Sending your teen out the door with a lunch that is easy to pack, filled with food they will eat, and real food ingredients to nourish their busy day can seem impossible. But I’m here to help with tips, ideas, and recipes to make healthy lunches for teens happen.
Between homework, extra-curricular activities, and social lives, teens have a lot on their plates. The right foods make a world of difference to boost brain-power, fuel physical movement, and support emotional needs during this demanding time.
I know when my kids come home with a full lunch box, I need to prepare for crankiness and fatigue, and revisit the drawing-board for new ideas they’ll be excited to eat.
As a mom and a nutritionist, I do my best to help my kids reach peak performance by helping them pack a healthy lunch. Here’s what I’ve learned, and 25 healthy primal, paleo, and gluten free lunch ideas to get you (and your teen) inspired.
3 Tips for packing a balanced lunch
Having a few guidelines for packing a healthy lunch can make all the difference. Even as a nutritionist, I keep these simple rules in mind as I help my own kids assemble healthy meals.
Whether your teen is eating to fuel athletics, a long study session, or just hanging out with friends, these tips will ensure a balanced meal.
1. Plan ahead!
I can’t stress this one enough! When our family has a basic plan for the week, the stress levels dramatically drop.
Take a few minutes on the weekend to map out meals for the week ahead. I always start with dinner as this helps me see where I can use leftovers to simplify packing school lunch.
Try the Primal Peak Menu Planner to help you, and make sure you’re adding variety along the way.
2. Add variety
Most of us quickly get tired of eating the same thing day after day, and kids are no exception. Different colors, textures, smells, and tastes allow our senses to stay engaged with our food.
Not only is variety important to keep interest high, but it’s also critical for ensuring that there’s a diversity of nutrients. The primal diet emphasizes a wide variety of unprocessed, natural foods for optimal health — healthy lunches for teens should include variety.
Change up the ingredients in your teen’s lunch box often, with a mix of new and familiar foods.
3. Use the 6 criteria method
Well-rounded health requires a well-rounded lunch box. Whether I’m packing the lunches or my kids are packing their own, this is the 6-criteria list we use every day to make sure nutrition needs are being met.
- A quality protein
- A healthy fat
- Something green
- A serving of vegetables
- A fruit
- A nutrient-dense starch
… in that lunchbox?
Lunch containers for teens
When dealing with teenagers, the gear that the food is packed in matters as much as the food itself!
Here is our family’s favorite lunch packing gear:
As my boys have grown, so have their portion sizes and style preferences. There did come a day when Star Wars lunch boxes were no longer cool.
- Planet Box: We love the Rover design for younger kids and the Launch for teens and adults. Each has compartments built right in, and additional dipping containers for a sleek one-piece lunch box. And it goes right in the dishwasher at the end of school.
- Lunch Bots: These bento boxes come in multiple configurations for dividing foods. A couple of boxes fit perfectly in a soft lunch bag and are also dishwasher friendly. We love the thermos!
- Hydroflask: Great water bottles and great hot-cold thermoses for soups and smoothies! Hydroflask also offers teen-approved lunch totes.
Some teens would probably prefer an old-school brown paper sack full of individual plastic zip bags that can all be thrown away after the lunch bell rings.
But high school lunch ideas can do more than support a healthy body — at this age, kids can start developing habits to support a healthy planet. And packing lunches in reusable containers is a perfect way to practice sustainability.
Let’s face it, we all have to consider the environment today, and luckily there are plenty of “sick” (that’s what my kids say) reusable options. Let’s do our part and keep as much waste out of the landfill as possible.
25 healthy lunches for teens
Being able to plan ahead, add variety, and satisfy nutrition needs means we all need IDEAS. Here is a list of lunches that pull together quick, use leftovers, can be prepped ahead, and are thermos ready.
Note: some of these ideas contain nuts. Every school has different rules, so adjust accordingly. My favorite nut swaps: whole seeds and sun butter.
Lunches that pull together quick
Below are five lunch ideas that come together in a snap with staple ingredients on hand.
1. Ham roll-ups
My tween loves thin sliced red peppers and spinach rolled inside of ham and secured with a chive. Add mustard for dipping, grapes, olives, and leftover roasted potatoes for a complete meal.
2. Turkey and cheese pinwheels
Spread hummus on a tortilla (we use Siete cassava flour), add turkey and cheese, carefully roll, secure with toothpicks, and slice. Add cherry tomatoes, snap peas, blackberries, and pistachios.
3. Salami salad
Many teens will eat a good salad, especially with chopped salami, cheese, olives, peppers, and pumpkin seeds. Add a simple oil and vinegar dressing, plantain chips, and strawberries.
4. Yogurt parfait
A filling meal can be made with full fat, low sugar yogurt (we love Siggi’s triple cream), fresh blueberries, grain-free granola (like Purely Elizabeth), and toasted coconut flakes. Add celery sticks.
5. Banana sandwich
PB&J plus sophistication equals an almond butter and banana sandwich. Opt for long-ferment sourdough, or sprouted grain bread. Pair with veggie sticks and hummus, and jerky bites (such as Tanka).
