If you’re looking for alternatives to basic peanut butter and jelly with Goldfish crackers, this article is exactly what you need. Nothing too weird or complicated. Just good healthy foods that children enjoy for their midday meal. Send children back to school with these healthy lunch ideas for kids!
Easy and Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids
I’m all for easy. Prepackaged foods make lunch prep super easy. But I don’t need my kids eating all the extra salt, fat and sugar that come along with packaged foods. It’s fine for once in a while, or when we’re on a time crunch. But for everyday, making a healthy meal should be of utmost importance.
No need to cut fruit into cute shapes or make animal faces out of sandwiches. If the food is good, kids will eat it! I’ve included over 100 healthy lunch ideas for kids, including tips on how to meal prep, lunch box containers, and staying organized from the first day of school to the last!
What’s Healthy Anyway?
Kids might spend 8 hours at school, learning in a classroom, exercising in P.E.,and playing with friends at recess. They need the proper nutrition in which to grow and develop. Healthy meals should include balanced nutrition. This means carbohydrates, healthy fats, protein and vitamins from fresh fruits and vegetables.
Choose whole wheat over white flour. Slice cheese off the block instead of purchasing processed and wrapped slices. Offer fresh fruit and veggies versus packaged snacks. Sure there are some packaged items that can be healthy. Check the labels, of course. But if we’re honest, most of what is marketed towards children for lunch is simply processed junk food.
When filling your kid’s lunch boxes, keep a good balance and variety of carbs, protein, fruits, veggies and healthy fat. This can be a challenge for feeding picky eaters, but still do-able! Keep reading for the healthy lunch ideas for kids, including hot and cold foods, sandwich alternatives and snack tips to save you money.
Breakfast for Lunch
Skipping breakfast is not an option. Young kids should be leaving the house with a fully tummy and these 40 quick and healthy breakfast ideas are a perfect start to the day. So much better than sugary cereals or frozen breakfast pastries! Consider adding these breakfast-type items to the lunch box for the ultimate boredom buster.
- Fluffy Pancakes – These are so easy to make ahead and freeze. Pop into the toaster in the morning to defrost!
- Overnight French Toast
- Egg and cheese burrito
- Egg Bites – Add in bits of protein or vegetables. Make batches in the Instant Pot with a Silicone Egg Bites Pan.
- Sausage links
- Banana Bread – This recipe can be prepared for either loaves or muffins.
Make the first day of school special with this Back to School Breakfast Party! It’s a great way for the kids to get excited about school! We gave them their new backpack and lunch box and the kids “shopped” for school supplies at the table.
How to Keep Cold Food Cold
Gone are the days of the metal lunch pail, with room temperature meat and questionable warm milk. Thank goodness for soft-sided insulated lunch bags and ice blocks that keep cold lunch foods chilled.
I’m completely in LOVE with these Rubbermaid LunchBlox containers. There are multiple configurations, so measure the inside of your lunchbox before choosing the version you need. Each of the containers in a LunchBlox set snap into a Blue Ice block, keeping the food cold.
The separate containers make it simple to meal prep the night before. And the stacked containers stay in place instead of rattling loosely around inside of the lunch box! Rubbermaid LunchBlox are a great way to keep cold foods cold until lunch time.
- Cold Bean Salad – Served with tortilla chips, kids can scoop up the beans and skip the fork!
- Yogurt – Squeezable yogurt or Go-gurt is a cool treat but also spendy and sugary. Consider instead spooning Greek yogurt (use Stevia to sweeten) or low-sugar vanilla. Mix ins can be fun and creative, including honey, berries, oats, or mini chocolate chips.
- Meat and Cheese Roll Ups – Forget the bread and roll up deli sliced turkey or ham with a slender stick of cheese in the center.
- Smoothies – Use one of these high protein low carb smoothie recipes including Almond Joy or Tropical Citrus.
Pasta Salads for Kids
Pasta salad is a favorite lunch for all my kids. Cook up extra pasta at dinnertime then use it to make cold pasta salads for kid’s lunches! The PackIt Lunch Box is freezable so it keeps food chilled without an ice block. Just place the PackIt in the freezer overnight and load up lunch items in the morning.
- Summer Pasta Salad – A light and refreshing meal with a base of olive oil and red wine vinegar with cherry tomatoes, Feta cheese and black olives.
