5 Ways I Simplify School Snacks and Lunches

posted by Andrea | 08/12/2019

It’s the time of year when we excitedly pull out all our school supplies from last year to take stock of what we have and what we still need to buy.

Yes, I realize many of you have already done this, but I just can’t bring myself to buy school things until mid August… so that’s what we’re doing this week. 

NOTE: I shove everything I think we might need/use again into their backpacks at the end of the school year and store it on a shelf in the mudroom all summer.

We take it all out again a week or so before school starts, keep anything we need, trash anything we don’t, and make a list of things we need to buy. 

All of this school planning has got me thinking about school snacks and school lunches again…

Packing lunches was something I hated doing — I actually had Dave do it for a while. However, this task has grown on me over the years and I’m now to the point where I actually enjoy it! 

What made the difference for me? 

I think the reason I no longer hate packing snacks and lunches is because I finally feel like I have a really good system, routine, and tools — which help to simplify things and makes the process more efficient (yay for efficiency!) 

Of course, our routine will continue to morph and change throughout the years, as we add more lunches, as our kids get older, as our daily schedules change, etc. etc. but for now, this is what is working REALLY well for me, for our family, for our schedule, and for our food preferences…

1. I Pack Snacks in Bulk

A couple years ago, Nora’s teacher mentioned it would nice if students would keep their snacks in a separate place in their backpacks (not with their lunch) to make it easier to QUICKLY grab a snack without needing to take everything out of their backpack, lunchbox, etc. 

This got me thinking… and we decided to pack a whole bunch of snacks at one time and keep them in a bin at the top of her locker (all the students get lockers — even in preschool). 

This concept worked MARVELOUSLY! 

We ended up packing roughly one month’s worth of snacks at a time, and then didn’t need to think or worry about or remember snacks again until the next month!

Not only did this drastically simplify our daily lunch/snack packing, it also lets my kids feel like they have a little more control over what THEY CHOOSE for their snack each day. And, it allows them to practice generosity if a friend forgets a snack and they offer to share one of their many snacks. 

We did have a little “issue” with Nora’s snacks towards the end of last year — students realized she had lots of snacks and were regularly asking her to share with them each day. I simply emailed the teacher and it stopped immediately! πŸ™‚

Read more about how we simplified our school snacks in this post

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2. I Pack “Fun Lunches” 

I know there’s a huge push for “super healthy lunches” — and I think that’s great. 

HOWEVER, my kids eat a very nutritious, big, hot breakfast every school morning, and a well-balanced hot dinner every evening… so my opinion on lunches is that they can be a bit more “fun” and flexible

I’d rather have my kids get excited about eating the food in their school lunches (and hopefully eating it quickly) so they are full for the whole afternoon, versus struggling to focus due to not eating the “healthier” foods I packed in their lunch. 

So far, they are very good about bringing anything they don’t eat home with them, and if I see they bring something home regularly, I stop packing that food for a while. 

The kids usually choose some sort of sandwich, meat + cheese, or yogurt + granola as their “main dish”, accompanied by their FAVORITE home-canned dill pickles, a variety of fresh fruit, and a few raw veggies. I regularly throw in a sweet treat, chips or crackers, and a piece of candy — which are all big “wins” for me! πŸ™‚

So far, they do a really great job of eating everything (or almost everything) and whatever they don’t eat, they often ask to eat as an after-school snack. 

NOTE: Here are some of our favorite Easy At-Home Lunches for the non-school age kiddos!

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3. I Pack Lunches Right After Dinner. 

Once the kitchen is clean, it’s really hard for me to get excited about packing a bunch of lunches and making a big mess again… so my solution is to pack lunches immediately after dinner — while I’m cleaning up dinner and while the kitchen is still a mess. 

The kids are often still in the kitchen area so I can easily ask them what they want, and lots of food is still sitting out so I can quickly grab some fruit, veggies, desserts, etc. to put in their lunches as I’m cleaning up. 

Plus, Dave usually likes leftovers for his lunch, so it just makes sense to portion these up for him while I’m cleaning up the rest of the meal. 

