The Animals At The Zoo Must Be Fed (Or, Kid Lunchboxes)

I really, really, really like my kids. I also really, really, really like when my kids are in school.

But know the one thing that makes me most excited about in-service days or extended school breaks?


I think I have a pretty minimal approach to packing lunchboxes (shocking), but it still takes time and effort every day.

After over 6 years of packing school lunches (the kids had hot meals provided for them at preschool), here is my current system.

I Stick to specific categories

Lunches include:

VEGGIES | (almost always raw, but if I send something like hot vegetable soup in a Thermos, I won’t include raw veggies on the side).

  • carrot sticks, broccoli, cucumber, green beans, baby tomatoes. I almost always have baby carrots on hand. One child prefers broccoli; the other tomatoes. I try to balance out preferences based on what’s on sale/seasonality (our neighbours, for example, give us loads of delicious tiny tomatoes each fall, so tomatoes feature heavily in September lunchboxes). Neither child likes snap peas, so those don’t end up in lunchboxes.

FRUIT | (75% of the time this is fresh; the rest of the time it is an unsweetened applesauce cup).

  • kiwi (the kids prefer kiwi with the peel left on, so this is so easy), apple slices, grapes (one child’s favourite), fresh berries (another child’s favourite, but they don’t always travel well), orange slices.

MAIN” COURSE | 9 days out of 10 this is a sandwich. Either ham/cheese/spinach, tuna/spinach, egg salad, or butter and jam. Sometimes I’ll send hummus and pita wedges. A few times a month I’ll send hot food in a Thermos. Originally I was aiming to do this once a week but the Thermos’ can be tricky to open, the food is never fully hot by the time they get to it, and leftovers can make a mess of their lunchbox if the lids don’t get secured properly. So I’ve mostly stopped trying, especially with soup. If we have leftover pasta or something that really holds together I sometimes send it along, but the kids prefer a small sandwich and hodge-podge of other items and it’s easier for me.

I used to send hard-boiled eggs regularly, but these tend to get quite messy if the kids take a bite at snack and then don’t finish it until lunch and egg yolk gets mixed up with carrots sticks and rice crackers. Yuck.

DESSERT | this is usually a small cookie. I used to make seed-and-date energy balls…but they’re just not as good as the nut-butter variety (we have a peanut-free school, which I think is mostly standard these days). Sometimes I send our go-to muffins. I never send anything overtly messy (i.e. no slices of cake with frosting)!

When Abby started school, I used to only send dessert on Fridays but I’ve mellowed with age and it’s a nice little boost in their lunchbox.

MISC | popcorn or crackers; sunflower or pumpkin seeds; individual packets of Nori, dried fruit (figs, dates, raisins), a granola bar.

WATER | Each child takes a full water bottle (insulated stainless steel so the water stays cold). No juice (ever) or milk (ever). Just water. They’re able to refill their water bottles at school as needed.

how do you package the lunches?

We have reusable (BPA-free) bags that are both adorable and functional and of a unique firmness. They can stand upright and are quite tricky to seal, but really protect the food within; I’ll use these for apple slices, popcorn, or other things that are hard to fit in a small container.

Carrot sticks, applesauce, sunflower seeds, a ham, cheese and spinach Brioche sandwich, popcorn and a chocolate cookie.
Tuna and spinach sandwich, grapes, clementine, carrot sticks, green beans, and tomatoes. There would have been some sort of cookie or muffin as well, and maybe a dish of rice crackers.

I use the bento-boxes from IKEA. I have two sets of these and they are one of my favourite things ever. They’re a bit of a nuisance to wash (and I wash them by hand), but they’re worth it. It is just so handy to have the separation for different items.

buying lunches

Abby did this a few times in earlier grades (typically on pizza day). It was a hassle; I had to send in money (the exact change) and it was never enough food. So I still had to pack a water bottle and snacks.

Then a few years ago our school switched to an online payment system so I have to log on and…I don’t know…sign over my soul to the school board? For someone that works on computers all day and has helped develop custom software…I tried to figure out the system once, failed miserably, and decided we just won’t buy lunches. I’m sure it’s not rocket science, but it felt akin to that level of complexity.

