Is Your Child Not Eating Lunch at School? Try These School Lunch Ideas
“No matter what I do, my daughter hardly eats anything from her lunch at school. How can I help make sure she’s getting the nutrition she needs?”
“I pack a variety of healthy options in my kids’ lunches, but all they seem to focus on are the foods their friends bring to school.”
“Mornings are so stressful for our family. How can I make lunch-packing easier so we can get out the door quicker?”
I hear ya, mama. Feeding kids can feel like a whole new ball game when it comes to packing lunches for school. You might feel like you’re stuck in a rut with kids school lunch ideas.
Or maybe you feel frustrated that you put time in effort into packing healthy school lunches that your kids may hardly touch.
If you can relate to any of these questions/frustrations with school lunches, you are not alone!
I can’t tell you how many countless times my kids have come home with practically their entire lunch untouched, leaving me wondering - “What on Mother Earth did you even eat for the entire time you were at school today?”
As parents, we care about our kids’ well-being, and I’m positive that you just want to ensure your kids are getting enough of the right foods to fuel their bodies and brains for school and beyond.
You’re Doing a Great Job, Mama
Let me be the first to say - you are doing a great job, mama. No matter what your child’s lunch looks like or if they choose not to eat any of the foods you’ve packed, you’re still a good mama.
If your child doesn’t go to school with a perfectly packed bento box or sandwiches cut out in the shapes of different animals, you’re still a good mama.
If your kiddos have only a handful of foods that you know they’ll actually eat from their lunch or prefer a snack to a turkey sandwich - you are still a good mama.
Sometimes (or heck, the majority of times), no matter the effort and creativity you might put into your child’s lunch, it might not seem to make much of a difference.
That doesn’t mean that you’re somehow failing or not doing the right things.
So let’s talk about a few tips to help you approach lunch-packing with ease and build your confidence in trusting how and what your child is choosing to eat (or not eat):
Kids Appetites and Preferences Will Fluctuate
Your child’s appetite might fluctuate, and that is OK.
There are MANY reasons that may be influencing your child’s appetite at school, many things that are essentially out of your control.
They might be distracted with other things or be slightly more anxious being in a new and different eating environment.
They might be more excited to play with their friends instead of eating or might be preoccupied with something related to school.
Whatever the reason might be, it’s important to keep in mind that appetite fluctuations are normal and should be expected.
You may also see shifts in the foods your child likes, prefers, and will actually eat.
Does your child like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without fail or request the same food time after time?
It’s common for kids to go through periods where they’re willing to eat a lot of the same preferred foods but then may suddenly reject them altogether. This is also normal and expected with kids.
It can be so frustrating to send lunch to school with your kid, unknowing of what they will actually eat, if anything, from the foods you have provided.
You might have the most creative and fun back to school lunch ideas, only to be met with resistance from your child.
When you’re aware that appetite fluctuations are normal, it can make it easier to deal with them.
So what is the best way to approach this when both your child’s appetite and food preferences can be variable?
Remember, it’s our job to provide our kids with food choices and it’s up to them to determine WHAT they’re going to eat from what you’ve provided, whether or not they want to eat and HOW much to eat from the food in their lunches.
By focusing on your job and staying in your lane, you can help take the pressure off you and your child when it comes to school lunches and what your kids may eat at school.
You can absolutely trust that once you’ve provided the food, the ball is now in their court, and they will eat what they need. Their changing appetites and food preferences are normal and not something you can anticipate or control.
You can also trust that even if they aren’t eating much at school, they will eventually balance out what they need over the course of time (through the day and week)
2. Offer a Favorite Food to “Anchor” Kids’ Lunches
Sometimes, a child might be overwhelmed by a variety of options, especially if they’re still learning to eat some of the different foods packed in their lunch.
This, in addition to a new eating environment at school, can sometimes may food feel a bit daunting.
When kids can recognize and see a familiar or preferred food in their lunch, this can help boost their confidence with food and increase their comfort around eating.
Pairing new and unfamiliar foods alongside foods that are preferred and recognizable can help “anchor” your child; in other words, familiar foods can be comforting and reassuring, especially in different environments outside the home.
Your child may also feel safer exploring other foods that they’re still learning to eat if they see them alongside their safe “anchor” foods.
On the flip side of things, you don’t want to cater to your child by only offering safe/preferred foods, as this can potentially backfire down the road.
Remember how we talked about your child’s preferences changing?
Sometimes the foods your child likes and will eat can drastically change overnight.
