Lunch is often the forgotten meal, at least at our house! Do you tend to place more emphasis on healthy breakfasts and dinner ideas for your kids? Are you scrambling to put together kids’ lunch ideas that are healthy, but that they’ll actually want to eat?
If so, this article is definitely for you!
When kids (or any of us) eat a good lunch, there tends to be less mindless snacking in the afternoon – less reaching for packaged, processed, nutrient-void food. Kids are more productive, better behaved, and feel their best.
Healthy lunches for kids can be quick and simple, with a little planning. Having fresh, prepped foods on hand makes a world of difference.
In this post, we will look at setting up a simple system to help you pull together a quick lunch that’s packed with nourishment. Such steps will also assist your kids with how to pack their own lunch (just imagine!) once they’re ready.
Join me as we consider quick lunch ideas, make ahead options, cold lunch fixables, and lunches for kids at home (whether they are learning remotely or homeschooling).
Healthy lunches for kids (at home or school)
Even as a nutritionist, I used to feel incredibly overwhelmed when it came to sending my kids to school with a healthy lunch every day. But after setting myself (and my kids) up with a basic formula to follow, the ingredients to choose from, and helpful gear, it became a breeze.
When it comes to what makes a lunch “healthy,” we are looking for real food ingredients. Reducing and eliminating overly processed foods and hyper-palatable food products means little bodies and brains run smoother.
The formula: Planning for healthy lunches
Whether your lunches are made up of leftovers, food prepared ahead, or whole foods pieced together, following a “formula” can help you and your kids to build balanced meals. I use colored cards to remind myself and my kids what goes into a healthy lunch, so that we remember to:
- Pick a protein
- Choose a veggie
- Select a fruit
- Remember a healthy fat
- Always have something green
- Add any extras: healthy starches, condiments, a small treat
A weekly pattern to reduce decision fatigue
One of the best strategies we’ve come up with in our family is a daily theme for lunch planning. It removes a great deal of decision fatigue, and it’s fun for the kids to be involved in determining the theme – they also like knowing what’s coming.
- Monday – Roll-ups
- Tuesday – Jar salad
- Wednesday – Sandwich or wrap
- Thursday – Skewers
- Friday – Rice bowls
Your themes can change as often as you’d like, but we find them to provide helpful structure with plenty of room for creativity.
The food set up: Preparing for healthy kids lunches
Setting up baskets, bins, boxes, or designated areas in your fridge and pantry for designated lunch-friendly foods can help you and your kids quickly put a healthy meal together.
As part of your family meal planning, you can decide with your children what foods and what leftovers can be added to the bins for lunches throughout the week.
Kids lunch gear: Packing and serving healthy lunches
Once you have a healthy lunch all put together, you want to make sure you have something to put it in! Keeping the food hot or cold, and appealing to little eyes is important.
I like to designate an area in the kitchen or pantry for bento boxes, small food containers, reusable food bags, thermoses, water bottles, and carrying cases so that we all know where to find the appropriate gear.
Remember the ice packs, reusable napkins, and utensils, too!
Quick & simple kids’ lunch ideas
The most nourishing (but simple!) kids’ lunch ideas are made up of leftovers, or whole foods that come together to form a balanced meal. Both offer easy assembly on busy mornings, or during a mid-day break if kids are at home.
Many kids 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.
Apple Butter Sandwiches
When we are talking sandwiches, bread is the obvious choice for holding ingredients together. But thinking outside of the box offers variety, interest, and sometimes more nutrient density. Pair these Apple Butter Sandwiches with rolled deli meat, and sliced cucumbers.
With leftover seasoned taco meat (beef, chicken, pork, etc.), a colorful salad filled with fibrous veggies, avocado, and salsa is always devoured in our house. You may also choose to serve it with an alternative flour, whole grain, or non-GMO corn tortilla. Check out this Southwestern Taco Salad recipe for ideas.
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).
A Clean Out the Fridge Frittata accomplishes many things, including a quick and easy lunch for kids. Frittata can be eaten cold or hot, and you can tailor the ingredients based on what your kids are loving at the time. Paired with a side of fruit and some homemade trail mix and they will be ready to tackle the afternoon.
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.
The morning after a Primal Chili dinner, the boys grab the leftovers and start warming up their share for lunch. A few toppings and Jackson’s Honest tortilla chips as a special treat complete the meal.
Who says pancakes can’t be enjoyed at lunch? Making a batch (or two) of Pumpkin Pancakes means extras for a quick lunch another day of the week. These delicious griddle cakes are full of healthy fats, fruit, and a little protein. Pair them with something green, and sliced cooked sausage to round out the meal.
My kids always look forward to leftover farm-fresh meatballs to dip in tomato sauce at lunchtime. You can reheat meatballs to serve hot in a thermos, or send them cold alongside fresh snap peas and mixed berries.
Coconut Chicken Tenders
Fancy Bugs on a Log
I look at celery as a vessel for full-fat, no-nonsense cream cheese, or fresh ground nut/seed butter – AND a checkmark in the “something green” category. Kids look at Fancy Bugs on a Log as a tasty creation with fun toppings. Serve these fun kids’ lunch ideas with a piece of fruit and sliced salami, or hard-boiled eggs.
