We’ve talked about so many lunch ideas, from 27 Bento Box Ideas for Kids and School to How to Keep Lunch Warm or Cold (and over 36 hot and cold lunch ideas). Today, let’s talk about one way to simplify lunch with school lunch meal prep ideas! These ideas will save you time during the week. Stash these 8 foods away in the freezer and pull them out for the lunchbox.
Getting back into the groove of packing lunches and feeding the family a nourishing breakfast, along with all the other responsibilities of making it out the door on time, can be stressful. But it doesn’t have to be. The key to reducing the stress that’s often associated with school mornings is to intentionally create routines. One of the routines we’ve developed in our life is food prep. There are two ways to prep food in advance for school lunch.
2 Ways to Meal Prep School Lunch in Advance
1. Set Aside Time on the Weekend
On Sunday afternoon, we set aside a couple of hours to prep a few food components that may be used to simplify meals that week. For example:
- peel and cut veggies that work great for lunch, snacks, and may also be used to make dinners.
- make a breakfast component that may be used multiple times throughout the week. Maybe this is muffins, pancakes, hard “boiled” eggs, or omelet cups.
- make a salad dressing or dip.
- roast a whole chicken to use throughout the week for sandwiches, wraps, chicken salad, or to make soup.
This routine significantly reduces our need to think about food throughout the week, along with reducing the amount of time we spend in the kitchen. If you want to see another example of food prep, check out this post.
2. Cook Once, Eat Twice
Another way to incorporate food prep into your life, as you prepare for school, is to “cook once, eat twice.” Intentionally prepare extra food at meal time with the goal of freezing the extras for busy school days. Maybe you’re making pancakes this weekend. Double the recipe and store the extra in the freezer for a future school morning. Or, make granola during a food prep time, and intentionally double the recipe and store the extra in the freezer.
Whichever food prep method works best for you (I personally like to use both methods), the goal is to be intentional about how we think about packing lunch. Making food in advance, and freezing that food for a future lunch, is a great way to do this. Today, we’re going to chat about 7 foods that you can focus on making in advance and freezing. The foods shared, below, not only work for packing school lunch but also an adult lunch.
8 Lunch Foods You Can Make Ahead and Freeze
Soup is easy to make, super easy to prep (particularly if using the Instant Pot), satisfying to children, and super nourishing. Some of our favorite soups to make and pack in the lunchbox, include:
If your children are fighting off a cold, or there are “bugs” being shared at school, this roasted garlic soup will boost their immune system. It really does have a kid-friendly, sweet taste.
- How to Make Soup In Advance: Plan on making a large batch of just one soup every weekend. Plan the soup for lunch or dinner, and then store away the leftovers for a quick lunchbox addition. Alternatively, you can prepare a batch of soup during a food prep time and store all the soup in the freezer.
- How to Freeze Soup: To freeze soup in advance, use freezer-safe, air-tight glass jars (like mason jars), or freezer-safe bags (for space-friendly storage). When using mason jars, choose wide-mouth jars that are freezer-safe. Always make sure the soup is fully cool before adding to your storage container. Once cool, add the soup, leaving at least an inch of space at the top of the container for expansion. Place the lid on the container, and store in the freezer. Store for up to 2-3 months.
- How to Defrost and Reheat Soup: Defrost soup overnight in the fridge, and then add the defrosted soup to a saucepan and reheat over medium heat. Or, reheat in the microwave. Add the soup to a thermos container for lunch (a stand-alone thermos or thermos bento box).
From the freezer to lunchbox, muffins are the perfect, portable lunch add-on. I often add some grass-fed butter (like Kerrygold) or coconut butter (like this) for more nourishing fats.
Muffins can take the place of sandwiches, and go well with soup or salad. Most muffins also serve double duty, working as a breakfast option and lunchbox option. Here are some of our favorite muffins to make in advance and serve in the lunchbox:
- How to Make Muffins in Advance: Make muffins for breakfast on Saturday or Sunday morning, and double the recipe. Or, make muffins during a dedicated food prep time, doubling the recipe, using some for breakfast and lunch that week and storing the extras away in the freezer.
