Make-Ahead School Lunches & a FREE Printable for Lunch Box Love Notes

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. We participate in other affiliate programs as well. For more details, please see our disclosure policy.

The lunch hour is no longer 60 minutes. But, it can still be tasty and fun — with a little pre-planning and some make-ahead tips.

When I was a child, the lunch hour really was a lunch hour. The teachers had time to drive to a restaurant and order a sit-down meal. Kids could walk home and have lunch with whichever parent or caregiver might be home at that time.

It was only those of us who lived far from school who brown-bagged it or bought the cafeteria lunch. We had plenty of time to eat and then go play on the playground.

My how times have changed! Nowadays we’re all in a hurry. Many schools have shortened the lunch break, some to as short as 35 minutes. And kids who want to go home for lunch? I don’t think that happens anymore, does it?

School lunches, even in a homeschool setting, can be quick affairs. The day is so packed with activities that there’s not time for the leisurely noontime meal of yesteryear. But, we want our kids to have good, nourishing meals at midday.

Since we’re so busy, it can be hard to pull something together in the morning rush to get to school. Even though we homeschool, my day is pretty much packed, and I don’t have a lot of time for meal prep throughout the day.

The answer is to make ahead as much of the lunch as you can. Then, you can pack the lunch box and be on your way or pull it from the fridge at meal time.

Here are some steps to making it easy:

1. Consider the proteins.

I like my kids to have a portion of protein at each meal. Good make-ahead proteins include:

  • Hard cooked egg – refrigerate in a dish.
  • Yogurt cups – divide a larger container into small portions and refrigerate.
  • Cheese slices or sticks – package in portion sizes and refrigerate.
  • Bean salad – mix a batch and then divide into individual servings and refrigerate.
  • Grilled and sliced chicken or meat – once cooled, package and refrigerate or freeze.
  • Peanut butter or sunbutter sandwiches – can be made the night before and kept in the fridge.
  • Soups and chilis – make ahead and freeze in individual portions. Reheat in the morning and pour into heated thermos.

2. Have some fruit and veg.

If we’re going to get eight servings of fruits and vegetables in a day, they need to be the majority in every meal. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Applesauce – make a big batch and divide into small containers with lids. Freeze until the day of packing.
  • Fruit salad – refrigerate cut-up fruit in individual containers.
  • Grapefruit sections – cut the fruit a night or two in advance and store in the refrigerator.
  • Apple slices – Dip in lemon juice to prevent browning. Store in airtight containers for a day or two in advance.
  • Carrot sticks and other crudite – slice up a variety of vegetables and have kids help you assemble snack bags for the week.
  • Bagged raisins or other dried fruit – divide a larger package into snack sized bags.
  • Fruit leathers – storebought or homemade.
  • Green salad – make a large salad on Sunday night and divide into multiple containers to chill until ready to serve. Repeat on Wednesday night for the remainder of the week.

3. Keep the water bottles filled.

Storing empty water bottles is a pain. Caps and bottles separate and fall out of the cupboard. But, refilling them and storing them in them in the fridge? That will save you precious minutes when it’s time to pack lunches.

4. Add a little treat.

Quick breads, scones, muffins, and cookies not only pack well for lunch, but they are also very freezer-friendly. Bake up a storm over the weekend, wrap well for freezing, and stash in the icebox. Pull out what you need when you pack lunches; they should thaw by serving time.

For crackers, trail mix, and pantry-stable snacks, divide large batches, either homemade or storebought, into snack bags and store in a basket in the cupboard.

Some of our favorites include:

5. Include a warm fuzzy.

My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Marcy, was my very favorite. She was so encouraging, and she often gave out “warm fuzzies”, little tokens of affection and encouragement.

Include a warm fuzzy in your child’s lunch to remind him that you think of him during the day. It can be a small toy or a little note. Print out these fillable Lunch Box Love Notes and tuck one in each lunch box throughout the week.

Click on the blue field and type whatever you want: words of encouragement, Scripture, or favorite things about your child.

If you want to be more spontaneous, print out several sheets and cut them apart. Store them in the kitchen with a box of markers for late night or early morning love notes. The personal touch looks pretty cool.

Get this FREE Back-to-School Printable Pack

Take things a little easier this year by downloading this FREE Back-to-School printable pack. The pack includes:

  • a form to interview your student and record what he or she is into this year.
  • a printable form to fill out and sign to excuse a tardy or absence
  • printable lunchbox love notes
  • grade level signs for that inevitable first day of school picture (in both colored and color-able formats)

Get the printables pack for FREE when you sign up for the Life as Mom newsletter, aka the Tip Sheet.

Brown bagging it doesn’t have to be boring.

Or hurried. With a little pre-planning, you can make school lunches, easy, nutritious, delicious, and just bursting with warm fuzzies.

