Stress-Free School Lunches

Sep 21, 2023

If packing school lunches stresses you out, think less about what to pack and more about how to pack it

parent assembling a school lunch with fruits and veggies

When I design systems for myself and my mom-life-coaching clients, I always keep these things in mind:

  • Know yourself and know your kid
  • Do the thinking (maybe even overthinking) upfront in designing the system, so that in the day to day you can play out the system on autopilot
  • Don't over-commit to the system. It's there to support you
  • Check your thinking for “shoulds” and remember what really matters. When stressed, rise up to that higher level

Today I’m sharing my system for packing lunches for my grade school kids.

Not because I think my way is the best way and you should do it this way, too. Nope.

Instead, I want to show you how I think and how I put structures in place to reduce stress and overwhelm and find flow.

These things are just logistics. By getting the logistics under control I give myself more capacity to actually be present. And THAT is the secret to flow and fulfillment in motherhood.

What I pack in stress-free school lunches

I pack basically the same lunch for the kids each day:

  • Fruit
  • Veggies
  • Sandwich

Examples. Lunches and sometimes snacks for 2 kids.

Why this limited school lunch menu works for our kids

  • They know what to expect
  • They’re fine with the repetition and don’t require that much variation (until they do)
  • They can eat the finger foods without utensils or napkins (or smearing their hands on their clothes)

school children eating lunch and talking

Why this limited school lunch menu works for me

  • Since I make basically the same thing each day, I don’t need to think about it. I don’t need to think about it when I’m meal planning, writing a grocery list, or grocery shopping. I don’t need to think about what to assemble on those very early school mornings. I can get up and get on autopilot. Obama always wore a navy blue suit; I always pack the same lunch.
  • If I run out of something, it’s easy enough to switch up the particulars but keep the structure:
  • Ran out of bread? Sub in mini bagels from the freezer or crackers from the pantry
  • Ran out of salami and cheese? PB&J
  • Ran out of apples? Dried fruit
  • Ran out of veggies? Double up on fruit

These simple sectioned lunchboxes from LunchBots are central to my system.

Why LunchBots help me pack school lunches

  • They reduce waste from baggies or wrap
  • When the kids open their lunch boxes, the food is in good shape, just like it was when I packed it
  • They are a physical and visual guide that helps me pack a balanced meal and the amount of food that’s right for my kids
  • There are only 3 sections, unlike some bento boxes that have 5 or 7. That’s more thinking and management than I want to sign up for.

The LunchBot then goes into a simple insulated lunchbox (ours are from Lands End) along with 2 flat ice packs.

mother and daughter packing school lunch

The weekly school lunch planning process that works for me

Reminder: I'm not sharing this as a playbook for you to follow. I want you to see my thinking so you can come up with a system that works for you and your kids.

  1. Look at the school lunch menu for the week and ask the kids if they would prefer school lunch any particular days. This is new for us! And if one of them wants school lunch, I make the other one get it, too. There’s always pizza and sandwiches on offer.
  2. For packed lunches, give the kids a limited menu for their input. Whatever they choose is what they’ll see (pretty much) every day this week
  3. Would you prefer apples, grapes, or oranges?
  4. What veggies would you like — Carrots, celery, cucumber, tomatoes, or sugar snap peas?
  5. Would you prefer salami sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, or PB&J (I sometimes give them other options like leftovers, quesadillas, and for sandwiches Hawaiian buns, bagels, or sliced bread)
  6. I write a grocery list, first checking our fridge and pantry for what we already have

The daily school lunch packing process that works for me

  1. In the morning I turn on the kettle, make my french press coffee, and start my morning news podcast
  2. Get the lunch-size and snack-size LunchBots out of the dishwasher and dry them out
  3. Get things out of the fridge
  4. Get things out of the pantry
  5. Assemble food in the LunchBots
  6. Put the LunchBots and ice packs in their carrier lunchboxes, put those in their backpacks, put the backpacks by the front door
  7. When I’m on good behavior I put away all the foods and tidy the counters (I’m rarely on good behavior and usually leave this for later)
  8. By this time the podcast is ending, my coffee has brewed, and I sit at the kitchen table with the day’s Wordle

Our after-school steps that get us ready for the next day's school lunches

  1. When the kids get home from school, they take out their lunch boxes and snack boxes and put them on the counter.
  2. They refill their water bottles with ice and water; put bottles in backpacks, and put backpacks on hooks in pantry.
  3. Hanging backpacks in the pantry is new. Last year the kids would drop their backpacks in the kitchen, I’d process the lunchboxes and trot their backpacks across the house to the mudroom, only to reverse the trot in the morning to fetch them. Simply keeping them in the pantry during the week is less fuss, and at 5:45 am, that’s a good thing.
  4. I like to see what’s leftover from the lunchboxes to see if their tastes are changing. I typically set the veggies out in dishes on the table and the kids eat them as an appetizer

School lunch ideas I want to try out

  • Packing a hot dish in a thermos. This likely would be simple leftovers like pasta or rice.
  • Making a stack of sandwiches ahead of time, wrapping them individually, and freezing them
  • Getting the kids more involved in assembling their lunches. This would likely be the afternoon before because we just have enough time as it is in the mornings. Yeah, it's unlikely I'm going to follow through on this idea.

What school lunch ideas work for you? I'd truly love to know! Comment below or DM me on Instagram.

parent packing school lunch

Quick Win

If making school lunches is dragging you down, here are some factors to consider as you establish your system and experiment with it:

Know yourself:

  • Know your time and energy: When would it be best for you to pack lunches? (We always hear the advice to do things the night before, but I can barely function after 6:45 pm. Know yourself and play to your strengths.)
  • If you HATE making the kids’ lunches, consider alternatives, like your partner taking it over, giving more age-appropriate responsibility to your kids, or making school hot lunch the default approach
  • Distract yourself with music or a podcast
  • Reward yourself with your morning beverage
  • Appreciate your own effort

Know your kid:

  • How much predictability vs variety do they need?
  • How much choice and decision-making would they like?
  • How involved could they be?
  • What foods will reliably eat to fuel their day?
  • How much food is right for their appetites, the amount of time they have, and their ability to focus during school lunch?

This post was all about stress-free school lunches. If this resonated with you you might also like:

5 Ways to Start Taking in the Good

Resentment in Motherhood and What it can Teach Us

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