If you’re only ever offering your kids their preferred foods, the options of foods they may eat may become more limited if they don’t have opportunities to try and eat other foods.
Some kids feel more relaxed around friends and are more willing to explore other foods in their school settings, so you never know what they might be willing to try or even eat.
Keep in mind that even if your child is not actually eating certain foods (especially foods that are harder for them to eat), the exposure they are getting to those foods will help increase their comfortability around them.
As you’re thinking about what to pack in their lunch, consider offering a mix of both preferred foods alongside foods they are learning to eat.
If you are concerned about food waste, consider offering smaller portions of the foods your child is learning to eat.
3. Involve Kids and Create Easy School Lunches With This Simple Framework
While you, as the parent or caregiver, should be in charge of what you are offering your child and the school lunch menu, this doesn’t mean you can’t allow your child to be part of the process or involved with the lunch-packing.
There are many ways to expose a child to food to help increase their comfortability and confidence with eating a variety of foods.
Letting them help you in the kitchen, picking out lunch foods at the grocery store, or with packing their lunches can be some of these effective ways.
When kids can have a choice and options with their school lunch, it gives them a sense of autonomy and independence. It can also help them feel more excited about eating and packing their lunches.
Kids still need guidance (especially younger children), but you could give them a choice between a couple options for school lunch food.
For example, you can ask them, “Would you like to take snap peas or carrots in your lunch?”, or, “Do you want the pretzels or crackers?”.
Packing your child’s lunch with them can also help you identify if there are any deterring factors that might make certain foods challenging for them.
For example, maybe they dislike taking certain foods that are difficult to open? Or maybe they are embarrassed about the odor with other foods in their school lunch room?
Sometimes, allowing a child to be part of the lunch-packing process can help you better understand their unique preferences. Remember that you can take their preferences and unique needs into consideration without catering to them or being a short order cook.
Easy Lunch Ideas for School With a Framework
Having a framework can help you build kid friendly lunch ideas for school that simplify the process for you and your kids.
This can also help you create or put together a meal that offers a variety of foods and nutrients, which are important for growing kids.
A framework does NOT mean that your child’s lunch HAS to look a certain way or that you’re not doing a good job if you’re not checking off all the boxes.
As a mama of 5 myself, I’m definitely aware of how unexpected factors can influence what you are able to provide and pack in your child’s lunch.
Sometimes, groceries are running thin at the end of the week, and you just have to make do with what you have available.
Maybe finances are tight for your family, and this limits the choices and food options you can provide your child.
Maybe your child eats lunch at school because that is what’s most helpful for your family.
All of these situations are more than okay, and not following a framework doesn’t mean you’re not providing well for your child.
You can do the best you can with the resources you have available to you, and that is what makes good school lunches.
Your child’s school lunch doesn’t need to look beautiful to be something that is nutritious and enjoyable. You don’t have to make cut-out sandwiches and shapes out of your fruit to make a lunch that your child will like to eat.
So keep all these things in mind as you’re putting your child’s lunch together.
This framework can also be helpful if you’re needing school lunch ideas for picky eaters or if you need a way to create healthy lunches when you’re worried about picky eating.
Keep in mind that this framework is simply a guide and not intended to be rigid or prescriptive.
The goal is to help you simplify how you approach lunch packing. This framework can easily be modifiable for a child that is a picky eater, a child who might have food allergies, or children who might need more or less food, depending on their age and activity.
Please modify and adapt this framework accordingly in a way that best serves your individual children.
When you are deciding on WHAT to offer your kids and include in their lunches, you can keep these things in mind, but remember to adapt it to whatever works best for your family.
What to include in school lunches:
Produce (Aim for 2 servings):
This might look like 2 veggies, 1 fruit and 1 veggie, or 2 fruits.
Offering and exposing your child to fruits and vegetables can help increase their nutrient and fiber intake. This doesn’t always have to mean FRESH produce either.
Canned or frozen fruits/veggies can work as well. For kids that have a harder time with veggies, you can try offering small dips on the side, like ranch or hummus.
When food is more interactive, your child might have increased curiosity to trying the food.
Also keep in mind that fruits and vegetables have similar nutrient profiles. So if your child does better with fruit, it’s okay to offer 2 servings of fruit, especially if you’re in a season with your child where veggies are difficult for them to eat.
Repeated exposure to fruits and vegetables in a non-pressure environment can help increase your child’s comfortability around these foods.
Examples of produce ideas that you can include in your child’s lunch box are: Fresh fruits/vegetables, like strawberries, blueberries, bananas, grapes, apples, orange slices, pears, peaches, plums, melons, kiwis, carrots, snap peas, cucumbers, roasted zucchini or cherry tomatoes.
