How To Pack Healthy Lunchboxes For Back to School

It’s that time – back to school!

This year things are going to look a little bit different, with masks, sanitizer, and cohorts thrown into the mix! Parents are feeling more anxious than usual as they send their kiddos back to school, not to mention packing school lunches (which can be a daunting task in and of itself!). This year I have three kids in school as well as in before and after school care. That means packing three school lunches, and enough snacks to get them through the day, five days a week. Gulp.


Nutrition At School

As a pediatric registered dietitian, I know more than anyone the importance of good school nutrition. It’s not only essential for keeping their energy levels up, but also to help them focus and concentrate during the day, and to strengthen their immune systems.


But let’s get real… I’m also a busy mom of three who doesn’t have time to make Pinterest-y, stunning, time-consuming lunches, especially this year. To simplify lunch-packing, I always turn to my “school lunch rule of five.” What does this mean? Simply, it means including two protein-rich choices, at least one a fruit, at least one veggie, and at least one whole grain).


Including these five items in my kids’ lunches provides balance and variety—kids tend to eat more when there’s more to choose from--and it means that there’s a nice balance of nutrients too! You can take it one step further and get your kids to help pack their lunches – the more kids are involved, the more likely they are to actually eat it! 


The School Lunch Rule of 5:

1) Fruit (pack at least one)


  • Piece of fresh fruit
  • Berries
  • Fresh, frozen, or unsweetened canned fruit
  • Unsweetened fruit and veggie purees or pouches
  • Unsweetened dried fruit


2) Vegetable (pack at least one)


  • Leafy greens (ie. leftover salad)
  • Raw veggies cut up
  • Cooked vegetables
  • Homemade salsa or bruschetta
  • Vegetable soup
  • Tomato sauce


3) Protein-rich foods (pack two)


  • Leftover meat, poultry, fish
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Milk-based beverage (ie. Shakers drinks)
  • Yogurt or Greek yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Cheese
  • Beans/Lentils
  • Seeds or seed butter


4) Whole grain or starchy vegetable (include at least one)


  • Whole grain bread, tortilla or pita
  • Homemade muffin or loaf made with whole-grain flour or oats
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole grain pancake, waffle or French toast
  • Leftover brown rice, quinoa, barley
  • Corn
  • Potatoes/sweet potatoes/yams


Here are some lunchbox ideas to get you started:

  • Leftover spaghetti and meat sauce + raw snap peas + organic fruit and veggie pouch + whole grain granola bar
  • Leftover lentil soup + whole grain crackers + fresh blueberries + carrot sticks + hummus + Greek yogurt
  • Leftover French toast + Greek yogurt for dip (Greek yogurt + seed butter + chia seeds or hemp hearts + cinnamon) + sliced peach + cucumber strips + dip
  • Whole-grain pancakes + Greek yogurt + berries + little bit of maple syrup + carrot sticks + hummus
  • Homemade whole-grain muffin (here’s a great recipe!) + leftover breakfast sausage + banana + yogurt or cottage cheese + assorted raw veggies
  • Build-your-own Greek yogurt parfait (Greek yogurt + whole grain granola + sunflower or pumpkin seeds + berries) + organic fruit and veggie pouch + homemade granola bar.
  • Whole grain crackers + cheddar cheese cubes + length-wise sliced grapes, raspberries + snap peas + dip + roasted chickpeas + protein/energy ball (here’s a great recipe!)
  • Leftover hamburger/turkey burger cut into bite-sized pieces + ketchup to dip + homemade yam fries + apple slices with cinnamon sprinkled on top + baby tomatoes + homemade or whole grain granola bar
  • Sliced hardboiled egg + homemade granola bar(s) + yogurt to dip + watermelon sticks + carrots + cucumber + dip
  • Tortilla “sushi” (whole grain tortilla with either seed butter or cream cheese + fruit, wrapped up and sliced into bite-sized pieces) + raw veggie strips + hummus + apple slices + Greek yogurt to dip
  • Mini whole grain pitas + cheese and leftover meat or chicken + bell pepper strips + hummus + pear slices + whole grain granola bar
  • Tuna salad or egg salad sandwich on whole-grain bread + fruit salad + snap peas + homemade protein/energy ball
  • Wafflewich (whole grain waffles + seed butter + banana slices) + homemade veggie soup + melon cubes + cottage cheese or yogurt


5) Bonus: Nutritious snacks!

Yes, a healthy balanced lunch is essential, but we all know how important nutritious snacks are too – and let’s be honest, snacks are always the first to be eaten! Supplementing your child’s lunch with nutritious and yummy snacks will help fill nutritional gaps. My advice? Focus on staying power. This means ensuring that each snack contains protein and/or fibre, two nutrients that help to keep kids’ tummies fuller longer and sustain their energy levels throughout the day. As a dietitian, I see so many school snacks that are void of nutrition and lack staying power. Think fruit snacks or fruit leathers, sugary granola bars, bear paws, store-bought cookies etc. These might be appealing to kids, but in all honesty, they’re treats, not snacks. 


Here’s a list of some of our go-to school snacks: 

  • Fresh fruit paired with a cheese string
  • A whole grain, high fibre granola bar (my favourite is making them from scratch using this granola bar mix)
  • Dried chickpeas + berries
  • Homemade energy balls
  • Homemade trail mix including unsweetened dried fruit, whole-grain cereal, and seeds
  • Unsweetened fruit/veggie sauce or pouch
  • Whole-grain crackers with cheese slices or hummus
  • Greek yogurt
  • Whole grain muffin
  • Veggie strips and hummus


What you’ll need for a simple, safe, and nutritious school lunch:

  • Leak-proof lunch kit with compartments (or containers for different foods)
  • Washable lunch bag or kit, preferably insulated
  • Ice packs
  • Thermos
  • Cutlery
  • A note pad to write sweet lunchbox notes to your little ones
  • Your list of lunch ideas (and a well-stocked fridge and pantry)


Food Safety Tips:

  • To avoid bacteria growth, get your child to empty and wash out lunchbox and kit as soon as they come home from school.
  • Pack lunch the night before, and store in the fridge overnight so that it’s already cold when you pack it
  • Always pack an ice pack to keep foods cold until ready to be eaten
  • For hot foods, pour boiling hot water into thermos and let sit for a couple of minutes. Heat hot food. Pour boiling water out of thermos and then transfer hot food. Seal.


Hopefully, these ideas help to ease the back-to-school transition for you and your little ones, and help you to back into the routine of packing lunches! If you’re interested in making your own super easy, school-safe bars, bites, muffins (among other delicious recipes), make sure that you purchase Made with Local’s brand new Back to Basics Bundle, which includes six packages of their granola bar mix AND a recipe book with lots of recipes using the mixes!