Health & Fitness

School Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters, Prolific Primal Eaters, and All Kids in Between

mother making back to school lunches for kidsThe back-to-school season is always bittersweet. Emotionally, it’s a tug-of-war between relief that the kids are returning to school, anguish that the summer is already over, and dread at the thought of having to get the kids out of the house on time every morning.

Primal parents often feel torn on the issue of school lunches. On the one hand, we generally like to control what our kids eat. On the other hand, packing lunch every morning is a grind. By my count, I’ve packed somewhere north of 2,500 lunches since my eldest started school, and I only have two kids who aren’t even in high school yet. (I just calculated this for the first time. That number makes me want to go take a nap!)

At this point, I have a pretty good system in place. Most days, my kids’ lunches consist of four elements:

  • Protein – some sort of “main dish”
  • Vegetable
  • Fruit
  • Snack – something extra for them to nosh on

This template makes it easy to throw together quick, healthy, balanced lunches.

What to Pack for School Lunches

Below you’ll find examples of what you could pack for each category, as well as some gear recommendations and tips. What I like about this modular system is that it works for kids of all ages and different dietary preferences. Lunches can be simple or more elaborate, and it’s adaptable to different budget levels. Picky eaters still get some variety if they like even a couple items from each category that you can mix and match. If your kids are voracious eaters, you can double down on the protein and add an extra snack item. This strategy also works whether or not your kids eat strictly Primal.

Protein: The Lunch Box Centerpiece

While items like lunchmeat and beef jerky are lunch box staples, don’t limit yourself to the obvious fare. Anything that they willingly eat at home is fair game for lunch boxes.

Options include:

  • Lunchmeat
  • Salami
  • Beef jerky, beef sticks
  • Cooked chicken, steak, etc. (eaten cold)
  • Chicken salad
  • Cooked salmon, smoked salmon
  • Hard-boiled eggs, egg salad
  • Cooked bacon
  • Cheese slices or cubes
  • String cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Greek yogurt
  • Protein smoothie (see the Gear section below)
  • Tuna, tuna salad
  • Sardines, anchovies (hey, some kids eat them!)
  • Leftover stews, chili, soups (heated and packed in a Thermos)

Serving suggestions:

  • Sandwich on your bread of choice
  • Wrapped in lettuce or a grain-free tortilla
  • On top of a salad
  • Greek yogurt parfaits with toppings like berries, nuts, seeds, dried coconut, cacao nibs, or granola (tip: pack the toppings separately and let the kids assemble at school)
  • Cottage cheese with fruit (berries, melon, pineapple) or savory toppings (avocado, cherry tomatoes)

Crunchy and Colorful Vegetables for Kids

If your kid will eat a Big-ass Salad for school lunch, that’s fantastic. Mine won’t, but they will eat raw vegetables. Include any raw or cooked vegetables your kids like. Here are some standard faves:

  • Carrot sticks
  • Celery sticks
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumber slices
  • Bell pepper slices
  • Snap peas
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower

Don’t forget the vegetable dips!

The best way to get kids to eat vegetables is to include a little container of dipping sauce. Think ranch, hummus, baba ganoush, guacamole, or nut butter (for celery sticks).

Fruit for More Color

Any fruit your kids will eat is on the menu here. The Primal Blueprint suggests opting for local, in-season fruit when possible. Frozen is always an option, too, although things like frozen berries can thaw and become too mushy. Frozen peach and mango wedges hold up well, though.

Remember that even if you opt for a low-carb or ketogenic diet, kids are generally more metabolically flexible than adults, so there’s no need to worry about including fruit in their diets. Fruits contain nutrients and fiber and can easily be part of a Primal kid’s repertoire. Some good lunch box options are:

  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Nectarines
  • Avocado
  • Dried or freeze-dried fruit (look at added sugar content)

Finish with Snacks

I’m using the term “snacks” here to include all the other items you might use to round out the lunch box. This is where you can add something crunchy, sweet, savory, and/or salty for more variety, plus get more food in when you’re feeding hungry tweens or teens. Also, if your kids’ schools are like mine, they need something designated for mid-morning snack time.

Note that with the list below, I’m assuming that you’re choosing options made with Primal-friendlier ingredients (grain-free flours and whatnot) if that’s how you feed your kids:

Healthy School Lunch Ideas

As an example of what this could look like, here are some tried and true combos:

Traditional: turkey sandwich or wrap + cherry tomatoes with ranch dip + strawberries + plantain chips

Two-minute lunch: Greek yogurt + baby carrots + mandarin orange + seaweed snacks

Big eater: tuna salad + celery sticks with peanut butter + avocado + protein bar + trail mix

Deconstructed chicken nachos: cooked chicken mixed with shredded cheese + sliced radishes + salsa + avocado + grain-free tortilla chips

Shmunchables (for the kids who ask for those prepackaged lunch kits, wink wink): salami + sliced cheese + ranch dip or mustard + apple slices + grain-free crackers + cookie

Gear

Bento boxes are popular with kids and adults alike because it’s fun to have a mini smorgasbord when you sit down to lunch. The protein + vegetable + fruit + snack system is the same idea, and you can certainly pack these lunches in bento boxes if you have them. I just keep a large stash of small containers and reusable bags on hand.

Here are my essentials:

  • Lots of small containers in different sizes (these are great for dips)
  • Reusable bags made from food-safe fabric or silicone
  • Smoothie bottles or pouches (I also use these to carry fuel on long runs or bike rides)
  • Thermos for hot food (Klean Kanteen version)
  • Silicone baking cups for partitioning snacks inside larger containers
  • Ice packs for keeping food cold

Tips for Making Lunch Prep Easier

Honestly, I am not a meal prepper. I see the value in it, but I like having the freedom to decide what I want to eat each day. That said, I’m a big fan of prepping for school lunches. You can save a lot of time in the morning by planning ahead.

Make big batches of carrot muffins, zucchini bread, energy balls, and protein pancakes to keep in the freezer. Throw them in the lunch box frozen, and they’ll thaw by lunchtime. (By the way, yogurt tubes, applesauce pouches, and smoothies can be frozen, too.)

Cut up a bunch of vegetables on Sunday night. You can portion them into individual containers at the beginning of the week, but my kids grab them and eat them after school, too, so they’re gone by Tuesday. Instead, I store cut veggies in big containers and throw them into smaller containers each morning.

Let older kids pack their own lunches. Provide them with this basic template and cede control of what, specifically, goes in.

Finally, I’ll note that it’s awesome if you have the time and energy to make homemade granola bars and cut your kids’ fruit into fun shapes each morning. Please don’t feel bad if you don’t have the wherewithal to do so, or if making Instagram-worthy lunches doesn’t bring you joy. I’m right there with you! I trust that we’re all doing the best we can with whatever time and financial resources we have.

Primal Kitchen Pizza Sauce

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.

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