Homemade School Lunches: How to Keep Them Fun and Nutritious

Make homemade school lunches that are simple, fun and healthy.

The days of ketchup as a vegetable substitute are over. A little planning can go a long way in helping your child make healthy food choices at lunch, while still enjoying their meal


It’s that time of year again. The time when I decide I’ll make healthy lunches for Maia everyday and not succumb to urge of slapping together yet another peanut butter sandwich and supplement it with a store bought foil wrapped treat (but it’s organic!) and a piece of fruit (also organic—but which inevitably comes back bruised and uneaten.)


To strengthen my resolve, I reread Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (of course I want to feed my child real food!) and gave myself a pep talk: she eats well at breakfast and dinner; why should school lunch be different?


The case for real food for lunch at school


But lunch at school is different. We parents are not there to set a good example, and all around Maia there are kids eating tasty looking concoctions that may or may not have any redeeming nutritional value.


But the argument is that we need to feed them something, so is a peanut butter sandwich on white bread with no crusts (but it’s organic!) really that terrible? And is the occasional high-sodium, heavily processed snack really going to kill them?


I struggle with this every October when yet another (“but it’s good for you!”) lunch comes home, uneaten. But this year, I’ve done a bit more reading. I’ve learned that if Maia eats too much processed food she’ll start to crave it, and by the time she’s on her own, all those carefully prepared home-cooked meals will be nothing but a memory.


But if she learns to make healthy choices now, she’ll continue to make them when I’m not around.


Make something that pleases everyone

Maia and I sat down and laid out what we considered to be a healthy lunch. It needed to include lots of veggies, some sort of protein, whole grains and some fruit, and it needed to be unprocessed. Most importantly, it needed to be quick, easy and something she could help prepare.


So we made a list of lunches she loved and lunches she’d like to try, and then posted it up where everyone could see it.


Roll-ups for lunch


(Image: Flickr / mamichan)


These have been a favourite of Maia’s since she was small. Take a whole grain tortilla, spread it with something healthy, roll it up and cut it into slices. Her favourite fillings are blended cream cheese (we buy plain cream cheese, then blend it with red peppers, black olives, smoked salmon or spinach—it keeps for about a week depending on what you blend in), homemade hummus (it’s so easy to make, you’ll never buy store-bought hummus again) or a nut butter.


Veggie sushi


(Image: Flickr / little blue hen)


We cheat. When I make brown rice for dinner, I pull out a cup of rice and stir in some rice vinegar. After dinner, when the rice is cool, Maia rolls the sushi (she’s a pro, but it doesn’t need to be beautiful) with slices of carrot, cucumber, green onion, shredded cabbage etc. and sticks the roll in the fridge. The next morning, I slice it and arrange it in her lunch container.


Fried rice


(Image: Flickr / esimpraim)


Restaurant fried rice is anything but healthy, but when you control the ingredients, it’s really easy to make a nutritious version. Ours typically includes leftover rice and meat from dinner and diced veggies fried together in the minimum required amount of oil, with the addition of some hoisin sauce for flavour (I usually throw in a bonus handful of greens right at the end).


To make prep on this dish easy, I assemble it all in the evening and fry it in the morning, then put it in a wide-mouth thermos.




(Image: Flickr / armigeress)


This may be easier when you only have one child, but I discovered if Maia enjoyed a soup, stew or pasta dish at dinner, chances are she’d eat it again the next day at lunch. I reheat it in the morning and put it in her thermos.


Veggies & dip


(Image: Flickr / like_the_grand_canyon)


The same cream cheese spreads (thinned down with yogurt) and hummus that are good as spreads also work as dips. Maia’s job is to slice up veggies a couple times a week so they are on hand for snacks. Then, simply grabbing a selection for lunch is a quick process.




(Image: Flickr / mikaelf)


This seems to be a mandatory lunch food—right up there with PB&J. Those mini pizzas are awfully tempting (they’re organic!), but when I read through the ingredients and looked at the price, I realized making our own pizzas might be worth the effort.


So we did it from scratch and put together 12 mini pizzas (we used a standard pizza dough recipe and made individual pizzas instead) for the price of two store-bought ones and froze them for future use. When we’re short on time (or Maia wants a treat), we just need to heat one up while she eats breakfast and then pack it to go.




(Image: Flickr / ciao-chow)


School lunch without some sort of treat isn’t much fun. So about once a week, Maia and I will bake something (cookies, banana bread, etc.), then freeze at least one week’s worth of portions. We are a weak family when it comes to baked goods and they would otherwise disappear. When we are really clever, we overlap our baking so she has a couple of different treats to choose between.


What are your favourite lunches for your kids? Any tips on how to get healthy food into them when we’re not there?