By the time I start the dishwasher, the lunches are ready to go in the fridge, and my kitchen is all cleaned up!

This might sounds like a small detail, but I’m convinced it’s one of the big reasons I no longer hate packing lunches! 

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4. I use PlanetBox Lunch Boxes

I am rarely super “brand loyal” — except when I find a brand that works REALLY well and helps to drastically simplify some aspect of my life. 

Well… the PlanetBox lunch boxes and accessories are one of those things that have drastically helped me simplify our school lunches over the years (NO, this is NOT a sponsored post!)

Several years ago, I did get a Planet Box + lots of accessories from the company for review. I instantly fell in love with this lunch packing system as it is SO easy for kids to open, it provides a convenient tray for them to eat from (not on dirty desks), it has several customizable compartments, it can accommodate liquid items, and it washes up super well in the dishwasher. 

Oh yeah, and it’s good for the environment — but if you want me to be honest, that wasn’t even a consideration when I started using these boxes!

Since then, I have purchased 2 more Planet Boxes for the boys, along with various other accessories. 

We currently have:

These products ARE expensive, but are also very well made, and significantly nicer than any other brand or type of “bento box” we’ve tried (I’ve been given LOTS of different brand over the years.)

We use our PlanetBoxes daily throughout the school year, and even in the summer if we’re going on a picnic or if the kids go to a grandparent’s house for lunch.

NOTE: they have 25% off sale running through September 15!! 

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5. I pack special surprises on a regular basis! 

No, I’m not one to have a theme for each meal or spend exorbitant amounts of time packing cute lunches… but I do try to add at least one fun thing to their lunches each day — maybe a special snack, a piece of candy I know they like, a fun shaped sandwich, or a cute note to surprise them.

It only takes me a few seconds, but gets me more excited about packing their lunches, and I know they enjoy it! πŸ™‚

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A Note About Hot Lunches: 

Dave does not have the option to leave his school for lunch and his school usually only offers a slice of pizza for “hot lunch” a couple times a week. He’s not overly thrilled with this option, so he almost always brings a lunch from home.

The kids have a wide variety of hot lunch options available for a reasonable price, but it takes so long for them to walk to the hot lunch line, wait to be served, walk back to their classroom (no cafeteria) that they don’t have much time left to actually eat, and they are already SLOW eaters — so they rarely ever get hot lunch. 

The kids can get milk for $0.50 and it’s delivered to their classrooms at lunch time — so they do this on occasion. Otherwise, they just drink water. 

I’m fully aware that these tips and ideas will not work for every child, every family, every school situation, every dietary need, or even every budget — but when I think of the reasons I no longer hate packing school lunches, these are what come to mind. 

Packing snacks in bulk, packing “fun lunches”, packing lunches right after dinner, packing lunches in PlanetBox containers, and packing something special have helped to simplify this daily to-do for me and for our family!

What are your best school snack / lunch simplifiers? 

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Filed under: FamilyFoodTips and ToolsChildrenSchedules

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35 comments

  1. Leigh

    08/12/2019

    I use easy lunch boxes and have a few four packages since we have four kids. It means I can pack part or all of lunch for a few days at a time.

    homemade lunchables are my kids favorites.

    We use a lot of cute food picks to make things feel fun, hold things together, and entice kids to try some new things. Target has some cute Cat & Jack ones this year.

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    Andrea Reply:

    good idea with the food picks — my kids always like using toothpicks, but if they were more “fun” it would be even more special! Thanks!

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  2. Michelle Bonk

    08/12/2019

    My favourite way to simplify lunches is to have my kids pack their own!!

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    Andrea Reply:

    haha — yes! I figured someone would mention this right away, but you were the first one!
    I always packed my own lunches started in 5th grade — so I’m sure our kids will get there eventually. Oh what a time-saver that will be for me!

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  3. Kellie

    08/12/2019

    I absolutely LOVED this post! So helpful! One thing that I’ve begun doing that might be helpful to others is to freeze pbjs! My boys absolutely LOVE peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so I literally make up the sandwiches a loaf of bread at a time, cut them, put them into baggies or tinfoil and throw them in the freezer! I pull them out the night before and they thaw perfectly.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Kellie!
    Great idea on freezing the PB&J’s. Do you put peanut butter on both sizes with the jelly in the middle — to keep them from getting soggy?

