegetables, seafood, fish, meats, etc. Lunch is usually a hot meal, with a large protein and tons of vegetables. I find the children are better behaved with a full stomach of good for you food, so we eat more at a meal, but rarely snack. So I just thought if your child is in school and has had no morning snack and then won’t eats again until maybe an after school snack, is that enough food to fuel them? If you haven’t read French Children Eat Everything, it is funny and a good read.

    • Amy September 8, 2012, 10:16 pm

      Hi there,

      Yes, I imagined there would be people out there thinking that our lunches weren’t substantial enough. My daughters have asked me not to pack them more than I do. They can’t finish it, and it goes to waste. They do have a mid-morning snack and we eat after school too, so I take their lead.

      Interesting about the French way of eating — a substantial lunch with no snacks. My Italian in-laws kind of eat large hot lunches with several courses, but I find that during the week, I just want to have a quick lunch and then make a bigger deal about dinner.

      Thanks for the book recommendation — sounds like fun!

      Take care,

      • Anonymous September 11, 2012, 3:51 pm

        Do you think they said they didn’t want more food was because they weren’t hungry enough to eat what you used to pack or because they didn’t have enough time to eat so they couldn’t finish? I find children naturally eat slow, and in the US everything is rush, rush rush and there isn’t enough value placed on sitting down, slowing down, chewing, eating, tasting your food, being aware of and appreciating what you’re eating for every single meal. How long does the school give them for lunch? Just a thought or two.

        • Amy September 12, 2012, 1:17 pm

          Hey there,

          It’s true that kids don’t often have that much time to eat; every school of ours has been different, but I think they have 20-30 minutes to eat. That should be plenty of time — if they don’t gab it off! My kids have actually told me when I gave them too much, or they look at pictures of lunchboxes full of food and make comments about how it’s too full. Given that they have both morning and afternoon snacks, I think I should take their lead.


  • Noelle September 5, 2012, 12:16 pm

    Hi Amy

    I agree with everything Alina said!!! :)) I love your blog, the realness, the practicality, the normalness(is that a word?) No over the top, to just put me over the top!!! I am a veteran Mom, oldest 24, 20,19,12,10, and believe it or not, still questioning If I am a good enough mom?!?!? I’ve done alot, made many sacrifices, and loved every minute of it, and my kids are turning out to be a awesome adults, so why the questioning? In this new Pinterest, Facebook, everything beautiful photos, made me begin to second guess if I was doing enough. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pinterest, but I am learning to enjoy the beauty without feeling as though I have to do it all on that level. Thank you, thank you, for your blog, it’s my morning pick me up, so I can continue to be a good enough mom!!!!!! xoxoxoxoxooxox

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 12:36 pm

      Hi Noelle,

      It’s so great to hear this from you. It makes me sad that you put your all into your kids’ lives and you still feel sometimes that you didn’t do enough. What amazing satisfaction it must be to see your kids growing into responsible adults — I hope I can feel the same. As you know, I was worried my own blog was contributing to this sense of collective insecurity that happens after we all start sharing and comparing notes (and pictures, and craft projects, and dinners, etc.)

      But I’m glad that you know our life is real and normal and that we aren’t always doing those art projects and camping trips and elaborate birthday parties. Mostly it’s just everyday life, and as long as our kids know we love them and they have a comfortable (not every-whim-satisfied) life, it’s enough. Of course we always want to grow and improve ourselves, but we have to stand back every once in a while and look at the big picture. I bet yours looks pretty good.

      Take care,

  • Alina (The Hyperbalist) September 3, 2012, 4:03 pm


    You are amazing. This blog is my FAVORITE out there. I have loved every one of your recent posts, from the kid’s school lunches to the saving money on dinner to the blog-vs-reality post to your favorite books. I could comment on just about every sentence you ever write because it’s all so rational and well-thought-out and well PUT and I just find every sentence to be educational and relatable. I both nod my head in passionate agreement and I learn new insights. I just LOVE it! I also *love* (<– it's not a strong enough word) how you respond to each and every last comment. I think it is the most wonderful thing and I am certain that every person who feels a connection to your blog appreciates that personal investment in them. I don't know a single blog author who responds to every. single. comment they get. What a nice thing.