So Levi has never had a school lunch and I suspect he will continue to learn and survive. It would be convenient sometimes, but even school lunches require thought and effort (and snacks)…

*I’m sure there are lots of schools where the process is more streamlined. If I could just send my kids in with $5.50 to pick a sandwich off the menu, I’d be tempted. This is exactly how my high school cafeteria was set up; no pre-ordering. You just walked through the lunchline and picked out what you wanted. But even pre-COVID this wasn’t the way our school operated (I suspect this is GREAT for reducing food waste, so I’m not complaining).

And that’s it. When the kids come home from school they’re responsible for unpacking their bookbags, including taking all their lunch dishes out of lunchboxes. For a while we had things organized so the kids made their lunches one day a week but, honestly, I found it more work. I still had to make sure we had the right things in the right places and after a few times of siblings coming home complaining they hadn’t had enough food to eat…I was happy to reassume full responsibility. While I am all for independence, this just hasn’t been an area where I really want them taking the lead (yet). Laundry and emptying garbage cans on the other hand…

Your turn! Are you still packing lunchboxes for school-age kiddos? If so, any suggestions on how to kick things up a notch?

Header photo by S’well on Unsplash

23 thoughts on “The Animals At The Zoo Must Be Fed (Or, Kid Lunchboxes)”

  1. I’m almost jealous of your kids for what they get to eat at lunchtime. My mother worked and refused to allow me to have a packed lunch because it was too much bother for her to make it. I was a *buyer* and as such had some lousy school lunches, but a few good ones too. You can eat the skin of a kiwi?

    1. I don’t think the school lunches are anything to write home about – lots of white carbs, so the kids would probably LOVE them?!
      I was determined this year to buy at least one meal a week, but between having to navigate the lunch orders + still having to coordinate extra food to supplement their lunch it just didn’t end up making sense and wouldn’t take that much work off my plate.
      Lunches also feel like they have changed since there is such an emphasis on snacking. When I was in school, we didn’t do “snacks” but now the kids have these eating breaks scheduled in to their day which I have conflicting feelings about – they also have a pathetically short window for eating their actual lunch which I find appalling. When Abby was in Grade 1, on Wednesday’s – due to the timing of a music class – she had 5 minutes scheduled for eating lunch. FIVE MINUTES. When I was a kid, we had at least an hour for lunch. Even now I think both kids have about 15 minutes scheduled; it bleeds over in to lunch-recess, so they could conceivably stay inside longer to eat their meal, but who wants to do that? A side-rant, but something that I find frustrating. I wish we cut out little snack breaks and just let them relax and eat a more leisurely lunch.

    2. Oh! And yes, you can eat the skin of a kiwi. You can just wash it off like other fruit; lots of fibre and antioxidants in the skin, apparently. The reason most people peel the skin off is because of the texture, I think. But it’s not unlike eating a peach with the skin on. My kids prefer it with the skin on AND it’s a lot less messy to handle that way.

  2. Ah, school lunches. Both my kids brought a lunch from home every single school day (the school lunches don’t fit in with our dietary preferences.). I have to say the quality of my kids’ lunches has definitely deteriorated over the years. When my son started school his lunches looked more like the ones you pack (although probably not quite as healthy- you are crushing it in that department!) Now he’s in college- phew, one less lunch to pack- and my daughter is in middle school, and a very picky lunch eater. Her current sandwich (every day) is peanut butter and pickle with various snacks thrown in- no fruits or veggies, as those consistently return home untouched. SIGH! I just try to make up for it at other meals. I’m kind of envious of people whose kids just buy the school lunch every day. It’s definitely more trouble to make the kind of lunch your kids have, but they’re eating so well. I want to hear an update when they’re in middle school though!

    1. When the kids pack their own lunchboxes the fruit and veggie amounts go down (though having some of both those food groups is non-negotiable).
      I very much understand the peanut/nut bans in schools, but it really does make lunchboxes more complicated as I’d love to send nuts as a healthy snacking option. Seeds work alright, but neither child likes seed butters (I find sunflower butter okay, but they prefer just butter and jam)…
      I love anything related to peanut butter but I have never heard of PB and pickle combinations. Is that actually combined in a sandwich, or she takes pickles on the side? I’ve also heard of PB and mayo or PB and Cheez Whiz. I stop at PB & jam and PB & banana…maybe it’s time to expand my sandwich repertoire?
      I am 100% confident when the kids start being fully independent for their lunchboxes there will be a lot of cereal and a sharp reduction in fruit/veggies.

