The Lunch Bunch: Great Tasting School Lunches Your Kids Will Love

by Laura on August 23, 2011

in Food

The carefree summer break is coming to a close for us (for many of you it already has), and I am finding myself in panic mode. Not a panic because I didn’t get through my list of things I wanted to do with the kids this summer (because we filled our summer with lots of adventures), but I am a bit anxious over getting back into the daily habit of packing lunches for Grayson and Nicole (thank goodness preschool offers delicious organic and healthy lunches for the twins).

When school ended for summer break, I made a pact with myself. I would lessen some of the frustrations I had over school lunches. Grayson is a champ, eating almost everything, while Nicole claimed she would only eat a handful of things for lunch – including peanut butter and jelly, apples, and a granola bar.

I was determined to come up with a list of lunchtime options that I could rotate throughout the weeks, ensuring my kids were getting a nutritious, energy filled lunch to help them get through the day.

I could opt for purchasing lunches through the school lunch program, but that just doesn’t appeal to me. I have memories of hockey puck burgers, sugary syrup covering my fruit, and a mush of previously warm vegetables. And, I know that in the past several decades, school lunches haven’t gotten much better.

Although, to their credit, earlier this year the USDA announced the first new school lunch guidelines in the fifteen years. Instead of breaded beef on a roll, a fruit popsicle, and low-fat milk, kids will be offered baked fish nuggets, a whole wheat roll, mashed potatoes, broccoli, peaches and skim milk. With an effort to reinforce better choices, the new guidelines focus on reducing saturated fat and sodium while increasing whole grains, serving both fruits and vegetables. And, for the first time setting maximum calorie counts (in addition to minimum ones).

This year, our school launched a new lunch program with a greater emphasis on healthy foods, made from scratch. There are options for those with food allergies, and whenever possible, choices are organic and/or pesticide free. Further there is a focus on sustainability, with many locally sourced ingredients . .  and, compostable packaging (Hooray! I have an issue with all the waste from school lunches).

I commend the school system for offering better food choices, but what our school lunch program offers sounds like exactly like the foods I shop for at the store every week – without the price tag of purchasing a school lunch.

All public schools must start serving the new selections (per USDA guidelines) by 2012, but why wait until then to start offering your child healthier lunch options. By that time, you’ll be in the groove of making school lunches, realizing how easy  – and more affordable – it is once you take the time to plan.

For those of you still on the fence about whether or not to send your child to school with a packed lunch or to buy, here are a few ideas that may get you past those barriers to making lunches for school:

1. I Don’t Have the Time to Make Them.

Make the time, and make it easier on yourself by planning. Whether it is planning meals to use leftover as lunches, planning time to make them, or planning the menu . . you have to plan. Without a plan of attack, you’ll be behind the eight ball every time.


  • Just as you plan mealtime, plan lunches. And don’t forget to use leftovers.
  • Make a list of all elements of the lunch, from themain dish to accompaniments, to a treat.
  • Start a running list of things your kids like, then create a calendar to alternate those items throughout the month. After all, we don’t like eating the same thing day in and day out.



Whole wheat bread or muffins

Sabrina’s Gnocchi

Bulgur Salad with Feta and Pine Nuts


2. My Kids Never Eat the Meals I Give Them. They Want What Their Friends are Eating.

It is the “grass is always greener on the other side” syndrome. Any parent who has packed a lunch for their child has heard it: “So-and-so has potato chips every day.” “Those fruit roll-ups look so good. why can’t I have them?” Why can’t I buy a lunch like my friends do?” It is hard to compete with their friends, especially when eating rules may be a bit different than your household.

Ask your children what they like about their friends’ lunches. If it fits within your parameters of lunch food (for me chips and candy don’t), then buy it to put in the lunch, or make your own.

  • Have persistence. Don’t give in to your kids’ demands for something you wouldn’t serve them for lunch at home.
  • Engage your children in preparing lunch. Ask them to help create the menu. Better yet, ask them to help make it.



Create your own trail mix

Carrot Macaroni and Cheese

“You’ll Never Know” Chili

3. I Have a Picky Eater.

A study in Contemporary Pediatrics notes that nearly two thirds of all parents describe at least one problem with their child’s eating habits. It is normal for children to be picky about their eating, and that will lessen with age, so don’t fret. Just be persistent in offering foods they like, sprinkled with a bit of foods you want them to eat.

  • Continue to offer same foods you offer at home. Don’t give them something they won’t eat at home and expect tem to eat it at lunchtime, when you’re not there. (I never liked milk at home, so unless it was chocolate at school, I wouldn’t drink it).
  • Their quirky eating habits at home extend to school. If they don’t like foods to touch on the plate, don’t serve them it for lunch. Or, if they are picky about the texture of food, remember that what you make in the morning may change in texture a few hours later.
  • Offer at least one item you’re child will like in their lunch and put favorite foods (and those you want them to eat) in new forms.


Barley Salad with Cucumbers and Mint

Pita Sandwiches Stuffed with Chopped Salad and Cheese

4. By the Time the Kids Eat, the Food is Soggy, Cold or Less-than-appetizing.

This is a common problem with lunches – whether taken to school or to work. Be mindful of how appetizing the meal will be, and seek out food that will keep its appeal hours after it is prepared.


  • Separate items that make things soggy (check out the Perfect Sandwich from Contain This! In our Tools article).
  • Pack smart. Don’t serve items that will be unappealing in a few hours.
  • Put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you packed something to eat for lunch would it be appetizing to you several hours later? (For instance, Nicole likes hard boiled eggs – and occasionally egg salad – but by the time she opens her lunch, the overwhelming smell of eggs turns her off to eating it).



Pasta Primavera

Tacos (assembled just before eating)

Chicken breast sandwiches


5. (And, my challenge) – “I Didn’t Have Enough Time to Eat.”

At our school, the kids eat on picnic tables overlooking the playground. When they are finished, they can play – so, why eat when you can play? Too often my kids come home begging for a snack. But when I open their lunch, nearly all of it remains uneaten. “I didn’t have time to eat, Mom,” they would say. “I wanted to play on the monkey bars.”

  • Don’t overwhelm them with large portions,
  • Choose small bites foods that pack power and energy in small bites.
  • Make choices wisely. A handful of blueberries is much better than a handful of chips, and just as easy to eat.



Thinly sliced vegetables

Mini zucchini muffins

Tortilla Wraps with Cabbage and Asian Dressing

6. The Power of Positive.

Be positive about making the lunch, and maintain that positive nature around the kids. If they see it is drudgery for you to make their lunch, they will feel that drudgery once they open up the lunch pail at school.

Leave a message for your kids – Miss you today; Hope you’re having a great day; Don’t forget to eat me!; Good luck with that test today; or Play hard.

When they come home, comment on how well they did at lunch. “I see you ate all your carrots today, weren’t they delicious with the dip I made?”

Or, if they didn’t eat something, ask them (in a positive way), why they didn’t eat it. You might get a surprising answer that may help you plan further lunches.

Good luck, and if you have any more great lunch recipes, please let us know, we’ll be sure to post them.

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