    Also, I have been meaning to tell you since you posted a picture of yourself in the gorgeous water of the Dominican Republic that your body/arms are insane! (good insane). You are so FIT!!! I thought it first in that picture, and then every successive picture since I've thought out loud "dang! she is TONED." haha. It was so interesting to see that picture of yourself in college because a.) you would NEVER know that you ever went through a phase like that and b.) it's just so impressive and inspiring to see how a person can 'hit that stride' (as you put it perfectly) the older they get. I think we get inundated with the cultural myth that things go downhill the older you get….that once you have a baby you'll basically never go back to how you were pre-baby. It's INCREDIBLE to see how fit and amazing you look after F-O-U-R- kids!!!! Do you workout? I've been reading your blog and through your archives since I discovered you in The Wash Post feature but don't think I've ever seen any writing on what you do for exercise, and I would LOVE to know….I've seriously been wondering about it since I saw that Dominican picture, like, "what does she do to get arms like that?" It's inspirational- you are a hot mom : ) haha. I mean you really look great. Hair, skin, body, make-up– everything is WORKING! Also that curly '80's hair was so awesome haha!

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 11:57 am

      Hi Alina,

      Can I bottle you up and take you wherever I go? I love your optimism and enthusiasm. Has anyone talked to you about converting your energy in a clean energy source? Thank you for taking the time to speak your thoughts.

      It’s funny you should bring up the issue of weight and fitness, since that was always something I struggled with in my teens and twenties. Another way I’m hitting my stride now, and why being married and raising kids just agrees with me. My exercise is just life: walking everywhere I can go (often as much as 2 hours a day), pushing strollers, carrying 30-pound toddlers up and down stairs, vacuuming, weeding, and yes, staying up late writing. I found a kind of emotional peace when I was blessed with a family, and then writing and connecting with my readers has given me another level of fulfillment.

      I’m amazed myself that I can now wear sleeveless tops — since I’ve spent the last 20 years avoiding them at all costs! Funny how life goes, right?

      Thank you, Alina, for cheering me on. I’m so glad my message resonates with you — that’s what makes it all worth it!

      Take good care,

  • Victoria@Snailpacetransformations September 2, 2012, 6:50 am

    I use something similar by glad for my kids. They come in packs of 3 in the store. I love them for day trips.

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 12:41 pm

      Hi Victoria,

      Thanks for pointing out that there are other versions of this product. I’ll check out Glad’s version since, as I said, I do wish ours were bit deeper.

      Thank you,

  • Amy September 1, 2012, 10:14 pm

    I love your lunch ideas. I hadn’t thought of brie, bread and fruit – they would love that. If you want to add a lunch note, please visit Every school day I post the notes that I create for my children as free printable pdf files. They are illustrated jokes, fun facts, etc. – please take a look.

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 12:42 pm

      Hi Amy,

      I remember adding lunch notes to my kids’ lunches. Such a sweet idea, that unfortunately, has fallen by the wayside in our household.


  • Reid August 31, 2012, 4:11 pm

    Lovely ideas and presentation! Your ideas will give me a catalyst for future lunches (my son’s school year starts on Sept. 4). I would only add that my 6-year-old likes dessert, and I’ve been surprised and delighted to discover that he’s perfectly happy to have a couple of my homemade, healthy (grain- and nut-filled) cookies when they’re available–not just the factory-made packaged kind.

    • Amy August 31, 2012, 8:06 pm

      Hi Reid,

      What kid — or person, for that matter — wouldn’t want a homemade cookie after lunch? ALWAYS better than store-bought. I don’t make cookies much these days; your son is a lucky.


  • elizabds August 31, 2012, 12:40 pm

    Oops, make that Ellyn Satter (

  • elizabds August 31, 2012, 12:39 pm

    Appreciate the packed lunch advice you offer, thank you! Food is a big issue in our house (kids want potato chips; mom wants veggies; one kid likes to eat a ton; other is fussy–I finally went a little bonkers when my entire family decided I was making my kid fat; thankfully, I discovered Ellen Satter’s books, which give me some strength). At any rate, your healthful (body and mind) lunch advice is a treat.

    • Amy August 31, 2012, 8:04 pm

      Hi Eliza,

      I’m so glad you pointed out Ellyn Satter’s name and website. I remember your talking about her advice and it seemed really sensible and reassuring.