  3. I do not have school aged children. What I have is a husband with dietary needs such that we never leave home without a cooler. Our lunches sound similar to yours (minus sandwiches) – fresh veggies, hummus/crackers or guacamole/pretzels, nuts (usually almonds), sometimes cheese. We have a somewhat complicated system of plastic tupperware containers and glass storage and we have a lot of reusable ice bags. ALSO, and this is key, we invested in a top of the line Stanley thermos that we use for transporting warm things like soup. If we pre-heat the inside of the thermos by pouring boiling water in there immediately before putting in the soup, it will stay piping hot for DAYS. But, we’re adults and I’m not responsible for cleaning any of my husband’s lunch-taking supplies. The Stanley thermos IS easy to clean, but I do find it challenging to open and close, so I’m not sure it would solve any of your problems.

    1. I never send guacamole; I should think of buying some of those individual packs. Neither kid is hugely fussed over hummus, so I only send that occasionally. But guacamole might be more of a hit?
      I wish I could send nuts, but these are off limits at our school.
      I know I could source much better Thermoses, but I do think most of the pain points has to do with the mess of dealing with hot food + the limited time they have to eat. It’s just so much easier for them to be able to fit in short bursts of eating with finger foods. One child does have access to a microwave, but since the other doesn’t and I pack mirror lunchboxes, I don’t send things in containers that can be heated up. I think my cafeteria in high school had a microwave…? Can’t remember now.

  4. Wow, you are KILLING IT with the lunches! Such colorful, healthy lunches for your kiddos! My daughter had to bring lunch for exactly eight months and it was TORTURE. I had no idea what she ate on any given day and she has always been so picky, I constantly fretted over whether she was eating anything at all. Now I occasionally have to pack lunch for camp (and I think this summer is going to be another summer of lunch packing) but that’s so much better than daily. Hats off to you — it’s SUCH a chore. And you are hand washing the dishes daily!!!

    My daughter adores kiwi. I wonder if she would try it with the skin on? I cannot stand even the fuzzy level of peach skin, so I had never considered that kiwi skin was edible.

    We recently tried the nori and none of us liked it. So very sad about that! Seems like it would be such a healthy addition to our snack cabinet (which is woefully unhealthy).

    Do your kids eat dairy? I can be fairly certain my kid will eat cheese: cheddar cubes or baby bel. But there are so many “snack size” cheeses in stores these days. She would also eat guacamole and chips. Heavy on the chips. Sigh. And things like pepperoni and ham. Well, not “things like.” JUST pepperoni and ham. Double sigh.

    1. Yup – kiwi skin is edible. I had ALWAWYS peeled it for me kids and then they told me they preferred it with the skin on. They didn’t have to tell me twice. I also leave the peels on apples, so they’re used to having different textures with their fruit?
      Lunches ARE a chore, but they have to eat so I’m mostly positive about preparing lunches…but every so often descend into the depths of despair and complaint. They’ve had a lot of snow days + an extra week off over Christmas due to COVID, so lunches remind me that school is in session and when I’m in the right frame of minds it’s a sort of gratitude prompt – haha.
      Only one of our kiddos likes nori, so it’s not a big success (but my husband and I LOVE it). Fair enough that no one in your household enjoys it though – it is definitely a very distinctive flavour AND texture!!!!
      My kids do eat dairy; they don’t like cheese strings, so I mostly cube cheese up from home once a week and slice pieces for sandwiches once a week or so. I think only one of them likes Babybel? That would be convenient! I have never tried guacamole with them, but think that might be a hit with pita or rice crackers/chips. They would prefer pepperoni and ham, but tolerate tuna, egg filling…and butter/jam is a staple in terms of a sandwich. The latter isn’t very original, but it’s very, very easy and they love it.

