21 Ways to Plan Ahead for School Lunches

Last week’s “real food” school lunch tips were so popular I thought I’d stay on that bandwagon for at least one more week. Whether you want to spend one Sunday afternoon cooking up a storm or make a double-batch of something new every few days…planning ahead is key when it comes to making “real food” school lunches easy! Last year I struggled almost every night to come up with a balanced, fun, and somewhat creative lunch for my daughter. I now realize it’s because my options were rather limited. Aside from a few exceptions, I could only pull from our pantry or fridge and that got a little boring after a while. If by chance I had some leftover boiled whole-wheat noodles I could throw into the mix it was like my lucky day.

So rather than making last minute lunches again this year I am going to start planning ahead because I know this will make things so much easier in the long run. And even if “cooking up a storm” sounds like an undertaking, I am excited to finally have a plan. I don’t know about you, but once I have the next day’s lunch figured out and packed it’s such a big weight off my shoulders (and also one less thing standing in the way of me and my bedtime)!

Cook Weeks Ahead….

  1. Jar Storage (pictured): Eight-ounce jelly jars are the perfect size for freezing individual portions of soups, leftovers, and other one-dish meals. Pictured are five servings of homemade chicken noodle soup that will each fit perfectly into my daughter’s Thermos container. All I have to do is take one out to thaw the night before, heat it up in the morning, and then add it to her thermos before school.
    Ideas for jars: Chicken noodle soup with veggies, tomato bisque, chili, corn chowder, tortilla soup, jambalaya, peanut squash soup, matzo ball soup, spaghetti sauce, and gumbo.
    Hint: Don’t fill jars all the way because liquids expand when they freeze.
  2. Ice Cube Trays: Ice cube trays are a fabulous way to freeze extra-small portions of things like sauces. Whether you are preserving items that you made yourself or extending the shelf life of items that are store-bought, it is an easy little trick. Just transfer your frozen cubes into a big bag or container for storage and then pull out the right size portion the night before school. Simply let the cubes defrost in the lunchbox container overnight in the fridge and that’s all there is to it!
    Ideas for Ice Cube Trays: Applesauce (pictured), hummus, pesto, pizza sauce, bbq sauce
  3. Zip Lock Bags / Big Tupperware Containers: Big disposable bags sure are easy, but my freezer starts to become a mess if I don’t have at least some sturdy containers to keep things straight. And I’ve found that there are so many things I can make in advance, freeze between layers of wax paper, and take out to defrost the night before school.

    Plan Days Ahead…

  4. Boil eggs, noodles, rice, etc. to have ready and available in the fridge.
  5. Chop fruit and peel & chop veggies all at once so it is easy to grab and pack these items on a busy weeknight.
  6. Portion out whole-grain crackers, pretzels, homemade trail mix, or other snacks if this will help you save time during the week.
  7. Make at least one dipping sauce like tzatziki, a salad dressing or hummus to add to lunch boxes.
  8. Mix and freeze smoothies or yogurt in freezie pop holders so it is ready to go when you need it.
    Set Up Night Before…
  9. Get out any freezer items like plain homemade whole-wheat pizza crusts (pictured) that need to defrost in lunchbox overnight.
  10. Add fresh chopped fruit, veggies, whole-grain crackers and/or dipping sauce to lunchbox.
  11. Make a sandwich or wrap if you don’t think it will get soggy overnight.
  12. Fill water or milk cup and store in fridge.
  13. Set out lunch box, reusable napkin, silverware, etc. as well as a bowl for cereal or other breakfast items.
    Assemble Morning of…
  14. Reheat any soups, sauces, oatmeal or other items that need to be warmed up and added to Thermos.
  15. Get out frozen smoothie or yogurt pops, which will have all morning to defrost before lunchtime.
  16. Assemble and pack any other items that you didn’t make the night before like sandwiches.
  17. Add several ice packs to lunch box/bag to keep perishables cold.
    Extra Credit: School Lunch Supplies…
  18. Lunchbox: For school lunch storage I love using Ziploc’s divided containers (pictured). Not only are these a ridiculously inexpensive option, but unlike other similar lunchboxes these are air-tight. That means sauces and yogurts won’t leak into the other compartments, and if you add whole-grain crackers or pretzels the night before they won’t get stale. This one is also BPA free and helps you pack a no (or low) waste lunch!
  19. Lunch Sack/Box: The Ziploc containers fit along with a drink cup in rectangular insulated lunchboxes from Old Navy, Lands End and Target. They fit without a drink cup in Pottery Barn lunchboxes.
  20. Napkins & Silverware: Sure writing notes on disposable napkins is fun, but tie dying reusable white cotton napkins with your grade-schooler is even more fun and it’s also better for the environment.

    That’s what my daughter and I did together last year (pictured) and we now have 10 reusable napkins that I can pack for both her lunch and snack every day of the week. She designed them herself and the bright tie-dye colors hide stains so they will easily outlast yet another school year. I found that cocktail napkins are the perfect size for wiping little fingers and faces, and they’re also 100% cotton, which is recommended for tie dying. I also let my daughter pick out some super cheap reusable forks and spoons from Wal-Mart that we use in her lunchbox as well.

  21. Cups/Thermoses: We love the supply of insulated Thermos drink cups and containers at Target. They keep drinks cold and food warm for hours and there are lots of fun choices for both big and little ones!

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