Other produce options can include freeze-dried fruits, frozen veggies (like frozen peas or corn, fruit cups or canned fruit, healthy fruit smoothie recipes for kids, dried fruit and 100% fruit leathers.
Carbohydrates (2 -3 servings, including 1 whole grain option):
Carbohydrates are our bodies preferred form of fuel and energy. They are also easily digestible and can offer a variety of vitamins and minerals for your child’s growing body.
Complex carbohydrates are higher in fiber and include foods like whole grains, peas/beans, and starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes.
If your child seems to primarily gravitate to carbohydrate rich foods, that is totally normal and OKAY. Kids need about 45-65% of their daily intake to come from carbohydrate-rich foods.
Offering a variety of simple and complex carbohydrates can help support your child’s nutrient and energy needs.
Complex carbohydrates break down slower in the body so can be helpful for providing your child with a steady stream of energy, which can help keep their blood sugars stable.
This might include things like whole grain chips or crackers, dry whole grain cereal, quinoa, oats, and whole grain breads and pasta.
Protein (1-2 servings):
Protein rich foods are important for building muscle, transporting nutrients, and other important functions. There are multiple ways your child can meet their protein needs over the course of the day, and much more easily than you might think.
Some kids have a harder time eating meat because of the texture and flavor, and that is okay.
There are a variety of protein options outside of meat that can help your child meet their nutritional needs. If you need vegetarian school lunch ideas or if your child might be having a harder time with meat proteins, you can still offer a variety of different protein-rich foods that can still fit this category.
Easy protein options can include anything from sliced deli meats like turkey and ham, nut and seed butters, hard boiled eggs, cheese, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, beans, edamame, legume-based pasta and roasted or puffed chickpeas (which make an easy vegan and gluten free option if needed).
For a delicious protein option that kids love to eat, check out this easy 5 ingredient strawberry yogurt bark recipe.
Healthy Fats (2 servings):
Adequate healthy fats in your child’s diet are critical for supporting brain development and function, nutrient absorption, and for promoting satiety.
Many foods that you might include in your child’s lunch will naturally contain some healthy fats, including dairy products, eggs, nuts/seeds, baked goods, and some proteins.
Using whole fat milk for yogurts, cottage cheese, and in smoothies can be a way to boost your child’s intake of nutrients, including healthy fats.
Serving dips that include healthy fats alongside fruits and veggies can be a great way to boost your child’s nutrition.
This might include things like hummus, guacamole (or even plain avocado), ranch, or a yogurt based dip.
When a dip is offered alongside a fruit or veggie, your child may be more likely to interact with it, which can peak their curiosity and comfortability around those foods.
The fats in dips also help your child’s body better absorb the nutrients that are in produce foods.
Building Healthy School Lunch Ideas
Using the above framework, here are a few samples of how you could build a your child’s lunch. Keep in mind that amounts and portions might vary based on your child’s age.
This framework can help you build school lunches for picky eaters, too.
Lunch Boxes Examples:
Example #1: Sunbutter (Fat, Protein) and Jam Sandwich on Whole Grain Bread (Whole Grain Carb), Baby Bell Cheese (Protein/Fat), Cucumber Slices (Produce #1), Strawberries (Produce #2), Veggie Straws (Carb)
Example #2: Greek Yogurt Parfait with whole fat greek yogurt (Protein/Fat), Blueberries (Produce #1), Granola (Carb), Snap Peas (Produce #2), Hummus (Carbs/Fat), Whole Grain Pita Chips (Whole Grain Carbs)
Example #3: Sliced salami and cheese (Protein/Fat), Whole Grain Crackers (Whole Grain Carbs), Whole Milk Yogurt Tube (Protein/Fat), Baby Carrots (Produce #1), Clementine (Produce #2), Ranch Dressing (Fat), Animal Crackers (Carb)
Example #4: Veggie and Cheese Egg Muffins (Protein/Fat, Produce #1), Watermelon cubes (Produce #2), Granola Bar (Carb), Snap Pea Crisps (Carb)
Example #5: Leftover Pasta Salad or Mac n’ Cheese (Carb/Protein/Fat), Grapes (Produce #1 - sliced for younger kids), Hard-boiled egg (Protein), Sliced bell peppers (Produce #2), Cream Cheese Dip for Veggies (Fat), Whole Grain Pretzels (Whole Grain Carb)
Use at least one of these food component slots to include a favorite or preferred food that your child likes.