  5. I have not had to pack lunches and dread having to do so some day. It’s hard enough to pack my lunch on the days I go to work and Paul is so so picky, I’m trying to think what I could even pack that he would eat! I grew up eating school lunches and while I hated them and thought they were disgusting, I can see why my mom had us eat at school. It was a simple process for her, though. She paid ahead and paid for every day so it was way simpler to write one check (this was pre-ap pre-internet being widely use!) and not have to do anything else. I am not sure what we will do when our kids go to school. But I am relieved that daycare provides all of the meals. We joke that we wish we ate there. They put together a great menu with lots of variety and it’s very healthy. And since it’s Spanish immersion, they eat lots of beans/lentils/etc.

    1. Our kids preschool had incredible food. And I think it’s one of the reasons the kids are such good eaters. They had them eating EVERYTHING (and helping to cook lots of things too) and at every meal kids were asked if they wanted “a little” or “a lot” of each item. That way they had the option of controlling amounts, but they were exposed to little bits of just about everything.
      Sadly, that has now ended and it’s my responsibility!
      School lunches just don’t easily fit the bill. You can tack on snacks (things like yogurt/granola, little bags of chips)…but they’re expensive, so the main meal would still have to be augmented from home. I think, given the way it currently works (this might change as we get out of COVID), it wouldn’t be that much less work to order lunches (and it’s quite expensive/not overly healthy food options).
      So, for now, we send things from home. It takes effort, but I stick to a simple template (fruit, veggie, sandwich, dessert) that I vary based on what’s on sale that week…and it’s a labour of love (as is so much of parenting, right!) which ultimately is worth the time, money, and effort! Or so I tell myself…

  6. It is one of my headaches too! Since pandemic, the school lunches in the US became free. So i am fighting it other way around – I would rather pack my own for the oldest kid, but he just loves his chocolate milk, mac-and-cheese, hamburgers, and other garbage options that they are giving to the kids. I have to fight really hard to always have a tray of veggies/salad/or green smoothie for dinner to compensate on what he eats for lunch at school. He keeps asking me “if chocolate milk is bad, then why school serves it?” and i had to say “because they don’t have money to buy the food that makes you grow, like fruit or veggies”. So with my oldest one, i had to withdraw him from the after-school program, and turn my schedule all around (i am a researcher and a lab director) primarily because of their snacks. I was in shock during the first few weeks of the afterschool, when he said they had chocolate milk, chocolate pudding, and a bag of chips as a snack.

    My youngest kid goes to the same Montessori daycare where my oldest graduated, and always bring his lunch from home (they don’t provide lunches there, only snacks). He has severe eczema/allergies, and we are keeping him (and our household) on elimination diet with no dairy, limited gluten (just sprouted organic bread , and i make all his treats from scratch, like pancakes, scones, muffins, cookies, etc), limited allergens (like citrus or tomatoes, for example). His lunches usually include a sandwich with home-made meatballs/grilled chicken/grilled steak meat (never a lunch meat!)/ broccoli or smoothie/ and a fruit/and a juice box. So we batch cook/grill on the weekends, so then i can make his sandwiches from these meats every day. He is thriving on something that looks like a “paleo” diet, with his meats, fruit and veggies. He is happy right now, because everyone brings their own lunch, but I very fearful on how i am gonna fight the free lunches when he goes to school.

    1. What you’re describing sounds tough! Lunch and snacking options can be less than ideal in a mass-produced setting. I’m always jealous when I read about French and Scandinavian school meal situations with priorities on whole foods and eating slowly and mindfully (a lot more time for lunch breaks!). In general, I think there are so many issues with both what AND how we eat in modern society, especially in North America.
      Adding on food allergies and intolerances just really makes the challenge even more intense, for you.

      I’ve never heard of free lunch programs up here? I know most schools have free breakfast options at the start of the day. Your lunches sound delicious! I’m sure it takes a lot of effort, but batch prepping on the weekend is a great tactic for juggling the daily necessity of lunch-box preparation.

