We could all use inspiration to keep going with school lunch, so today let’s talk about 8 hot lunch ideas for school. While these hot lunch ideas work for school, most of the ideas also work for adult/office/work lunches as well. So if you don’t have kids in school, don’t click away. These ideas are for everyone!

The great thing about hot lunch for school is that most options can be made for dinner or lunch one day and then reheated and repurposed for the lunchbox.

Please don’t think I’m asking you to make any of the ideas on today’s list in the morning just for the lunchbox. Instead, think about how you can make something like chicken and rice or soup for dinner one night and then repurpose that food for lunch the next day or over the next few days. That’s what we call “cooking once, eating twice” around here. It’s a great way to work smarter, not harder when it comes to school lunch.

Making food for a hot lunch
One of the best ways to make hot lunch is to use leftovers from dinner.

How to Pack Hot Food in the Lunchbox

First, consider if the food being packed actually needs to be warm or hot when served.

Roasted vegetables, quesadillas, grilled cheese, fried rice, and meatballs are usually served in a warm/hot state, but they may also be served at room temperature (and an ice pack added to the lunch bag for safety).

There are some foods that just taste best when served warm/hot.

If you plan to serve these foods (soup and certain leftovers like stir-fry), I recommend purchasing a thermos. Using a thermos is the only way to keep food warm until lunchtime.

How to Keep Food Hot in a Thermos

To keep food warm in a thermos…

  • Fill the thermos with hot water. I use water that’s been heated in a kettle (this is the kettle we use for coffee, tea, and hot water for a thermos). Hot water from the sink also works.
  • Let the hot water sit in the thermos with the lid on for about 5 minutes while you warm up the food.
  • Then, dump the hot water out and fill up the thermos with the warmed food. Place the lid on the thermos.

When packing a thermos in a lunch bag, don’t add an ice pack. The ice pack can interfere with keeping the food warm. In this case, think about packing additional components that may be served at room temperature. I’ll share more about how I pack a thermos with cold food in the next section.

Learn how to keep lunch warm or cold in the lunchbox with over 37 lunch ideas!


  • LUNCHBOTS 8-OUNCE THERMOS – This thermos holds up to 8 ounces of food; the perfect size for preschool-elementary school children. It will keep food warm for up to 6 hours or cold for up to 12 hours (great for yogurt, chocolate overnight oats, or a cold Italian pasta salad). Cost: $25
  • LUNCHBOTS 16-OUNCE THERMOS – For a middle schooler and up (including adults), use a large thermos. 16 ounces is the perfect size for a larger appetite. The LunchBots thermos will keep food warm for up to 6 hours or cold for up to 16 hours. Cost: $30
  • 16-OUNCE THERMOS WITH SPOON – If you want a thermos with a built-in spoon that folds up into the thermos, this 16-ounce thermos from DaCool is my favorite. The lid of the thermos may also be used as a small bowl (pictured below). Cost: $22
  • OMIELIFE BENTO BOX WITH BUILT-IN THERMOS – A plastic bento box for young children (preschool-3rd grade) with a built-in, removal thermos that’s easy to open. My kids loved this box when they were little and it was a great way to pack hot lunches without purchasing a separate thermos. This lunchbox is leak-proof and the thermos holds up to 8.5 ounces of food. Cost: $45
Thermos for hot school lunch
Use a thermos to keep food hot until lunch. This is the Omielife Bento Thermos Box, perfect for younger kids.

When sending a thermos to school, I like to use the LunchBots Trio Box to send additional foods (crackers, fruit, cheese, sandwich, etc.) and the LunchBots lunch bag, which fits the box in the bottom zipper compartment (along with an ice pack) and the thermos in the top half.

22 Hot Lunch Ideas

8 Ideas With Pictures

Here are 8 delicious foods to pack for hot lunch with pictures.

The best part is these foods may be prepped in advance, for dinner (or breakfast, like oatmeal) and then reheated later for lunch! Add the food to a thermos and pack in the lunchbox.

