Menu Planning School Lunches for Kids!

With the new school year almost here, it is important to plan your children’s lunches ahead of time to reduce stress, save money, and ensure your children’s bodies are nourished for energy and health. We all know that planning ahead is the key to success, yet many clients tell me that they dread meal planning at the beginning of their weeks. Ironically, these same clients soon discover that they hate their lives even more when they don’t meal plan!

Meal Planning 101

If you’re just getting started with menu planning, I encourage you to keep it simple; otherwise you will not be successful at sticking to it. The first concept I teach about balanced eating is the same tool I teach people when they start meal planning. This concept is simple and it is called the balanced plate concept where:

  • ½ of your plate is filled with vegetables
  • ¼ of your plate is filled with protein
  • ¼ of your plate is filled with grain or starch

Using this strategy to menu plan keeps it simple and the following 3 questions will help illustrate some of your options for each category:

1. What am I going to have for vegetables?

  • Salad: Spinach, kale, lettuce, mixed greens
  • Steamed/roasted/grilled vegetables: Carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, squash, eggplant, beets, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, bok choy, peas
  • Raw vegetables: Carrots, snap peas, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumber, zucchini

Pick a couple different options and make extra to have for leftovers or to mix and match for another meal. Vegetables keep well in the fridge for 5-6 days once prepared.

2. What am I going to have for a protein source?

  • Chicken, turkey, beef, pork, ham, wild game, tofu, paneer, lentils, seafood, eggs

3. What am I going to have for a grain or starch source?

  • Rice, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, barley, buckwheat, corn, bread, tortilla, pita, roti, chapatti

As with the vegetables, pick a couple and make extra to mix and match with other food options. This will cut down on time spent in the kitchen as well as your budget! Lastly, you want to finish off your meal with some healthy added fat and a serving of dairy or soy for a balanced meal!

Now that you have a good idea of what menu planning looks like, let’s dive further and explore menu planning for kids’ lunches!

9 Back-to-School Lunch Tips

Making lunches for your kids can be a thankless job, but it doesn’t have to be. With these tips, we can reduce food waste, your kids can eat foods that they enjoy, and make the whole lunch making experience fun for us all!

 1. Get your kids involved!

Whether your child is in kindergarten, grade 12, or post-secondary school, it is essential for them to be engaged in making their lunch. While we as mothers (or fathers) think we are being kind when we make our children’s lunches, we are not empowering them to learn how to make their own lunch. By getting them involved, you can turn this experience into a learning opportunity by simply doing instead of preaching about nutrition.

2. Give your kids options.

Get them to choose their fruits and vegetables, grains, and meat and alternatives. They will learn that this is the routine and you will not have to waste your breath preaching about why they need to eat balanced.

3. Spend 10 minutes mapping out your week with your family.

We’ve been doing this for 2 years and it has certainly made a difference for all of us. Part of what we discuss is our schedule, then we quickly talk about what we want to have for our lunches. We then make a list for grocery shopping.

4. Take your kids grocery shopping.

While you may be familiar with what fruits and vegetables are in season before you go to the store, you may find something on sale that is different than what you had on your list. Exposing your child to new foods will help them be more open to trying new things. This is especially helpful for picky eaters! Have your child pick a new fruit or vegetable and think of ways to make it at home. These simple activities will help them learn many transferrable skills!

5. Make it fun!

Get out the cookie cutters, toothpicks, skewers, and different containers so the kids can decide what we are going to create. While this may seem daunting, it actually doesn’t take long, as my kids have learned what their favorites are and seem to stick to it.

6. Lunch can be more than sandwiches.

It is rare I will eat a sandwich for lunch, probably because I got so sick of it as a kid. We took sandwiches as the norm, and it seems that society still considers sandwiches to be the norm. While they are nourishing, there are plenty of other healthy options:

  • Freeze homemade soup, leftovers or pasta in individual containers to pull out of the freezer the night before. Thaw them in the fridge over night. Get an insulated thermos. Place hot water in the thermos and let sit for few minutes to heat up. Heat your pasta, leftovers or soup very hot in the microwave and place in the thermos. My kids love a hot lunch, especially in the wintertime!
  • Bento box lunches. This is a lunch where you have different little containers filled with food shaped in fun pieces. You can get special lunch kits for this, place in individual containers or use muffin liners to separate the foods!

7. Minimize your intake of processed lunch options.

I would encourage you to look at what you currently buy for lunches right now and see what food group they fit into. Fruit roll ups, fruit bars, granola bars, cookies, and juice boxes are all easily replaceable with cheaper and more wholesome choices. Our bodies are made to digest food. The more processed the foods, the faster it goes through our system and the sooner we want to eat again. I am not against any of the above items, but if they are a main stay in your pantry, you may want to consider making some alternative choices. I am a full-time working mom as well, so I get the busy schedule. However, it comes down to ensuring my kids have the essentials in their lunches. Highly processed foods don’t leave them satisfied, which has a negative impact on their attention span at school, especially in the afternoon.

8. Do not make treats the forbidden fruit.

I promise this will simply back fire over time and create a more distorted relationship with food. I have taught my kids the rule about 1 treat per day. We have defined what a treat is in our house (typically ice cream, homemade cookies, cake, or puffed wheat squares) and while they are normal children and occasionally try to negotiate for more, 80% of the time, they are managing it on their own without much involvement from myself.

9. Pack your child two lunches if they have extracurricular activities after school.

Especially if these activities interfere with dinnertime! Many parents tell me they don’t have any other option but to buy fast food on certain days of the week, otherwise their children will not be able to eat prior to their activity. If you can relate to this, you are definitely not alone. The good news is that there are other options than the drive through. The simplest solution to this is to make two lunches for the days you know you are going to be running late. This is where having your kids involved in the process pays off because they can decide what they want to make for both meals and you will have less arguments when you are rushing out the door. It will save you money, stress, time in line-ups, and you won’t feel guilty as a parent because you made your child a wholesome meal instead of feeding them fast food.

Have fun experimenting with your kids and their lunches! We hope these tips will set you up for a successful year ahead. If you want to make menu planning even easier, we have our menu planning binders available for purchase in the office for $29.99!


How do you manage to keep lunch fun and nutritious for your kids? We’d love to hear below in the comments!