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    Becky Reply:

    I do the same thing (freezing a loaf of pb&J’s) and I do put a layer of pb on both sides, jelly in the middle. No soggy problems.

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    Andrea Reply:

    good to know!

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  4. Brandette W.

    08/12/2019

    My son just started 4th grade. While he is gone to school, I get his drink and sides ready to go. One day a week I make all of the main lunch dishes and it stays in the fridge until needed. When he gets home from school, I load the drink and sides I previously got ready into his lunchbox. I also refill his water bottle if needed. Then the next morning I add the main dish and it’s ready to go into his backpack.

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    Andrea Reply:

    sounds like a very organized and efficient system — I love it!

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  5. Rhonda

    08/12/2019

    I’ve been using the Shuttle boxes for my girls this past year (3rd grade, Kindergarten). They’ve been great. Often I add other items like a granola bar, yogurt, or fruit cup (goes in the carrier but not the steel box). I had seen the sale and been planning to upgrade to the Rover. Wish I had bought them last year, but just wasn’t sure. I’ll either keep the extra ones for smaller snack use, or might even sell them.

    They are quite expensive, but they do what is advertised, and I use so many less individual baggies. Saves both on plastic usage and time for prep. Plus, if you figure the kids use them for a few years (4-5) that’s really only about a $10 investment per year.

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, we add other items in the front pouch of the bag as well! and yes, they are expensive but worth it for me right now. I do think our kids will use them for MANY years!

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  6. Erin

    08/12/2019

    These look so nice and convenient. Wondering if they would fit in most lunch boxes or if you have to buy the special lunch carriers on the website. If you buy their lunch carrier is there enough room to add a juice box? Thank you for your pictures too. It helps me be more creative when packing lunches.

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    Rhonda Reply:

    You really just have to look at the measurements on the Planet Box site and then measure your carrier. We got the smallest ones (Shuttle) and there is plenty of room. I’m ordering the next size up (Rover) and it still should fit our carriers – but won’t really be room for anything else in the carrier (besides the thin ice pack, which we have the Planet Box ones). If you order the largest box (Launch), it probably won’t fit most kids lunch box carriers since it’s 10.3 inches long.

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    Andrea Reply:

    the measurements are listed on the PlanetBox site — so you could do some measuring of your current lunch boxes and see if they would work.
    And yes, the bags have a spot for a drink bottle/pouch and additional snacks — which is really handy!

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  7. Jane

    08/12/2019

    Our lunches consist of a main dish, fresh veggie, fruit, “filler” and treat. We “pre” pack everything on Sunday except the main dish. The main dish can be any kind of sandwich they choose or left overs from dinner the night before. The filler is chips, crackers, granola, popcorn, etc. and the treat can be cookies, candy or chocolate. And we always have a large variety of fresh veggies and fresh or canned fruit.
    When they were much younger, both my boys only wanted pb&j, baby carrots, a banana, tortilla chips and a chocolate chip cookie. For three glorious years they wanted the exact same thing everyday for lunch. It was so easy! Now they want more variety so our cupboards are a little fuller πŸ™‚

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    Andrea Reply:

    wow — that’s awesome to be able to pack the same exact thing for so many years! I love your simple lunch-packing system too. Thanks for sharing!

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    Bonnie'sMama Reply:

    Your sons’ menu sounds almost exactly like what my son wanted for lunch every day this past semester! Glad to know he’s normal!

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    Andrea Reply:

    haha — anything with any nutritional value that a child is willing to eat can be considered “normal” in my book!

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  8. Kim

    08/12/2019

    I’ve considered buying the planet boxes. I noticed you have two different sizes. What do you think is the best size β€œfor the long haul”? Did someone out grow the rover size and move up to the other?

    Also, since I home school and only have to pack lunches one, maybe two, day a week, do you have any recommendations for a decent bento box at a lower price point?

    Thank you so much…I’ve been reading since Nora was a baby. Always love the practical tips and honest, unsponsored recommendations.