      Happy eating šŸ™‚

  7. We have those same green-lidded Ikea containers! They have lasted us almost fifteen years now and are such the perfect little size for so many things.
    My oldest (10) is usually supposed to pack her own lunch, but most days she doesn’t manage and ends up eating school lunch. It’s not my favorite thing, but school lunch is currently free in our school district, so I just decide it’s not a battle I want to fight with her. I do pack her a snack because I’m cutting up fruit and veggies for her little brother’s lunch anyway, and if I have time, I will pack her a lunch, but she tends to not like sandwiches, so I have to make her something different from what I pack her brother. When she does pack her own lunch, it’s often whatever leftovers she can scrounge from the fridge, a piece of fruit, and a couple vegetables (carrot sticks or mini peppers). I actually find her process of going through the fridge looking for something lunch-worthy almost comical.
    The preschooler is happy to eat the same thing every day – sandwich or wrap (ham and cheese), sliced cucumber, sliced apple and two graham crackers (or a cookie or muffin, if I have it). Sometimes he gets mini bagels with cream cheese instead of a sandwich. And the fruit can vary if we’re out. Every so often I wonder if I should give him something new, but then I figure since he’s happy eating the same thing, it takes a lot of the mental energy out of lunch for me to just pack the same thing.
    I used to be really vigilant about making sure their packed lunches were super healthy and never put in dessert or cookies or chips or anything like that, but then I listened to the lunch episode of the podcast “Didn’t I Just Feed You?” and they said something to the effect of – Kids spend so much time at school and school can be such a drag that if you can inject a little bit of fun into their day by packing a treat, why not? And I remembered how as a child, I had these bologna and mustard sandwiches and lunch was always kind of a *heavy sigh* downer … and I realized that the folks on the podcast had a really great point – I want lunch to be a moment when my kids are happy. So now I make sure to include something sweet and every so often I’ll even put some chocolate chips or a Starburst in their lunch.

    1. Yes, my kiddos eat according to a predictable pattern, and seem quite content with this. It may ebb and flow as they get older, but for now it works. And you’re so right – it takes SO much less mental energy this way. I just aim to fill each of those “categories” based on what we have in the fridge and it’s almost like a lunchbox checklist.
      I sometimes vascillate over whether I should be sending an “unhealthy” treat each day, but I send it and try not to feel bad. I grew up having dessert every day (usually twice a day) and I do think it is a fun part of their day. The kids have been through a lot during the pandemic and while I don’t want them to see treats as a “reward” I do think that it injects something unique to look forward to in a cold meal from home. The rule is that everything else needs to be finished first…but I’ll admit that doesn’t always happen. If they come home from school with leftover fruit/veggies, they typically eat those for an afternoon snack. They don’t have much time set aside at school for mealtimes (though do manage to find time to eat that dessert – ha)!

  8. I have been making my husband lunch for years and now have one child who has entered the schooling system at aged nearly 17 so I have another lunch to make to eat out. They have soup twice a week, which my daughter and I also have as we are out and about for lunch on those days too. Husband heats his up a work, my son has a flask. On the other days, two are salad days, one a rice based the other pasta based (we very very rarely have pasta for tea here maybe once or twice a year) I put whatever I have to hand in these so they are different every week. They each have a large bamboo box with a really good seal on the lid The third day I make lunch for my husband only as my son is at home with us, husband usually has wraps with cheese and coleslaw, his bamboo box has a handy divider that you can out so I can use this in the box on that day. He makes up the wraps when he is at work but you can make these up and put a rubber band round them to keep everything together. My son also has a snack box which is metal and has three compartments, he takes fruit, usually grapes or berries and two portions of whatever I have baked that week. He still comes home hungry and eats a snack before tea! I make all these lunches the night before whilst I am cooking tea.

    1. These sound like wonderful lunches! I try to prep them in the evening, while I’m preparing supper or cleaning up after we’ve finished eating so I get everything cleaned up in the kitchen all at once.
      Maybe I should start thinking a bit more about ways to send hot food to school. I think as the kids get older (and hopefully have access to a way to heat up food) they’ll prefer this option. But, for now, our cold food options are working alright and they get lots of warm things at home for breakfast/supper.