My kids love sliced red peppers and spinach rolled inside of thin-sliced ham, and secured with a chive. Add mustard for dipping, grapes, olives, and leftover roasted potatoes for a complete meal.
Make-ahead lunch recipes for kids
When you have a little extra time in advance, make-ahead lunches are the way to go for a no-fuss morning. From jar salads, to freezable meatloaf muffins, to snack bites, I have some great ideas to set you up for success.
Not only will these feed your kids, but the grown-ups in the house as well, whether you are eating at home or the office. Many of these are great to make ahead during a busy week of extra-curriculars and can even make for healthy moving food.
Greek Chicken Jar Salad
Jar salads are one of my favorite make-ahead meals! An all-in-one jar of real food convenience! My kids love that the ingredients don’t get soggy, and the big “shake-up” is their favorite part. Try this Greek Chicken Jar Salad recipe this week.
BBQ Pork Jar Salad
The sweet and tangy BBQ dressing in this BBQ Pork Jar Salad is a winner for young palates. With tart green apples and colorful ingredients, the eye appeal is certainly high. Make these salads ahead of time and they are ready for everyone in the family to grab on busy days.
Curious Cobb Jar Salad
Most kids love the chunky, chopped, bite-sized pieces of a good cobb salad. The ingredients in this Curious Cobb Jar Salad provide the salty and sweet tastes that keep kids coming back for more bites.
Egg Muffins are a great make ahead breakfast, but they are also so easy to throw in a bento box for school lunch. I encourage my kids to offer suggestions about what ingredients they want to add to the eggs because they are always more likely to gobble them up when they are part of the process. Pair with fresh fruit, and Cookie Dough Bites!
Mini Quiches are similar to egg muffins, but they include a delicious potato base to support all the fixings. This recipe is a great starting point from which to explore other ingredient combinations.
Meatloaf muffins are fun kids’ lunch ideas that please even picky eaters.
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.
Raw Brussels and Kale Salad
You may be skeptical about whether your kids will entertain a Raw Brussels and Kale Salad, but those with a curious palate will love this dish. The fresh raspberries and buttery macadamia nuts seem to be a hit in our house. Showing your kids how to massage fibrous greens and sea salt into a tender mixture is a fascinating culinary lesson.
Citrus Chicken Salad
Tarragon may be a new flavor for kids, 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.
Not only do most kids love gnawing meat off the bone, but it’s actually a healthy nutrition practice because of the added minerals consumed. Making a small batch of Crispy Drumsticks for school lunches is easy to do, kids love them, and they pair perfectly with leftover Roasted Root Veggies, or a Cabbage Slaw.
Asian Lettuce Wraps
This mixture of Asian inspired flavor is delicious hot or cold, in lettuce wraps, tortillas, or over rice (traditional, or cauliflower). The possibilities are rich, and these Asian Turkey Lettuce Wraps can be served with fresh fruit for a complete meal.
Gingerbread Cookie Dough Bites
Coconut, dates, and cashews make up the bulk of these Chocolate Gingerbread Bites, and with antioxidant rich cacao we have healthy morsels of sustenance for any lunch. Round out the meal with leftover sliced chicken and guacamole for dipping.
Chicken Teriyaki Bowls
A well-balanced meal for well-balanced health. A heaping thermos of this Chicken Teriyaki Bowl holds its own. Your kids will love the slightly sweet sauce and orange sections.
Cold lunch ideas for kids
This next batch of ideas require very little cooking and no reheating – ideal for taking to school, or pulling from the fridge at home, or even at the office.
Turkey Caprese Roll-ups
The best part of a “wrap” is that the inner ingredients can just as easily be used as the wrap itself. In this Avocado Turkey Caprese Wrap, the turkey becomes the shell — all the flavor and nutrition still intact. Pair with a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts.
Hard Boiled Eggs
Hard-boiled eggs are filled with quality protein and healthy fats for your child’s energy needs. Serve with veggies and hummus, sliced pear, and sprouted seed crackers.
Italian Sub Pinwheels
Your kids will grab for these Italian Sub Pinwheels based on color alone. A spin-off of typical Italian sub flavors, with nutrition to match the taste.
Blueberry Yogurt Parfait
Making your own parfait always wins over sugar-laden yogurts or store bought versions. This Blueberry Yogurt Parfait recipe can easily be made dairy-free as well.
Ultimate Turkey Sandwich
The beloved Turkey Sandwich stacked high with veggies is a traditional lunchtime staple. This recipe uses simple smashed avocado as a healthy fat spread, multigrain gluten free bread, and is paired with plantain chips cooked in coconut oil.
Quinoa Buddha Bowl
Quinoa is a grain-like seed that nearly offers complete protein — one of the plant sources — and it’s naturally gluten-free. This square Buddha Bowl (an overstuffed, balanced-nutrition bowl — symbolizing Buddha’s belly) combines quinoa, hard boiled eggs, and Mango Avocado Salsa for a quick and nourishing meal.