“Love your leftovers” lunches
I’m not sure what I would do without leftovers! The idea of leftovers turns some people off, but repurposing them can be a lifesaver when it comes to early morning lunch packing.
7. Coconut tenders
8. Mason jar salads
Herb Roasted Chicken leftovers are convenient for putting together mason jar salads. Add dressing on the bottom, followed by sturdy veggies (celery, peppers, red onion), cherry tomatoes, cucumber, roast chicken, Kalamata olives, and spinach. Make ahead, shake, and enjoy!
9. Sliced steak salad
10. Burger and slaw
Prep ahead healthy lunches for teens
Here are ten lunch items that can be prepared ahead of time and packed cold to help the morning run smooth!
11. Go green rice salad
For this “go green rice salad,” I like to add chopped cucumber, raw broccoli, green pepper, avocado, pea shoots, and a splash of red onion to cooked rice. Toss with olive oil, fresh lemon, and a drizzle of coconut aminos. Top with cashews and serve with pre-baked chicken thighs and sliced apples.
12. Pesto pasta salad
Memories! My mom made pesto pasta salad for my school lunch 95% of the time. Occasionally, I make Jovial Foods rice pasta tossed with homemade pesto, sliced peppers, diced red onion, halved cherry tomatoes, and chopped pre-baked chicken, and my boys think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
13. Meatloaf muffins
I use the Garden Harvest Meatloaf as a base recipe – changing out the type of meat and veggies, and adjusting the cooking time to 30 minutes. One pound of meat makes about eight to ten meatloaf muffins (baked in silicone baking cups). Serve with blueberries, SeaSnax seaweed, and sprouted seed crackers.
14. Hard-boiled eggs
Hard-boiled eggs are filled with quality protein and healthy fats for your teenager’s energy needs. Serve with veggies and hummus, sliced pear, and sprouted seed crackers.
15. Cookie dough bites
Snack bites of any kind get the school lunch thumbs up at our house. Healthy lunches for teens can also include treats when they’re full of nutrients like these ones.
Slightly sweet and nutrient-dense, a batch of Cookie Dough Bites can be made ahead and paired with salami and cheese, jicama sticks and guacamole cups, and mandarin oranges.
16. Monkey mix
A homemade trail mix to pull single servings from is a great addition to healthy lunches for teens and an easy pack-and-go snack. Combine this Monkey Mix with rolled roast beef, roasted asparagus, and a pre-baked sweet potato.
17. Chicken and vegetable collard wraps with sun sauce
These wraps pull together in a snap with blanched collards and cooked chicken on hand. The sweetness of the sun sauce will keep your teens dipping for more. Pair with a banana.
18. Citrus tarragon chicken salad
Tarragon may be a new flavor for some teens, and this Citrus Chicken Salad recipe is a great one to introduce it. You could certainly substitute more familiar herbs as well. Serve this with sprouted seed crackers, or on healthy sandwich bread.
19. Avocado tuna boats
Halved avocados make for a brain-nourishing serving dish, and their creamy texture pairs perfectly with this Tuna Salad. Serve alongside strawberries, and plantain chips, or slice the avocado to make a tuna salad wrap.
20. Ants on a log
A sweet healthy treat like ants on a log is perfect for filling out a lunch based on made-ahead protein. Grilling up chicken on Sunday is an early-week lunch making game changer. Pair chicken with mustard or BBQ sauce, Snowy Ants on a Log, and leftover Rustic Sweet Potato Fries.
Thermos-ready healthy lunches for teens
There are days when teens want something warm and comforting at school. Whether you make these recipes with lunch in mind or use leftovers from dinner, these thermos ready ideas will put a smile on their face.
21. Tomato soup
Slow-cooked Tomato Soup is easy to reheat on the stovetop in the morning. Round out the meal with a power-packed grilled cheese using long-ferment sourdough, thin sliced green apple, and ham.
22. Carrot ginger soup
The cream, or coconut milk, in this Ginger Carrot Soup recipe is filling, and perfectly nourishing for growing teens. I add shredded chicken and pack it up with a side of green grapes.
23. Primal chili
24. Korean beef bowls
A wide thermos of rice (or cauliflower rice), beef, vegetables, sesame seeds, and a pinch of red pepper flakes is a pick-me-up for anyone mid-day. Send this Korean beef with a container of apple slices with fresh lime juice.
25. Chicken teriyaki rice bowls
A well-balanced meal for well-balanced health. A heaping thermos of this Chicken Teriyaki Bowl holds its own.
I hope this article has filled you up with fresh ideas to pack healthy lunches for teens — that they will love to eat.
- Use the three tips for putting together nourishing meals (plan ahead, add variety, and focus on the 6 criteria method) to feel confident your kids are getting the nutrition they need.
- Gather reusable lunch gear to help transport their tasty meals in teen-approved fashion.
- And apply this list of well-rounded ideas and recipes to start packing lunches everyone feels good about.
And when dinner time rolls around, these family-friendly dinner recipes will make sure dinner is just as tasty and nourishing!