  9. We’re definitely all about the school lunches in our house (kids aged 6, 10, 12) – especially since they are free (breakfast and lunch at our school) it really is an amazing option. The food is obviously not the most healthy, but from my investigation and questioning of them, they DO appear to typically have a fruit and/or vegetable with their lunch, and fruit with breakfast. We’re just a typical pretty middle income public school district in Minnesota, so I’m sure school lunches vary depending on where in the country you are. My kids aren’t hugely picky and they can usually find something to eat, so we don’t even give the option of bringing home lunch.

    We DO have to make lunches in the summer when they are at camp, but have the kids do that the night before. Every single day it’s a sandwich, fruit and baby carrots. Very boring but they definitely don’t care. Last summer we alternated who made the youngest’s lunch, but this summer hopefully he can learn to do it himself??

    1. I am so intrigued with all this mention of free school lunches! We definitely have to pay and there is not a fruit/veggie option with the meal – that would have to be purchased separately as a snack…hence why I’d still be sending some things for school (or it would end up being close to $10/day per child, which is…steep).
      So far I’ve found it easier to just make the lunchboxes, but I know sometime soon we’ll be having them do it solo. Your camp lunch sounds very similar to what our kids take each day to school. It can feel “boring” to me, but they rarely complain and it’s easiest for me to just follow a standard pattern of food options.

  10. We have PlanetBox Rover lunchboxes, and they are WONDERFUL. The kids pack their own now, and I love that nothing junky or pre-packaged fits in the slots. Well, only my middle-schooler is currently packing his own because my oldest has an open campus for lunch, so he and his friends eat terrible fast food on the daily. My 2 elementary schoolers come home for lunch, which has been a pandemic-inspired dream. I love seeing them midday, and I love making something hot since I am already feeding myself and the baby.

    1. I just looked up the PlanetBox Rover lunchboxes and they look awesome!

      I would love for the kids to come home at lunch; a friend of mine used to pick her kids up from school at lunchtime, but it was so hard because they make this basically impossible with how the day schedule runs (and different grades have lunch breaks at different times. I’m shocked and frustrated with how little time is set aside for eating (but they do have “snack” breaks scattered in their day, which I guess is a common way of eating now? I just wish they had one dedicated time to eat and that it was nice and long so they could a) savour their food and b) get an extended break from the classroom!

  11. OK, it is appalling that they have that little time to eat. Appalling. I mean, really. What else are they doing that is so critically important they can’t take time to eat and enjoy time with their friends? Hello? Socialization is an important part of childhood, people. (Sorry, I get on these rants even though I don’t have kids… it just drives me bonkers…)
    And, I am so grateful that I just have to feed myself. I cannot imagine the mental and physical energy expended on figuring out who will eat what, with what other things, in what context and at what temperature, etc. etc. etc. You seem to have this down to pretty much a science, which is incredible to me. My lunches were pretty much packed from middle school on thanks to an allergic reaction to the middle school soup that was… not fun. Sandwich, fruit (orange or apple, usually), some kind of cracker-thing, and 2 cookies. Oh, and a juice box. šŸ™‚ In HS I would take some money and go through the a la carte line (sounds like your school?) if I wanted a treat (like, um, bbq potato chips… I can still taste them, so many years later…). Ah, memories.

    1. I used to get chocolate milk and a chocolate chip cookie each day at school. I actually worked in the cafeteria in Grade 12 (maybe Grade 11 too) before school. Instead of payment, I got to eat my meal + one snack (the milk + cookie) each day. It was SUCH a great deal. I only remember eating subs and/or French Fries and Chicken nuggets. Before that, I have a complete and total blank about school lunchboxes. I don’t remember packing them myself. I hadn’t even thought about this as I wrote the post, but I literally cannot remember a single thing about high school lunches.

      I was homeschooled for middle school (ugh), and in elementary had access to a kitchen so would just take along a sandwich or leftovers from home. I don’t remember snacks being a thing…at all. Overall I guess my meals were pretty forgettable except those warm cookies (they kept them in one of those pizza spinners) and that delicious chocolate milk.

      Oh…and I guess I had pizza some, too, from the cafeteria that final year in HS. And likely not a single vegetable or fruit ever. Sigh. Oh well. I turned out okay…and now love my veggies. Haha.

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