How To Make Healthy School Lunches Daily Without Losing Your Mind

When my kid started school this fall, I came face to face with a challenge experienced by all parents of young, school-aged children: what the heck am I supposed to give him/her for lunch every day?

As with many first-world parenting issues, this one should really be no big deal. So why is it many of my parent acquaintances find themselves rummaging through their cupboards at 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, searching for snack crackers through clenched teeth while their offspring whine, “Are you giving me celery sticks AGAIN?”

I remember primary orientation day at school mostly for the terrifying directive given by our son’s friendly and well-organized young teacher: “Please send a healthy lunch and two healthy snacks to school every day in non-disposable containers. We want to reduce waste as much as possible, so no juice boxes or other packaging. And no sweets.”

I quickly realized how spoiled we had become during our kid’s preschool years, with its supplied lunches and snacks; back then, I barely registered what he ate between breakfast and supper since his food needs were being so seamlessly attended to.

It was the dawn of an uncomfortable new era.

Providing daily healthy school lunches and snacks is a real challenge, one parents have to face daily, whether we feel like it or not.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learned about lunches in the months since school began:

  1. Picky at home= picky at school: It’s endlessly discouraging to see your kid bringing home uneaten lunches day after day. Our household makes a real effort not to waste food, and to give new foods a good college try before deciding to like them or not—admittedly, a tough sell on occasion. If your kid eats a wide variety of foods at home, he or she will likely do the same at school, so try not to fall into the trap of only feeding them pizza or noodles for supper day after day. Varying the menu at home will mean more options available to you in preparing the daily lunchbox and will also reduce the number of times you hear the dreaded “You’re giving me that AGAIN?” Be patient; it may take a few tries to convince the kids that they really do like curry, or salmon loaf, but the rewards of a broadened palate are worth the initial time and energy investments.


  2. Make meals that create lunchable leftovers: When my son started school, I bought him a kid-sized Thermos container and folding camp fork and spoon (he loves these) along with the standard-issue plastic sandwich containers and padded lunch box. That Thermos has been my salvation this year, carting innumerable warmed-over stir-fries, soups, and noodly concoctions to school. Now that winter’s here, warm lunches seem like a particularly good idea. If you’re going with soup, aim for the thick and chunky over the watery to keep clothes from absorbing most of the broth.
  3. Learn to love the legume: You know what my kid can’t get enough of? The humble bean wrap. What’s it made out of? Refried beans spread onto a soft corn or flour tortilla with a piece of cheese folded inside, then toasted so the cheese will glue the whole thing together. You can also use refried beans as a dip, and pack a healthy lunch using cut up veggies like peppers, cukes and carrots with a few corn chips and a small container of beans. Simple, cheap, nutritious, and easy for kids to handle. You can even buy refried beans in a can, if you’re desperate. See my recipe for the homemade variety below:
  4. The lunch muffin: So your kid’s a notorious snacker? How about turning a favorite baked good into a lunch in itself? Savoury muffins are a possible answer: as an example, check out this site for a ham, cheese and pepper (Aussies call it ‘capsicum’) muff recipe, and a few more savoury ideas, too:
  5. Emergency rations: We all have days when we’re either run down, running late, or tired of running a household take-out service. Anticipating such days, I make provision: I keep a couple of slices of last weekend’s veggie pizza tucked away in the freezer as a lunchbox back up plan and a tin of chunky soup in the cupboard. Or try a camper’s special: buy dehydrated vegetables from the bulk store (or make your own in a dehydrator) and some generic Asian-style noodles, the kind that cook in 3 minutes. If you didn’t get that pot of homemade soup made, simply crush up some noodles in the kid’s Thermos along with a handful of dried veggies, add boiling water and a tablespoon or so of soy sauce and a dash of sesame oil, and voila! Soup will be nicely steeped and the noodles and veggies soft by lunch time. You may need to offer this last item as a lunch option at home once or twice before introducing it into the school lunch rotation (see above, re: food training!) To create positive associations with the new food, serve it at a picnic or on a fun road trip.
  6. Fruit and veg prep 101: When choosing fresh veggies and fruit for the lunchbox, aim for the durable over the delicate. When I’m feeling organized, I try to make up a couple of snacks’ worth of veggie sticks to keep in the fridge, in a jar with water so they don’t dry out. Carrots and celery are obvious candidates, but don’t neglect worthy contenders such as raw turnip or rutabaga, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and bell pepper. To vary the orange stick effect, try purple and yellow carrots, now widely available at grocery stores and farmers’ markets. In the fruit world, the melon family is king of the lunchbox: it’s sturdy, tasty, and won’t turn brown when you cut it up. The berry family is also welcome, when we can get them; to avoid buying a million tiny disposable yogurt containers which our school doesn’t appreciate, we buy plain or vanilla yogurt in bulk, and sprinkle it with whatever berries we can get our hands on, or homemade apple or pear sauce.
  7. Involve your kid in making his/her own lunch: My five-year-old wields a mean carrot peeler, and can scramble an egg pretty much on his own. Believe me when I say I’m already using these skills to my advantage! Lunch-weary parents everywhere should remember that we won’t be doing this forever; that old “give a man a fish” adage applies to our kids’ life skills, too. Showing them the effort required to pack a healthy lunch each day, and delegating more of the prep to kids as they get older will give them an appreciation for the work required to keep the household army marching on.

With a little bit of coaching and some “out-of-the-lunchbox” thinking on your part, your kid will soon be coming home with empty Tupperware containers and rave reviews for your swell provisioning. Just don’t forget to pack something for yourself on your way out the door to work; if you’re spotted scooting past a Drive-Thru window at lunchtime, you’ll never hear the last of it!

Refried Beans (aka the lunch packer’s salvation!)

Adapted from Molly Katzen’s invaluable Moosewood Cookbook

2 cups dried pinto beans, soaked overnight (or at least 6 hours)

(I’ve also tried this recipe with soldier, kidney, yelloweye and Jacob’s Cattle beans, but I think pinto is the yummiest)

3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil

2 onions, chopped in very small pieces

One whole head of garlic, minced (or to taste)

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons chili powder

2 teaspoons ground coriander, or coriander seed, or fresh chopped cilantro

2 teaspoons ground cumin, or cumin seed (really nice when you toast it for a couple minutes)

A splash of hot sauce, or cayenne pepper, entirely to your own taste (or leave it out!)

After their soaking, add fresh water to the beans and boil them on the stove until they are nice and soft.

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat oil and add onion, cumin, coriander, chili, hot sauce, and salt, and saute until onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Halfway through the cooking, add garlic (if you add it too soon, it can sometimes scorch).

Add beans to frying pan and mix well over low heat. Use a fork or potato masher to mush them up—if there’s a bit of liquid left on the beans, I sometimes transfer them to a saucepan and use the hand blender to get them really smooth.

Serve with rice, as bean dip, as filler for bean wrap…the sky’s the limit! These beans keep well in the fridge and also freeze well (hallelujah!)