Snack Time Skewers
A variety of bite-sized foods on a stick is a snack-time dream for kids young and old! Mixing veggies, fruits, and meats makes for nutritional balance, and the skewer keeps real foods exciting. Serve with hummus, or guacamole.
Fruity Cocoa Yogurt Parfait
This fruity-cocoa yogurt parfait includes chia seeds for extra nutrition and a touch of texture. You can make this as you would overnight oats and have it ready to go for the next day. Pair it with veggie sticks and rolled deli meat, or hard boiled eggs.
Make your own 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.
Raspberry Almond Chia Pudding
Chicken and Veggie Collard Wrap
These wraps pull together in a snap with blanched collards and cooked chicken on hand. The sweetness of the sun sauce will keep your kids dipping for more. Pair with a banana.
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.
Apple Crisp Balls
An even tastier version of apple pie LaraBars and they are super easy to make. Get your kids involved and they will be excited to have these Apple Crisp energy bites as part of a healthy lunch. Serve alongside Turkey Caprese Wraps.
Lunch ideas for kids at home
Whether your kids are learning remotely, in a homeschool program, or on summer break, they still need a nourishing mid-day meal, and planning ahead creates a smooth ride for the whole family.
This will be our family’s first year homeschooling, and my kids are still ready to be involved in the prep of their lunch every day. It helps teach them independence, nutrition education, and time management – all important life skills.
The bonus they see by being at home is more flexibility in the options they have when it comes to lunchtime. Here are a few of the meals they are looking forward to.
Whether your kids are at home or school for lunch, Charcuterie Trays are an awesome mid-day meal — especially if your kids are natural “snackers.” They are a great way to use up what you have on hand and teach your kids a little nutrition while you’re at it.
Tomato Soup and Sandwich
Slow-cooked Tomato Soup is easy to reheat on the stovetop in the morning for a thermos-friendly lunch, or during breaktime at home. Round out the meal with a power-packed grilled cheese using long-ferment sourdough, thin sliced green apple, and ham.
Acai Kiwi Smoothie
I love recipes like this Acai Kiwi Smoothie with Chia Seeds that emphasize naturally lower-sugar and high antioxidant fruits (açaí and kiwi), paired with fibrous greens and seeds (spinach and chia), and healthy fats (avocado and nut butter) for longer lasting and nutrient-rich sustenance. Serve with rotisserie chicken on the side for a boost of protein.
My kids have loved this Coco-cado Smoothie for years now. They are always surprised by the creamy texture the avocado provides, and look forward to the chocolatey flavor. Pair with hard-boiled eggs.
Chicken Sweet Potato Soup
Whenever I make this Chicken Sweet Potato Soup I account for leftovers because it’s one of our family’s favorite lunches. This soup could also be easily reheated and packed in a thermos to take to school on a cool fall or winter day.
Sweet Potato Toasts
Using thinly sliced sweet potato in place of bread adds a sweet taste and a boost of nutrition to a primal lifestyle. Colorful toppings and fun flavors make these Sweet Potato Toast recipes a family lunchtime favorite.
Healthy Banana Boats
Spread some nut butter and sail your Banana Boat toppings to a far-away land. These are quick to assemble at lunch for delicious taste and plenty of texture. Pair with smoked salmon, or a side of tuna.
Guac for a Crowd
Avocados are full of healthy brain fuel for a pre-homework pick-me-up. Sliced veggies, apples, rolled deli-meat, sliced salami, plantain chips, and sprouted seed crackers are great vehicles for this Guac for a Crowd and round out a balanced lunch.
Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
Leftover baked sweet potatoes are a wonderful way to pull a last-minute nutritious lunch together. This Brussels Stuffed Sweet Potato recipe is just one example of nutrient-rich toppings that are slightly outside of the box.
Crispy Chicken Arugula Salad
Your kids will love the combination of sweet grapes and salty bacon in this Crispy Chicken Arugula Salad. You will love that you can cook the chicken in the crockpot in advance with this Herbs de Provence Chicken recipe. The goat cheese is completely optional.
Mango Avocado Salsa
Plantain chips and sprouted seed crackers are perfect vehicles for this rustic Avocado Mango Salsa. Served with sliced cooked chicken breasts and you have a delicious lunch.
Apple Salami Bites
Even your youngest sous chef can help put these simple Apple Salami Bites together! Sliced apples, all-natural salami, and avocado combine into crisp, sweet, salty, and creamy bites of nourishment any time of day. Serve with carrot sticks dipped in nut or seed butter.
Start planning healthy kids’ lunch ideas today!
Now that you have an abundance of healthy lunch ideas for your kids, it’s time to pull out your menu planner and start creating this week’s menu. Remember that just a little planning can result in smooth sailing.
If you are looking for further guidance on family meal planning, teaching your children to make their own lunch, or even more kid-friendly lunch ideas, be sure to check out the Kids in the Kitchen ebook.