- Change up the noodles – Think outside the macaroni noodle and try a variety of pastas. Tri-color rotini, spaghetti, wagon wheel, bow tie, and penne are all kid-friendly options.
- Pesto Pasta with Ham & Peas – My daughter’s favorite! Combine cold, cooked pasta with chopped deli hand and cold, cooked peas. Stir in a dollop of pesto sauce.
- Add whatever your kid likes – No need to stick to a recipe when it comes to pasta salad. Use the ingredients that your kids enjoy whether it’s chunks of cheese and chicken or tofu with tomatoes.
How Much to Pack in Each School Lunch?
For my littlest kid, I find that about 2 or 3 small portions, plus a snack, is enough. Any more and it just comes back home. My older kids and teenagers can eat more. I’ll include 3-4 different items in a large portion size, with the addition of at least one snack. Upon coming home, kids can eat one more healthy snack before dinner time.
If you’re noticing food coming home it could be from a variety of reasons – 1) Didn’t like what you packed. 2) They were too full to eat it all. 3) Not enough time to eat everything.
It’s a good idea to have a conversation with your kids about their lunch habits. Make sure your kids know to discuss if they’re not getting enough food. You’ll lso awant to know if they are throwing anything out or trading with a friend.
Many kids will eat anything if it comes with dip! My daughter in particular prefers eating chicken only with “special sauce” (which is our homemade concoction of mayonnaise and ketchup!) These are a few simple dip ideas:
- Greek yogurt with dried dill – Offer vegetables like cut broccoli crowns, baby carrots and sticks of celery along with this easy dip.
- Sour cream
- Marinara sauce – Served in a dipping cup, a tomato sauce can encourage kids to eat ground beef or ground turkey meatballs.
- Use Glad Press ‘N Seal over dips or liquids in the lunch box. Stretch and seal over the top of dips in school lunch containers to prevent leaks and spilling.
- Pico de Gallo Chunky Salsa – for kids who love Mexican food, pack this with tortilla chips. It also pairs well with quesadillas, tacos or inside breakfast burritos.
- Hummus – easy to make at home, serve with Naan bread or pita chips.
- Guacamole – to keep the avocado from browning, add lemon juice. Lay plastic wrap directly on the dip before closing the lid to the container.
- Avocado Tomatillo Salsa Verde – Even my kid who doesn’t like dips loves this tangy salsa verde with corn chips!
The sandwich is probably one of the top healthy lunch ideas for kids. But with nut-free schools and lunch tables the norm, it’s not as easy to rely on peanut butter and jelly anymore. The sandwich is a school lunch staple that most kids enjoy – consider these recipes to mix it up!
- Serve sandwiches on “different” breads. Mixing up the bread can offer kids variety when they’re tired of sandwiches on plain wheat bread again. Consider small King’s Hawaiian rolls for slider-size sandwiches. Hamburger buns and bagels make great deli sandwiches.
- Beat lunch box boredom by cutting sandwiches into sticks. This works well for melted cheese sandwiches including grilled cheese.
- Get past deli meat by offering something different. Try breaded fish patties, veggie burgers or a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato). For kids that like mayonnaise, make tuna, egg or chicken salad sandwiches.
- For kids who love the “Uncrustables” pb&j, try changing it up. Consider a variety of nut butters, which are a high protein healthy lunch idea for kids. Almond, sunflower seed and cashew are choices to consider outside of peanut.
Keeping Hot Food Hot
Just as an insulated lunch box will keep cold food chilled, it can also help hot food stay warm. With vacuum sealed containers, like the Zak Insulated Food Jar, run them under hot water before adding food. This can help the container stay warm.
- Soup – Add noodle soup, vegetable soup, or this creamy Roasted Garlic and Rosemary Potato Soup into a container for cold days (don’t forget to pack a spoon!)
- Chicken nuggets – Prep lightly breaded chicken strips inside the air fryer for a healthier option.
- Fish Sticks – Use fresh fish and this recipe for Beer Battered Fish Tacos to create your own delicious meal.
- Chicken fried rice – A great use of leftovers, use brown rice for an even healthier version.
Rolled Into a Tortilla
Wraps are a nice alternative to bready sandwiches and can often include the same ingredients. Choose green, corn or whole wheat as an alternative to regular white flour tortillas.