      It’s funny how children in the same family can be so different in their appetites, preferences, body types, and attitudes towards food, right?


  • lili August 31, 2012, 9:19 am

    Hi Amy,

    Those ideas sound great for picnickers of any age. We often pack lunches for travel days and your containers sound perfect for the left-overs I usually pack. If a fork is needed I throw in a prepackaged fork/napkin from a previous carry-out meal.

    Thanks for the good ideas.

    • Amy August 31, 2012, 8:00 pm

      Hi Lili,

      Yes, they are great for leftovers! We also have food thermoses that I send with the kids if I want them to have still-hot pasta leftovers. But anything that is good cold or room-temp is great in these containers.

      Take care,

  • Mylene August 31, 2012, 2:09 am

    Thanks Amy for the great and simply ideas for lunches. I was tempted to do the elaborate bento lunches for the kids but realized I just don’t have the time and energy. Salumeria nearby got great deli meat and cheese. I will just add pasta or bread and fruits and we’re good to go. Thanks for the ideas on the containers too. Ciao!

    • Amy August 31, 2012, 7:58 pm

      Hi Mylene,

      Greetings from me to you in Italy! I love that you have a salumeria around the corner — jealous! I used to love how in Milan they would just cut cheese off the block. Always so fresh and such great variety.

      Enjoy your Italian life!

  • Jen @ Jen Spends August 30, 2012, 11:40 pm

    I’ve been in a lunch rut, so I love the meal ideas you’ve mentioned here. Your formula is really easy to remember. We don’t have a need for a lunch box quite yet, but I like using divided plates for my son because they encourage me to give him a good variety of food. Maybe I’ll get him a lunch box this year just for fun–I’m planning to do preschool at home, and I want to pretend that it’s like real school so he can have fun and prepare at the same time.

    • Amy August 31, 2012, 7:55 pm

      Hi Jen,

      I love that you are going to teach your son preschool at home, and that you are going to put your all into it. That’s just like you!

      I bet that would be a fun novelty for him, to eat out of a lunchbox at home. You have such sweet ideas.


  • Clare@doingitsimply August 30, 2012, 9:49 pm

    I LOVE your lunch ideas! We have the added issue of providing a gluten-free packed lunch for my son and mostly he just gets marmite sandwiches with a couple of snacks…not very exciting! I love how simple the boxes are and how they make the food look so much more interesting – we currently use a sandwich box and a couple of tupperware snack cups, which all add up in the washing and drying! I’m off to the supermarket now and I’m totally going to check out the lunchbox section! We must have something similar over here (I’m in New Zealand…)

    • Amy August 31, 2012, 7:52 pm

      Hi Clare,

      I have a friend who just found out her daughter has Celiac disease. I’m sorry you have to deal with that extra complication, but it sounds like you are handling it wonderfully.

      I hope you can find a similarly simple lunchbox in New Zealand!

  • emily young August 30, 2012, 9:46 pm

    Great 1st day of school picture!!

    • Amy August 31, 2012, 7:48 pm

      Thanks, Emily! Even after all these years, it’s such an exciting day, that you just have to memorialize it with a photo.

  • Stephanie August 30, 2012, 3:44 pm

    Sorry – ziplock comment was me – I wasn’t trying to be sneaky

  • Anonymous August 30, 2012, 3:43 pm

    Try the divided containers that look just like that from Ziplock – they ARE leakproof and dishwasher safe so they are good for applesauce and dips. They are also too flat for regular muffins – but I’ve found that mini muffins are perfect for it as is a jumbo muffin that isn’t all the way full – I put the same amount of ‘regular’ muffin mix in the jumbo tin and it just bakes flat so that it fits in the container (wow, sorry about the run-on sentence). Just a thought – they aren’t expensive so you might buy one pack (of two) just to try them. I have had great luck with ours.

    • Amy August 31, 2012, 7:47 pm

      Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks for the tip on the Ziplock divided containers. My daughters definitely don’t need the easy-to-open version anymore, and it would be nice to include stuff like applesauce and dip, like you say.

      And I never would have thought to bake muffins in larger forms so they come out flatter — another great tip!