How to Pack School Lunches Efficiently

With many school cafeterias closed, parents are scrambling to find a new routine.

School wooden lunch box with sandwiches
Merinka / Getty Images

With some school cafeterias and lunch programs closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents may be scrambling to pack lunches for their kids every day. As a parent who has done this for the past seven years, packing anywhere from one to three lunches daily, I'm going to offer some advice to those who are new to it.

1. Buy Reusable Containers

This is the most important first step. Don't mess around with wasteful single-use bags or wrappers. Just spend the money upfront on glass and stainless containers in a variety of sizes with interchangeable lids and you'll never run out of packaging. Write your family's last name in permanent marker on all containers and lids. Buy a refillable water bottle and a small thermos for reheated leftovers. Washable cloth snack bags are handy, too, as are small ice packs for warm days, reusable cutlery, and a napkin.

2. Shop Weekly for Lunch Supplies

Think of lunch supplies as a unique category in your grocery list and always run through it mentally when you're at the store. Buy ingredients that will make the job go as smoothly as possible in the mornings. Consult with your children as to what they'd like to eat that week because the more involved kids are with food-related decisions, the more inclined they will be to eat it. I always make sure to have a few back-up options in the pantry, like crackers, granola bars, and dried fruit, in case we run out of other staples.

3. Prepare Ingredients in Advance

When you get home from the store, or on Sunday evenings before the week begins, prepare the lunch components so that they're ready for packing, i.e. washing and cutting carrot sticks, pre-slicing cheese, making homemade hummus, hard-boiling eggs, making a batch of muffins or cookies, etc. You can even pre-make large batches of sandwiches by layering (veggie-based) meat, cheese, mayo, and mustard in a bun and freezing it; put some tomato and lettuce in a container to add in at lunchtime. 

3. Create a Formula or Menu

Some parents go all out with fancy lunch menus that their kids can choose from. I prefer a basic formula where I tell my kids they need a protein-rich main, a vegetable, and a fruit at a bare minimum, and are allowed to choose one treat (depending on if we have any in the house). This eliminates any arguing over what must go into the lunch bag. 

Sandwiches are the usual main in our household because they're easy, but sometimes my kids like to reheat fried rice or pasta from the night before and put it in a thermos, or make a breakfast-style egg-and-cheese wrap. Some days it's a "charcuterie"-style lunch, with bits and pieces of cheese, salami, crackers, hummus, etc.

4. All Kids Should Eat the Same Thing

Don't make special menus for different kids unless you want to go crazy within a few weeks. This is an assembly line-style operation, where multi-kid households should all get the same thing in their lunch bags – unless the kids are doing it themselves. That's why asking their input or creating a general formula that everyone agrees upon is a smart upfront strategy.

5. Train Your Kid to Make Lunch

Unless your child is really young, there's no reason why s/he can't be in charge of packing their own lunch. Make it part of their morning (or evening) chores, something that has to fit into the schedule before they leave the house each day. Be sure they unpack their lunch and put the containers in the dishwasher immediately after school so that everything's clean for the following day. It teaches forethought and diligence.

The key is for lunch-making to become a routine, not a daily imposition. And with a good selection of reusable containers, a steady flow of lunch-friendly foods into your house, and a regular cleaning cycle, it can easily become an ordinary part of your day.