I’ve been packing school lunches for so long now that it’s really second nature to me. I know this is a skill that many people struggle with, but I’ve got a system that works well in our household, combining a few key elements:

  • Smart use of dinner leftovers
  • Careful use of a “lunch pantry” stocked with fallbacks
  • Rotating in “school lunch stalwarts” like sandwiches and deli rollups
  • Making mental notes in advance so I can use weekend time to prep any extra items I might need

People think our lunches are often fancy and creative, and maybe they are, but I assure you they’re not a lot of work. If you look closely, as some longtime readers already have, you’ll notice that we’re really just doing variations on the same themes over and over — and when it comes to things like sides, I’m not reinventing any wheels. One kid likes clementines and applesauce cups and by golly, he’ll have one or the other — or both — most days of the week. One kid really likes bell pepper strips and berries, and those are going to turn up in his lunchbox more days than not. Variety is great for nutrition and habit formation, but TOO much variety can end up being more work, more expense, and more stress when things come home uneaten.

So here’s a glimpse into my lunch-packing brain — Week One of the school year (technically, we’ve already had a few days of classes, but this is our first full week back).

What to Pack for School Lunch this Week

Weekend Prep

  • I’ll double my pita recipe when I bake them up for Monday night’s falafel wraps, so we’ll have extras on hand for lunchboxes
  • If I have a few extra minutes, I’ll whip up some chia seed pudding for snacks and sides

Weeknight Prep

  • Tuesday Night: I’ll set aside some extra chicken breasts and bacon strips while I’m making the Cobb casseroles. I’ll grill the chicken, cook the bacon, and store in the fridge for Wednesday morning.

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The Lunch Menus

  • Monday: Strips of leftover schnitzel from Sunday dinner
  • Tuesday: Leftover falafel from Monday night if the kids are game; if not, we’ll rely on a fallback item from the lunch pantry (pbj, tuna, frozen chicken tenders, mac and cheese)
  • Wednesday: Chicken and bacon pitas
  • Thursday: Deli rollups
  • Friday: Rice bowls using leftovers from Thursday night’s teriyaki dinner

The Sides

  • Fresh fruit
  • Applesauce
  • Chia seed pudding
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Pretzels
  • Crackers