Today, we’re going to talk about 6 school lunch food prep ideas that will save you time and make school lunch easier and less stressful. That’s just what we all need because as we know, school days can be stressful. There’s…
- the scramble to feed the family
- the need to come up with a school lunch idea and figure out how to make that happen
- the time crunch to get ready
- and the flying out the door to make it to school on time
For years, I felt like I was spinning all my wheels, trying to make healthy meals work for myself and my family AND keep up with life itself. The struggle was real and exhausting.
So what changed?
- I got serious about planning out lunches (and breakfast and dinner)
- I got serious about food prep.
And you know what happened?
- The fatigue of having to constantly come up with new meal ideas vanished.
- Meals are one less thing we stress about now, because we have a plan for the week and food components prepped in advance.
- We have systems and routines that automate school lunch and make breakfast and dinner easier for our busy family.
I was thinking about this the other day while packing lunches. I was thinking about how much easier and simpler our life is with systems in place, like prepping food in advance for the lunchbox.
How to Prep Food for School Lunch?
When I mention food prep, I think most people envision spending hours each week on a Sunday afternoon preparing “all the meals.” But this isn’t what I’m talking about. What I am talking about is preparing just a few components in advance in order to simplify school lunch.
By doing this, you eliminate…
- the need to rely on ultra-processed food (which is a quick-fix solution for not thinking about and preparing food before you need it)
- the stress of having to make everything in the moment
- spending excess amounts of time in the kitchen just to make one lunch
There are a few ways to prep food in advance for school lunch…
- Cook Once, Eat Twice: This is my go-to way to prep. Basically, when making a meal think about doubling the recipe so you end up with leftovers. These leftovers are perfect for making future lunches (or breakfasts or dinners).
- All at Once: With this approach, you’ll spend a few hours on one particular day preparing food based on your plan for the upcoming week. Think about the most important foods you can prepare now to simplify building future meals, including school lunch.
- A Little at a Time: This breaks food prep into small, bite-sized pieces. On Sunday, you may peel and cut carrots for lunches and snacking that week, on Monday you may make ranch dip for the rest of the week, and so on. This approach also pairs well with “cook once, eat twice.”
The idea is that food prep isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. You have to make food prep work for your life! And this looks different for every family. The goal is to simplify school lunch by preparing food before you need it. How you go about this is completely up to you!
6 School Lunch Food Prep Ideas
Veggies and Fruits
One of my favorite foods to prep in advance is veggies and fruits. Peel and cut carrots, slice celery, slice cucumbers or bell peppers, wash berries and grapes, cut watermelon and other melons into chunks. Not everything can be prepped in advance, but many things can. For example, carrots and celery will keep when stored in water for up to 2 weeks (just change the water every few days). Cucumbers can be sliced up to 3 days in advance and stored in a container in the fridge and the same goes for bell peppers. All of these veggies are now available for the lunchbox, snacking, to make a salad, or to cut smaller and use for an evening soup which then can be used in the lunchbox.
I also love to roast veggies in advance, like sweet potatoes, zucchini, cauliflower, or butternut squash and add the roasted veggies to the kids lunch (and mine) at room temperature.
Many fruits, as mentioned, may be washed or cut in advance and stored in storage containers in the fridge for up to 5-7 days, making them easy to grab and use for lunch or snacking. I share my favorite storage containers and how I store everything in this post.
Dips and Dressings
Dips are such a great way to add a fun and healthy component to the lunchbox. We rotate between homemade ranch and hummus frequently in our home. The kids also love spreadable goat cheese as a dip for veggies–I know, an interesting choice. For homemade dips, prep them in advance to save time and then store them in the fridge for up to 5 days. This is a great grab-from-the-fridge option for the lunchbox and also snacking.
I also love to prep a homemade salad dressing in advance and use it throughout the week for dinner, my lunch (which is usually a big salad with some roasted veg, protein, etc.), and either a main or side salad for the kids’ lunchbox. This is the salad dressing you’ll usually find in my fridge.
If I had to choose just one thing to prep in advance it would be a whole chicken. A whole chicken is a food that keeps on giving.
Cook a whole chicken in advance, shred the meat, and use that meat to make soup, chicken salad, as lunchmeat in a sandwich, as the protein in fried rice, in enchiladas for dinner, or in a wrap. <–Just a few ways to use a whole chicken. After removing the meat from the bones, make a stock/broth with the bones for a future soup.
Now that you have stock/broth sitting in your fridge or freezer (from cooking a whole chicken), make a nourishing soup for dinner and also to serve in a thermos for lunch. My kids love chicken noodle soup, tomato soup (despite claiming they don’t like tomatoes), and lentil soup. Soup is the ultimate cook once, eat twice meal. Make a pot of soup for dinner and use the leftover soup later in the week for lunches or freeze the extra for the future.
Pair soup with a muffin, crackers, room-temperature quesadillas or grilled cheese, a sandwich, a slice of bread or biscuit, or some cheese cubes.
Make muffins on the weekend for breakfast and double the recipe for future breakfasts, snacks, and the lunchbox. My kids love blueberry muffins (gluten-free or einkorn) and also banana muffins (sourdough or einkorn).
As fall approaches, I’ll start making pumpkin muffins as well. Store muffins in the fridge or in the freezer for an easy make-ahead lunchbox option. Another idea is to make savory muffins, like pizza muffins.
Nut or Seed Bites
Think Lara Bars but in ball form. The balls couldn’t be an easier to make and they will keep in the fridge for about 2 weeks or in the freezer for a couple of months. If your kids attend a nut-free school, make the bites with seeds. These are a great snack as well.