- Deli Ham and Cheese Tortilla Roll-ups – Smear a thin layer of mayo onto a tortilla, then layer with thinly sliced ham and deli-sliced cheese. Roll up then cut the tortilla into pinwheels.
- Tacos – Warm up corn tortillas and load up with Pork Carnitas and crumbled queso fresca. Wrap up each taco in foil to keep warm.
In the words of my son, “Microwave burritos are NASTY”. Burritos are so simple to make at home. Why waste money on those microwaved burritos that are high in fat and have chewy, almost inedible, tortillas. Try some of these burrito ideas:
- Bean and Cheese Burrito – Refried beans are the norm, but try using other versions inside the classic burrito. What about white Navy beans or Kidney beans instead?
- Ham & Bean Burrito- Smear a tortilla with a thin layer of low-fat refried beans. Lay thinly sliced ham on top then sprinkle with shredded Monterey Jack cheese. Microwave on a plate for 30 seconds then wrap in aluminum foil to keep warm.
Homemade Sweet Treats
My kids, while healthy eaters, still want to know “What’s for dessert?” Homemade desserts are always going to be healthier lunch ideas for kids than store-bought cookies and snacks. You can personally control what ingredients go into the recipe. And I bet you can pronounce the ingredients too!
- Fruit-Filled Cream Cheese Coffee Cake – adjust the sugar by opting for sugar-free preserves and eliminating the drizzle topping for a healthier treat.
- Dried fruits – Prunes, Craisins and banana chips can be a good alternative to sweets. Yes, they are higher in sugar content than the original fruit, but a healthier choice than some packaged items.
- Protein balls
- One Cup of Everything Cookies
- Yogurt parfait – layers of graham cracker crumbs, low-sugar vanilla or lemon yogurt and berries are a delicious treat.
- Zucchini muffins
- Lemon Poppy Seed Bread – make it as a mini-muffin or served up in a thin slice as a yummy snack.
- Rice cakes – this store-bought item can be dressed up with a thin layer of nut butter (mmm, Nutella!) and sliced bananas.
- Double-Decker M&M Brownies – a super-special dessert, the colors can be customized for the holiday seasons!
What About Snacks?
Before the lunch bell rings, kids tummies start to grumble. These easy snack ideas will stave off hunger in a healthy way. Pack the school snack separately from the lunch box. This will eliminate your child having to dig through, looking for their snack. A reusable insulated snack pack like the PackIt Snack Bag has a built-in ice pack to keep snacks chilled.
- Granola bars
- Trail mix – toss together mixed nuts with popcorn, mini dark chocolate chips and dried fruit pieces
- Roasted pumpkin seeds
- Sugar-free Jello
- “Ants on a Log” – celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins
- Hard boiled eggs (peeled and rinsed) or Deviled eggs
- Cheese chunks – mild cheddar, Mozzarella, Swiss and Colby Jack
- String cheese
- Cottage cheese – mix in fruit preserves or fruit chunks
- Square of dark chocolate
Staying Hydrated at School
It’s tempting to just buy those pouches and boxes of juice for the lunch box. But oh, the price! Not to mention the sugar and all those other ingredients too. Chocolate milk is actually a decent choice. It’s been shown that post-workout, drinking chocolate milk can help with muscle recovery.
Dehydration is a problem, especially when weather is warm. Dehydration can lead to muscle fatigue and exhaustion, as well as headaches. Water is so much better for kids. And they’ll drink more of it if you include a filled water bottle every day in their backpack.
Fill up the bottle with ice and top it off with water. The water will melt slowly and they can refill at the school drinking fountain throughout the day. I love this Zak Designs Minnie Mouse stainless steel insulated water bottle. The drinking straw spout locks away so it stays sanitary and the lid doesn’t leak. Zak has an coordinated entire line including tumblers and food storage containers.
Turn Appetizers into a Full Meal
Charcuterie is one of our favorite family dinners. A little of this, a little of that. It’s filling but not overwhelming. And appetizers are a fun lunch type for kids who like to nibble. If your kids already like Lunchables, this is a great choice for them!
- Crackers – Choose sturdy versions like Triscuits, Wheat Thins or Blue Diamond Almond Nut Thins
- Proteins – Salami, pepperoni, strips of deli meat, cold shrimp
- Cheese – Cut slices off the block including cheddar, Monterey Jack or Colby. Or include a Babybel.