Learn how to keep food warm or cold in the lunchbox for hours in this post.

Macaroni and Cheese for hot school lunch
Homemade macaroni and cheese with rolled up ham, cantaloupe balls, and leftover roasted broccoli

1. Mac and Cheese

Homemade mac and cheese can be made for dinner or lunch over the weekend, then reheated and served for lunch. Adding a splash of milk during the reheating will prevent the mac and cheese from drying out.

oatmeal for school lunch
Warm oatmeal with cantaloupe and grapes, snap peas, and leftover bacon

2. Oatmeal

Oatmeal is one of the 27 easy & healthy kids breakfast ideas that I keep on rotation during the school year. Make a big pot of oatmeal for breakfast one morning and save the extra in the fridge to reheat for lunch. Reheat oatmeal on the stove-top or the microwave with a splash of milk or water to help the consistency. Add berries, nut or seed butter, butter (for a healthy fat), maple syrup, honey, and/or cinnamon once in the thermos. Try this stove-top recipe.

Alternatively, pack cold oatmeal in a thermos to keep it cold until lunch, like overnight oats or chocolate peanut butter overnight oats.

chicken and rice for hot school lunch
Instant Pot chicken and yellow rice, plantain chips with hummus, pineapple, red pepper slices

3. Chicken and Rice

One of my favorite weeknight meals. This easy meal is made in the Instant Pot, taking less than 30 minutes from start to finish. It’s also a favorite with the kids, making it the perfect meal to cook for dinner and reheat for a hot school lunch.

Hot Lunch Ideas for School
Chicken stir fry with rice in a glass meal prep container (perfect for older kids who can microwave a meal).

4. Stir-Fry

Another dinner-to-lunch meal. When it comes to school lunch, I like to mix warm stir-fry with the rice in a thermos. Warm up the stir-fry in the microwave or a saucepan. For rice, it helps to add a splash of water when reheating to prevent it from drying out. Here are a few favorite dinner recipes that are perfect for a reheated hot school lunch.

Meal Prep Tip: I love to cook rice in the Instant Pot on the weekend and use the rice to serve as a side dish, make easy stuffed peppers for dinner, fried rice, with sheet pan beef and broccoli, taco bowls (with ground beef taco meat), or stir fry. For school lunch, reheat the cooked rice in the microwave or stove-top, add it to a thermos, then add the reheated stir fry to the thermos.

5. Fried Rice

Fried rice is always a kid-favorite in our home and also a great adult lunch. Make this meal for dinner and save the leftovers for a hot school lunch, or make fried rice on the weekend for a prep-ahead lunch option throughout the week. Here are three delicious fried rice recipes that pack perfectly for a hot school lunch:

Soup for hot school lunch
Instant Pot chicken noodle soup, apple slices, sourdough bread with butter on side

6. Soup

Soup is the ultimate “cook once, eat twice” meal. Make a large pot of soup for dinner or on the weekend and serve the leftovers for a hot lunch. A few favorite soups that you can easily make in advance for the lunchbox:

meatballs and spaghetti for hot school lunch
Spaghetti and meatballs (meatballs cut up into small pieces), small salad, homemade ranch dressing, crackers and cheese

7. Spaghetti and Meatballs

Spaghetti and meatballs can be made in the Instant Pot or oven. Either way, this is a great dinner-to-hot lunch meal. Serve the meatballs whole or crumble them with the spaghetti and sauce in the thermos. These recipes are perfect for dinner and then reheat for a hot school lunch.

hot dogs for hot school lunch
Applegate hot dogs with ketchup, potato chips, fruit salad (strawberries and peaches), cucumber sticks

8. Hot Dogs

Hot dogs are a super easy hot lunch. Keep a pack of grass-fed hot dogs in the freezer and you’ll always have a main lunch option ready to go. Warm the hot dogs in a skillet or the microwave, then place the dogs in the thermos whole or cut in pieces. Serve the hot dogs with a side of ketchup in a dipper container. I love Applegate and Fork in the Road brands.

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