Back to School (Lunch) Survival

I know all the moms are thrilled with back to school season!  Or maybe that’s just me….but the routine, the extra hours to try to get some work done etc.  Yay school!  But, with 3 kids to get out the door at 8:05 every morning, some prep and organization is required!

A lot of my meal prep (especially breakfasts and lunches) is focused on me, what I’m going to eat, making my life simple, it’s just how I take will power and effort out of the equation for the week – they are finite after all, why use them up on figuring out breakfast and lunch daily?  But last year one of my children made the mistake of inviting invited me to dine in the elementary school cafeteria. Up until that day, I had let them eat the school cafeteria food, every day if they wanted, only occasionally packing a lunch (I mean, they seemed to like it, and it was no work for me, so why not).  I figured it was an elementary school cafeteria.  Surely there were nutritional rules, right?  Surely it was balanced and healthy?  Hahahahahaha.  Apparently I was an idiot completely uninformed.  If I had time for a soapbox, elementary school cafeterias would be it.  The food is awful.  They sell brownies and Pop-Tarts.  Pop-Tarts.  Pop-Tarts.  Okay, I got a little fixated on the Pop-Tarts.  Anyway, that day I learned I didn’t want those lunches to be the only nutrition food my children got from when they got on the bus at 8:24 am until they stepped off at 3:27 pm.  I also started to understand by they were so hangry when they got off the bus every day.

Since we started packing lunches 4-5 times/week (I allow them 1 day of cafeteria food, if they want it – but honestly, 2 of my kids almost never opt for it anymore, because they like the packed lunches we’ve come up with, and we’ve created a system that works for us.


  1. A protein selection is required.
  2. One fruit and one veggie OR 2 veggies is required.
  3. You can have input on that week’s lunches, but only if it is given in a timely fashion to the head cook and grocery shopper before or during grocery list making.  After that, you’re stuck with what we have.
  4. You put your own lunch items in the lunch box, mom adds the ice pack and approves the selections.
  5. You may not grab the lunch stuff and use it as snacks at home (we’re working on this one), because doing that means more prep has to be done!


  1. Once you’ve got your healthy, balanced lunch packed, you can pick a treat (fruit snacks are my big compromise here – a small pack of fruit snacks somehow seems better to me than a giant brownie or Pop-Tarts.  Did I mention the brownies before?)
  2. I buy chocolate milk and juice for lunches.  At least this way I control the type of chocolate milk and juice they get (they also take giant water bottles to school, and thankfully the school has filtered fountains at which to refill them).
  3. You can eat cafeteria lunch one day a week, if you’d like, but you can’t buy a brownie or a Pop-Tart.

Other Considerations:

My kids don’t get enough time to eat in my opinion.  It’s a 20 minute window, and that includes lining up, walking to the cafeteria, being seated, eating and cleaning up.  So we’re looking at about 12-14 minutes to eat at best.  When we first started this, a lot of stuff came home uneaten.  So I try to offer options that can be eaten quickly (my 11 year old likes applesauce, and we switched to those pouches instead of cups, because he can eat one quickly).  This might not be the case at your kids’ school(s), but it’s something to think about.

I also think the more input they have (from which foods are shopped for, to helping prep, to selecting their own each morning) makes them more cooperative and more likely to consume their lunch.


  1. After getting any input, I shop for and  prep the lunch items for the week (sometimes they help, but honestly, it’s just part of my weekly routine, as you know if you’ve read this blog before, I find Sunday meal planning and prep with a glass of wine to be relaxing).  All of the prepped items go in refrigerator bins (affiliate link) placed on a shelf that all the kids can reach.
  2. Protein: I hard boil eggs, divide deli meats (or leftover chicken) and cheeses into single serving baggies or containers (I know we use too much plastic, and I’m looking for ways around it, but honestly, they can’t take glass…..I use as much as can be used over and over as possible) and measure out hummus (unless I have the little containers), we also have string cheese (kid 3’s favorite).
  3. Fruit: I wash grapes and wash and cut any other fresh fruit we are using that week (strawberries and watermelon are favorites here).  We try to use the cut fruit within 3 days, as it seems to go bad after that.  The grapes last longer, and my Thursday and Friday backups are fruit cups packed in 100% fruit juice (not always easy to find!  So many of these are full of sugar or artificial sweeteners anymore).  We also have the applesauce squeezes.
  4. Veggies: These usually consist of baby bell peppers, cucumbers and carrots, because those are the only 3 that all 3 of my kids will consistently eat.  We try to use the cucumbers first, they have the shortest shelf life.
  5. Miscellaneous: in addition to all this, I also line up chocolate milk and 100% juice boxes in the fridge.  In the pantry we have the carb and the treat (mostly little bags of fruit snacks) choices.  The carb choices are in reusable containers: pretzels, pita chips, gold fish crackers, whole grain crackers, whole grain cereal,  and anything else they’ve asked for and I’ve agreed to that week.


In the morning, we line up the open empty lunch boxes and they each fill theirs for my approval.  Occasionally my oldest son will make a sandwich with deli meat or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (because at the cafeteria the PB&J is those uncrustables that are not me approved), the other two do not like sandwiches.  My youngest usually still uses her Yumbox (affiliate link) bento, but the older two prefer more food now.

Once I’ve approved, I toss in an ice pack, they zip them up and into the backpacks they go.  With the prep work done, this takes about 2 minutes tops, and we don’t argue a lot less in the mornings.

This entry was posted in Easy Lunch, Lunch, Make Ahead, Meal Plans, meal prep and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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