- Lettuce wraps – Make an Asian chicken salad and tuna salad, served up in a “dish” of edible butter lettuce leaves.
- Fruit and veggies – Include grapes, sliced apples, celery and carrots.
What Else to Include in the Lunch Box?
In addition to including healthy lunch foods, there are a few other important things that each lunch box needs!
- Reusable utensils – These Knork Bamboo Utensils are sturdier than plastic party ware and are dishwasher safe so they can be reused daily.
- Lunch note – A short and sweet note inside the lunch box can be a welcome mid-day surprise for kids. Christie at Raising Whasians has these great free printable lunch box notes.
- Napkin – A paper towel square works fine, but these FUN KINS Cloth Napkins are reusable – just toss in the wash.
Veggie-centric Lunch Ideas for Kids
Do your kids like salads? If you have a lettuce lover, lunch salad can be easily made using whatever leftovers you have in the fridge.
- Cobb Salad – Chop hard boiled eggs, tomatoes and serve over a mix of lettuces with crumbled Feta cheese. Serve with a vinaigrette or your kid’s favorite dressing. Add ham to make it a classic Cobb.
- Cherry tomatoes
- Sliced cucumbers
- Jicama – If your kid loves cucumber slices, try jicama in their lunch. Add a squeeze of lime juice and Tajin for kids who like spice!
- Taco Salad – My eldest son’s favorite! Lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, beans, corn and ground beef is served with dressing and a topping of broken tortilla chips.
- Bell pepper slices
- Creamy Pesto Salad Dressing – Perfect atop salad greens or as a veggie dip
Money-Saving Make-It-At-Home Lunch Ideas
Individually packaged items from the grocery store come at a premium price. It’s easy enough to divvy large packages up at home before adding to lunches. Read the label to ensure the amount of each serving size. Use a measuring cup to divide up foods.
Reusable snack storage bags are just as easy to use as plastic zip bags, but better for the environment and your budget! These are some prepackaged school lunch products that you should always buy in bulk.
- Potato chips -Choose lower salt and baked varieties
- Apple Sauce – Purchase large jugs of apple sauce and spoon it into individual containers. Add in your own cinnamon. It’s a healthier (and cheaper) option than squeezable apple sauce.
- Yogurt covered raisins
- Trail mix
Meal Prepping School Lunches
Consider prepping the entire lunch the night before. It’s one of the ways we streamline school mornings and make the day less stressful! The Bentgo Kids is an all-in-one leak-proof lunch box. Simply add the items inside the compartments, chill in the fridge, then grab and go in the morning!
- Cornbread – Slice this sturdy bread into squares and freeze in individual bags. Defrost in the fridge overnight and serve with cold weather foods, like chili and soup.
- Drumsticks – When preparing chicken drumsticks for dinner, save a few for the lunch box.
- Brown Rice – Cold cooked rice can be mixed with soy sauce. Add in any number of favorite fillers including cooked mixed vegetables, edamame or cold chicken.
- Shrimp – Cook extras from dinner and serve them cold in the lunchbox, peeled and de-veined.
- Pizza – Make an entire sheet-pan pizza and divide up into square portions. Wrap each into aluminum foil and have them in the fridge to grab for lunch.
Fruity and Delicious
The whole apple and banana rarely gets eaten when packed in a kid’s lunch. Instead the poor fruit rattles around in the box, only to returned bruised at the end of the day! Here are some fun and easy kid’s lunch ideas that include fruit.
- Prep Fruit – Fruit that’s prepped is more likely to be eaten. Include sliced pears, plums and apricots. Dice up honeydew, pineapple and mango. Pre-peel oranges or clementines.
- Cantaloupe balls
- Fruit Salad – Combine two or three fruits into a mini fruit salad as a delicious way to fight lunchtime boredom. Watermelon and blueberries are one of my favorites. Peach and plum slices pair nicely together. Serve up sliced strawberries with kiwi.
- Green or red grapes
Keeping School Lunches Organized
Once you have bulk items separated into individual bags or containers, place them into grab & go bins. These plastic organization bins can go into the fridge or pantry. In the morning, kids can grab one item from each of the bins to place inside their lunch.
I use Name Bubbles personalized labels on each school lunch container so it doesn’t end up in the lost and found. These permanent name labels stick and don’t come off, even through washing. Use them on kid’s lunch boxes, food storage containers as well as their jackets, school supplies and face masks.