- Most muffin recipes may be made into mini muffins (using a mini muffin pan). I find this size is ideal for the lunchbox and also school snacks. When making mini muffins, reduce the baking time to 10-15 minutes total.
- How to Freeze Muffins: Once fully cool, store extra muffins in a freezer-safe, air-tight container or bag. Store for up to 3 months.
- How to Defrost and Reheat Muffins: Defrost muffins in the fridge overnight, and then warm in the oven. Or, my preferred method, take muffins directly from the freezer and place in the lunchbox. By lunchtime, the muffins will have fully defrosted.
I know the veggie part of the lunchbox might not be the most popular section, but hear me out on this. Veggies need fat in order to digest properly, and for the body to absorb the vitamins, so why not make them taste amazing with some kid-friendly, friendly-fat dips.
Store-bought dips may be easy, but, for many, the toxic, rancid oils sort of cancel out any of the healthy benefits of the veggies.
Here are some of our favorite dips:
- beet hummus
- pesto (may also be combined with pasta, or works as a yummy dip for pita bread or veggies)
- How to Make Dips in Advance: Make a dip of choice during a food prep time and double the recipe, so you can store extra in the freezer for a future lunch or snack. This will save you time in the future and also guarantee that you always have dip on hand for the lunchbox.
- How to Freeze Dips: Freeze extra dip in ice cube trays (silicone is easiest), then dump the frozen cubes into a labeled freezer bag or freezer-safe container. Store in the freezer for up to 3-4 months.
- How to Defrost Dips: Dips don’t require reheating, so you’ll simply need to defrost a frozen dip “cube” when you need one. This does require some prior thought, as it’s best to defrost a frozen dip “cube” in the fridge overnight. Or, you can leave the dip out on the counter for a few hours to defrost. Then, add the dip to the lunchbox (preferably in a dipper container).
- For the veggies, cut veggie sticks in advance and store in the fridge to use with a dip of choice. This way the veggies are ready-to-go when you need them. For carrots and celery, the water bath method works best for storage. For bell peppers, cucumber sticks, and other veggies, it’s best to store the slices or sticks in an air-tight container for up to 3 days.
Quesadillas are one of my favorite foods to prep in advance for the lunchbox. You can make a bunch of quesadillas at one time and freeze the quesadillas for later. The kids never seem to tire of this lunchbox option.
- How to Make Quesadillas in Advance: To make basic quesadillas, add shredded cheese to one side of a tortilla, fold the tortilla over the cheese, and then cook the quesadilla in a skillet, or a griddle for multiple quesadillas at one time. Serve quesadillas in the lunchbox with guacamole (or just mashed up avocado with lemon juice and salt), fermented salsa, sour cream, or lettuce.
- How to Freeze Quesadillas in Advance: Allow the quesadillas to cool, then place the quesadillas on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Freeze the quesadillas for an hour, then cut the quesadillas into smaller pieces (thirds) and store in a freezer-safe bag or air-tight container. Store for up to 2-3 months.
- How to Defrost and Reheat Quesadillas: Reheat the quesadillas in a skillet with a small amount of oil, if needed, or the microwave. Or, my preferred method, take a few quesadillas directly from the freezer and place in the lunchbox. By lunchtime, the quesadillas will have fully defrosted.
5. Nut and Seed Bites or Granola Bars
Nut and seed bites or granola bars are both fun options to add to the lunchbox. Because of the nourishing power-packed ingredients, these aren’t just a glorified candy bar like most granola bars. A few of our favorites, include:
- How to Make Nut and Seed Bites or Granola Bars in Advance: Make granola bars or bites during a dedicated food prep time and store in the freezer. I like to cut granola bars into small, bite-sized pieces.
- How to Freeze Nut and Seed Bites or Granola Bars in Advance: Store the bites or granola bars in a freezer-safe, air-tight container for up to 2 months.
