Back to school

Prep your kids’ lunches for the whole week ahead

I enjoy the morning ritual of packing healthy lunches and snacks for my kids to bring to school when I’m not in a hurry. But most days, packing lunch is just one more task I need to check off before we all rush out the door. It takes time, energy and money to plan out kids’ meals and to make sure they are getting the nutrition they need. And it’s a real bummer - and a waste of food and dollars - when lunches come home half-eaten.

So now that my kids are a little older, I am excited to teach them how to pack their own lunches to ease weekday morning stress and help them learn what it takes to build a healthy balanced meal. Plus, when they’re picking the foods, they’re more likely to actually eat them.

That’s why I love this genius idea from the EatingWell Test Kitchen for a prep-ahead lunch station that makes it easy for kids to pack their own lunchbox and snacks. The idea is that you meal-prep a week’s worth of lunches and snacks at the beginning of the week and store the pre-portioned snacks and foods in five different categorized bins: proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and treats. You can pull the bins out onto the counter each morning and let kids choose one food item from each bin. After packing, just put the bins back in the fridge and pantry to store until the next morning. If you’re short on space or only packing for one child, use smaller bins or designate a produce drawer in your fridge.

When you’re planning out what to put in each bin and how much, you’ll want to consider how many kids - and grownups - you are feeding that week and how many days of lunches you need. Think about your kids’ appetites. For example, my 5-year-old gets 1/2 cup of grapes and 2 pieces of deli meat, but bigger kids might need more to fill them up. Lastly, take into account certain food restrictions your kids or your kids’ school may have. For example, some schools don’t allow nuts or peanut butter. Our preschool does not allow sugary sweets or beverages.

Kids will love having choices for what goes in their lunch - and you get to maintain some control over what they’re eating at school. It’s a win-win!

Don’t forget! Help kids stay hydrated: pack a bottle of water for sipping throughout the day. Other healthy beverage choices for lunchtime include: milk, unsweetened nondairy milk or seltzer water.

1. Proteins

  • Cheese sticks
  • Yogurt cups
  • Deli meat
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Hummus
  • Nut or seed butter
  • Edamame pods

2. Whole Grains

  • Whole-wheat pita triangles
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Whole-wheat tortilla
  • Whole-wheat pasta salad
  • Cooked brown rice

3. Fruits

  • Unsweetened applesauce cups or pouches with no added sugar
  • Bananas, small or cut in half
  • Grapes, cut in half lengthwise
  • Berries
  • Clementines
  • Pears

4. Veggies

  • Baby carrots
  • Celery sticks
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Bell pepper strips
  • Cucumber slices
  • Snap peas
  • Frozen peas, thawed or frozen
  • Frozen corn, thawed or frozen

5. Treat

  • Tortilla chips
  • Air-popped popcorn
  • Dark chocolate squares
  • Cookies
  • Pretzels
  • Dried fruit
  • Granola bars
  • Graham crackers

EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at