For example, if your child loves goldfish cheese crackers or pretzels, these can be included as the carb component. Or if there are certain fruits your child really loves, you can include these to fit the produce piece.
Remember that packing these food components doesn’t mean that your child will necessarily eat everything, but it will help increase opportunities to get the nutrients they need. If you notice your child gravitating toward certain food groups, that is okay, too.
For example, you might notice your child eats mostly the carbohydrates in their lunches and little of everything else. As you continue offering variety in a neutral, non-pressure environment, your kids will naturally eat what they need for their bodies. It might look drastically different from one day to the next but it evens out over time.
4. Offer “Bookend” Meals Before and After the School Meals
Giving our kids opportunities to eat before and after school can help them better meet their nutritional needs over the course of the week, especially if they’re having a harder time eating at school.
Keep in mind that some kids might not eat very much at breakfast either, and that is okay.
Some kids may feel stressed or anxious in the morning rush to get to school or in anticipation of going to school, and this may dampen their natural appetites.
Remember that you can trust your child’s appetite.
Forcing or pressuring them to eat at breakfast might be done with the best intentions, but it can potentially backfire and create aversions and long-lasting rejections to the foods you are trying to get them to eat.
Instead, continue to offer a variety of foods, and let them decide if they want to eat, and how much they want to eat.
Adjusting your morning routines to allow for time to eat can help or perhaps allowing your child to eat once you get to school or at school can all be ways to help.
Your after-school snack may need to look more like a mini-meal to help your child feel satiated and content after a busy day at school. This is perfectly okay, too!
Many parents worry that if their kids eat too much after school, they may not want to eat dinner. If your regular dinner time is still a couple hours away after getting home from school, it’s completely appropriate and okay for your child to have a more substantial “mini-meal” to feel content after being at school okay.
The most important thing is that the opportunities for them to eat before and after school are there, which can help meet any nutritional gaps that might be missed at school.
5. Trust and Respect Their Appetite and Food Choices From What You Have Offered (Feed with Trust)
You may have read this here and there throughout this post, but truly, one of the most effective things you can do to help your kids with eating is to TRUST their bodies.
Trust their appetites and changing preferences. Trust the way they explore the foods you are offering them and the choices they make about the foods they eat.
Because the bottom line is that nobody knows your child’s body better than YOUR CHILD.
You are not living in his or her body, nor do you know how to best respond to all the internal/external changes that might be influencing your child’s appetite.
But guess what?
Your child DOES innately know how to best regulate their appetite, and you can absolutely trust that your child can be the BEST expert of his or her body.
I realize this is much easier said than done, because in doing this, it requires to let go of an element of control. But step back and realize that having any control over your child’s body may not have been yours in the first place.
It’s like thinking you can control the weather. You might wish and hope for a certain outcome for weather, like a bright sunny day, but the course of the weather is not influenced by your own hopes and desires.
When you can respect your child’s body autonomy and let go of any hidden agendas you may have, this will allow you to build a positive feeding relationship between you and your child.
Ultimately, this is what will allow them to be confident in their bodies and with food throughout their lives.
What might this look like on a practical day-to-day basis, especially when it comes to your child’s school lunch?
Here are some ideas that you can work with:
Minimize reactions or comments about your child’s lunch: Instead of reacting to how much food your child did or didn’t eat, try to direct the conversation to the day, how your child felt at school, interactions with friends, etc.
Use neutral language: If you’re worried about a picky eater, it’s easy to use polarizing language to describe food or how they eat. No matter what your child’s lunch might look like when they get home from school, it’s best to remain neutral about it. Try to avoid attaching the words “good” or “bad” to food or in describing how they ate that day.
Avoid using food as a bribe/reward: Using food as a bribe or reward can seem like an easy way to get your child to eat, but it teaches your child to listen to external rules instead of his or her body.
Sending your child off to school and feeling anxious about whether or not they get enough to eat during the day can bring out the mama bear in the best of us.
At the end of the day, we just want what’s best for our kids. I know you want to raise a healthy child who enjoys food and life. Know this - you are doing an incredible job, and your kiddos are blessed to have a mama who cares so much about them.
Trust yourself. Trust your child to eat. Remember, you’ve got this, mama.
As you navigate another school year with your child, I hope these tips help you simplify kids lunches for school.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or need some support with feeding your child or building a positive feeding relationship with your kids, please reach out to me today.
I’d love to hear your story and learn how I can help you feel more confident in feeding your family so you can enjoy motherhood.