- How to Defrost Nut and Seed Bites or Granola: There’s no need to defrost or reheat nut and seed bites or granola bars. Simply remove as many as desired and place in the lunchbox. Remember to pack an ice pack.
6. Shredded Chicken
If I had to choose just one food to prep in advance, it would be a whole chicken. Because with one chicken, you can…
- make chicken salad
- have meat for wraps and sandwiches and salads
- make homemade soup with the meat and bones (broth)
- pair with cheese and crackers for a homemade “lunchable”
- mix the shredded chicken with rice and a small amount of butter and frozen peas
- How to Make Shredded Chicken in Advance: Plan to serve chicken for dinner on the weekend (recipe links above) and make two chickens at a time. Serve one chicken for dinner and shred the meat on the second chicken for future lunches, storing some away in the freezer (if desired).
- How to Freeze Shredded Chicken in Advance: Once the chicken is cooked and fully cool, shred up the chicken and store it away in the freezer in 2-3 cup portions for up to 3-4 months. You can use a freezer-safe bag or air-tight container to do this. If you plan to use the meat that week, you don’t need to freeze the extra. But I find having extra meat in the freezer is always nice to pull from, when needed. This is also decreases the need to regularly cook chicken, if your family easily tires of this meal.
- How to Defrost and Reheat Shredded Chicken: To defrost chicken, place the amount of chicken needed in the fridge overnight. Serve at room temperature or reheat in a skillet (with butter or oil) or in the microwave.
Save Time with a Rotisserie Chicken: If I’m not able to roast a chicken, due to a busy season, a rotisserie chicken is my next choice. There are several ways to go about cooking a whole chicken. The spatchcock chicken method is my favorite, followed by the Instant Pot method. Once you cook a whole chicken, you can also make homemade broth using the bones. Store homemade broth in the freezer for up to 6 months.
7. Breakfast or Dinner Leftovers
Another way to incorporate food prep into your life is to “cook once, eat twice.” Intentionally prepare extra food at meal time with the goal of freezing the extras for busy school days. Not only are breakfast and dinner leftovers nice for busy mornings or evenings, they’re also great for prep-ahead lunch meals.
For example: take your guacamole or beans from taco night and store away portions in the freezer. You can add them to the lunchbox with tortilla chips, or roll up the beans with a little cheese for freezer bean burritos. Cook extra rice or quinoa with dinner to stash away in the freezer. Soup, as mentioned before, is a great leftover to stash away in the freezer for a future dinner or lunch. Pancakes and waffles, from a weekend breakfast, are another example of a meal that may be doubled with the leftovers going in the freezer for a future breakfast or lunch. Pizza is also a fun food to double and freeze for a future lunch.
- How to Make Leftovers in Advance: Start the planning process by doubling the portion of a particular meal (breakfast or dinner). It takes planning to change your thought process, but it’s so worth making a larger portion.
- How to Freeze Leftovers in Advance: How you freeze the leftovers will depend on the actual food. In the Lunch Kit, you’ll learn how to freeze a large variety of foods, including various leftovers. The best way to freeze food is in a freezer-safe bag or air-tight container.
- How to Defrost and Reheat Leftovers: As a general rule, the best way to reheat food is to use the same method as the food was originally prepared (baked, sautéed, etc.).
Some sandwiches may be prepped in advance. Peanut butter and jam (or sunflower butter and jam), cream cheese and jam, ham and cheese, or turkey and cheese sandwiches may be prepped in bulk and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Individually wrap sandwiches in plastic wrap or parchment paper, then place in a gallon-size freezer bag. Defrost in the fridge and place in the lunchbox.
Or, if you don’t want to freeze the sandwiches, prep a bunch of sandwiches on Sunday afternoon for the upcoming week. The sandwiches will keep in the fridge for up to 4-5 days. Avoid using mayo and mustard until you pack the lunch to avoid soggy bread.
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