10 School-Lunch Hacks From Parents Who've Been There

These clever ideas make lunch-packing easier — and encourage your kids to actually eat the food, too!

By: Colleen Travers

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Don't Let Lunch Drive You Crazy

The only thing worse than figuring out what to pack in your kid’s lunch every day is cleaning it out at night and seeing how much, or really, how little of it they ate. We asked some super-smart parents to share how they nail this challenge — and for advice on how to change things up when lunch comes back uneaten day after day.

Have Your Kids Make Their Own Lunch

Delegating really is the best hack, right? 😂But really — give your kids this responsiblity and they'll be more invested in their meal. If your kids are too little to take on the entire job themselves, they can at least help, says Sophia DeSantis of Veggies Don’t Bite. She likes a bento-style lunchbox with a bunch of different compartments, and she'll guide her kids in filling up the spaces with ingredients for a healthy lunch.

"Our family rule is that lunch must contain a fruit, a veggie, a main like a sandwich or burrito, and a snack item like crackers, pretzels, or chips," she says. "Then they get a small treat, like a few chocolate chips," she says.

"I never yell or get angry (anymore) about them not eating their lunch," she adds. "Instead, I’ll put it on the table after school and that is their snack before they can eat anything else."

Try Super-Fun Sushi Sandwiches

Kids can get overwhelmed by huge sandwiches, leaving them to nibble on just the snacks in their lunch instead. Catherine McCord of Weelicious has a solution for this — sushi sandwiches. Using a rolling pin, flatten out the sandwich bread to get it as flat as you can. Make your child’s favorite sandwich and roll it up, pressing on the seams to seal everything in. Then, cut the sandwich into sushi pieces for mini rolls they’ll love.

Rely on a Freezer Stash So You Don't Have to Think

It can be tough to think of new things to put in your kid’s lunchbox. Be prepared for brain drain (especially around busy times of year, like the holidays!) and make a batch of your family’s favorite muffins for the freezer, McCord says. Then when you need one, pop it out and stick it in their lunchbox for a suitable snack that will be thawed out by lunchtime.

Stash Secret Notes

Treats are nice, but there’s nothing like getting mail — especially in your lunchbox. "For my kindergartener, once a week I’ll add a surprise note in his lunch box," says Jenny Flake of Picky Palate. "Something simple, like 'I love you!' with a heart on it." This is also a good way to help settle your timid or anxious child who is having a hard time adjusting to going to school. Because while the goal is to get them to eat their lunch, ultimately you want to make sure they’re happy too!

Theme Days Make Lunch More Fun — And Easier to Pack

Make each weekday a different lunch theme, says Sara Welch of Dinner at the Zoo. "Monday can be sandwich day, Tuesday you could do lunch in a hot thermos, Wednesday can be chocolate milk day, and so on," Welch says. This gives kids something to look forward to at lunch (because they know what’s coming) and makes your life easier, taking the guesswork out of what to pack.

Shake Thing Up With New Snacks

It can be so easy to get stuck in a grocery store rut. You know where your family’s staples are, and you can probably get in and out of the store in under an hour (sweet!). But take a minute to look around and buy some new snacks to keep lunches from getting boring, says Flake. And it doesn’t have to be just cookies and crackers (i.e. junk). See what happens when you add a kiwi, goldenberries, or sliced cooked beets as a new addition to your kid’s lunch. You might be surprised with the results (and empty lunchbox!) when they come home.

Use Juice Boxes as Ice Packs

Instead of sticking a precious ice pack in your kid’s lunch and risking it getting tossed in the trash, Kelsey Sorenson of Wife Teacher Mommy freezes juice boxes overnight for a DIY version. You’ll save space in their lunch while surprising them with a sweet treat at the same time.

Swap the Square for a Dip

If it seems like you’re striking out left and right on any given week, put a pause on the PB&J. Try a soft pretzel, Sorenson suggests, with a healthful dipping sauce on the side like sunflower butter or hummus. "Kids love to dip things, and it makes eating more fun," she adds

Give Leftovers New Life

Try this fun lunch idea from Alice Choi of Hip Foodie Mom: Save leftover roast chicken and put it in your kid’s lunchbox with a waffle. Voila! Now you have chicken and waffles. "I generally reuse any leftover protein and make a wrap, salad, or sandwich," Choi adds.

Make It Personal

Stickers and notes are fun ways to liven up lunch, but take it a step further on birthdays and special occasions. Choi says making fun shapes (like a heart-shaped sandwich on Valentine’s Day) can help brighten a kid's day and make lunch look much more appealing. Another thing to keep in mind is the container their lunch is in, Choi says. If it’s hard for you to open, chances are they are going to struggle too — which may result in them not eating or heading to the school snack bar for a pack of cookies instead.

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