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    Rhonda Reply:

    I have two Shuttle boxes, which are fine, but plan to order the Rovers. My kids are 6 and 9. Used the Shuttle boxes for the past year.

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    Andrea Reply:

    thanks for sharing!

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    Andrea Reply:

    we use our interchangeably between kids based on what they are eating. Sometimes the 5 smaller compartments work better, sometimes the 3 larger compartments work better. If you go with the larger compartments, I’d get a few extra dividers (They are really cheap) to use in case you have more than 3 items in the lunch.

    Also, for what it’s worth, if you’re only packing 1 or 2 lunches a week, you probably wouldn’t need to invest in something like a Planet Box. You could just buy some silicone cupcake liners to use as dividers and put them in a food storage container — like I did in this photo.

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  9. Kate

    08/12/2019

    I’m definitely going to try #3 this year. Maybe that will help me! πŸ™‚ In the past I’ve always packed the lunches when I empty the dishwasher, which is around 8:00 right after the kids go to bed. At that point I’m basically done for the day and don’t want to do either task!

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, I’ve found that if I wait to pack the lunches, I never feel like it, and then it becomes one more thing I need to do in the morning!

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  10. Margaret

    08/12/2019

    All great ideas that I wish had been around back in the dark ages when I was in school. Might have saved me from that deadly choice between peanut butter/jelly or hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes.
    And it’s endlessly adaptable. I bulk-prep at least a week’s worth of dinner salads for work. Since I’m a bit older than 7 I use glass canning jars for the components, packed into a 6-pack cooler. The salads vary with what’s at the farmers’ market, and I never get tired of them. Zero waste, too.

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    Andrea Reply:

    haha — our kids still love having PB&J in their lunches! AND, Nora’s favorite hot lunch (the one she gets) is TurkeyGravy, mashed potatoes πŸ™‚

    Your salads sound wonderful — and I love the idea of using mason jars. Do you find it difficult to get the last bits of food out of the bottom? Or maybe you use wide-mouth jars?

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    Margaret Reply:

    I started out using regular pints because I have a lot of them.. It was easy enough to get the food out with a fork (I pull it all out & arrange it on a plate), but the jars are harder to wash–no dishwasher–and they started to have an oily residue at the bottom from the dressing. I switched to wide-mouth jars that I can get my whole hand into, and that solved the problem. I was already using straight half-pints or quarter pints for the greens and carbs and tomatoes in season. I do use Tupperware for the 1/4 cup additions of walnuts, chickpeas, and grated cheese, because I have not been able to find glass jars in that size. I’m not a fan of keeping food in plastic, but I doubt it matters for fairly dry things that are not heated.
    Since the jars don’t seal, I reuse the lids until they rust.

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    Andrea Reply:

    good to know! sounds like you have a great system.
    I’m not sure if you saw one of my favorite things from a few months ago, but they are plastic (I know, plastic) lids for mason jars that are SO easy to wash and reuse — no rusting ever!

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  11. Cherry

    08/12/2019

    Just curious as to when you wash their trays if you do it before you run the dishwasher. Maybe by hand?

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    Andrea Reply:

    I currently put them in the dishwasher, but I also sometimes just wipe them out with a damp cloth if they didn’t have very many “wet” or “sticky” things inside (or if I just want to re-pack their lunch right away!!)

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    Stacey Reply:

    This is what I do too… I actually wipe them out everyday and then run them in the dishwasher on Fridays. If they are real messy during week I wash them by hand. Super convenient ! We love our PlanetBox.

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    Andrea Reply:

    I’ve thought about only washing them on Fridays too — right now, it’s more of an every-other day washing, unless they get really sticky!

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  12. Sarah

    08/12/2019

    Does the juice from the fruit leak onto the other foods in this lunch box? I see that you don’t have a separate container for the watermelon and cantaloupe. This would really cut down on how many plastic bags we use.

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    Andrea Reply:

    no, we haven’t had an issue with leaking. However, we put yogurt, pickles and other VERY liquidy items in the sealed circle containers. That seems to work well for us! And yes, we save SO many plastic bags!

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