What is your favorite recipe for school lunches?

free-meal-planNow that lunch is taken care of…. Want help with dinner, too?

Grab one of these FREE printable meal plans and grocery lists. 5 main dishes, plus side, salad, bread, and dessert. All the work’s been done for you. Just print and cook!

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

Subscribe to Good Cheap Eats
Read Newer Post
Read Older Post


  1. Lisa says

    Hi Jessica,
    Great ideas! I’d like to link up but I don’t see the linky tool this week…unless it’s just my computer that’s the problem.

  2. Kim Stachowiak says

    Thanks for the post. My kids only have 20 minutes to eat (isn’t that crazy!) so I have to make sure that they have easy to eat lunches. It’s frustrating too, because there aren’t any adults around to help out if they can’t open something (yogurt tube, applesauce, etc.). They have a couple adults monitoring, making sure kids are quiet and eating, and that’s it. I go once a week to eat with them and the kids love it (so do I). My oldest is going into 3rd grade and he still loves notes and fun things in his lunch box. : )

  3. These are great suggestions, Jessica! My kids love grapes, berries, string cheese, and either sandwiches or burritos, but they eat just about anything I send. (And I think lunches are even shorter than 35 minutes here… I know my high school lunch period was 22 minutes.)

  4. I make a lot of homemade goodies, and here’s what I add to my kids lunches on occasion:
    Banana bread
    Krispy treats
    chicken wraps
    frozen water bottle wrapped in paper towels (keeps everything cool and to prevent wetness, the food is wrapped in baggies- or put the bottle in a baggie!)
    frozen iced tea or apple juice in small water bottles (brought home and washed for repeated use)
    mini pizza kits- pre-toasted split english muffin, a small container of sauce, one of cheese and toppings (meat toppings cooked and chopped up) The kids usually don’t mind the sauce being room temp. Send a spoon to help with neatness! (older kids)
    Chicken fingers
    Hot dogs- fill a thermos with hot water and add dogs. put bun(s) in a baggie!
    For smaller portions, get a food jar and not a thermos- some even come with a bowl and a spoon!

  5. Thanks for hosting! I don’t have kids but I’m always looking for more work lunch ideas.

  6. CynthiaB says

    A few years ago we purchased laptop lunches. They are BPA free plastic bento boxes. They are a breeze to use and we save all kinds of money since no baggies are needed. Also because the kids don’t have to visit the trash, I can see what they ate and the inserts don’t get thrown away. I can fit all kinds of different foods. This year my older, 11, will be adding their food jar so she can have soup and other left-overs. The bento box will have fruit, veggies, carbs etc since her school day will be longer with sport teams. Here’s the link if you want to take a look at the various styles. It is so worth the price up front.

  7. Lea Stormhammer says

    A whole whopping 35 minutes? When I was in high school (20 years ago!) it was 17. Not kidding. We got 5 for passing time so they though that 3x that was enough! I usually had a sandwich and an apple because that was all I could scarf down without getting sick in that amount of time!

    My kids go to a private school and they get 30 minutes to eat and 30 minutes of recess at lunch. I am so happy about that!

    Grreat ideas!

  8. My kids get about 20 to 25 minutes to eat, and then recess afterwards.

    I’ve been loving your 3 x 7 weekly menu plan. I’m going to use it for school lunches, too so I can get some of the prep done the night before.

  9. Charity L. says

    I like to sneak a note in my husband’s lunchbox every now and then. Since he is not expecting eery day, it is always a surprise. When my daughter starts school, I plan to keep the same tradition!

  10. 35 minutes would be awesome! My kids typically have only 20 minutes to eat lunch at school. For those that buy and have to wait in line to get their tray that is just not enough time. The ones that bring lunch from home can usually eat most of it, but they have to really hurry.

    Thanks for the great ideas, I think I will put a basket in my cupboard with easy grab & go items for lunchboxes. I pack 5 per day. I could even do a small container in the fridge for cut up veggies and individually wrapped cheeses. I can see this making it easier for my kids to pack their own too. Love it!

  11. Christi says

    You have a lot of great ideas on here! I think if everyone planned ahead just a little more (in almost every aspect of life) the world might be just a little nicer.

    I remember, at least in high school, I only had 30 minutes for lunch! We all had a battle getting to the cafeteria, standing in line, eating, and actually getting back to class on time. What a nightmare! I guess we made it work somehow :).

    Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  12. These are great ideas. My son has a spacer so a lot of things I’d depended on for my daughter’s lunches won’t work for him. Thanks!

  13. Emily says

    Those are some great ideas! I guess I never thought of scones as being freezable lunchbox fodder (and there’s a banana bread scone recipe saved in one of my Pinterest files just begging to be made!). You’ve done a great job at covering all the bases, I just wanted to add that I slip a joke into my son’s Laptop Lunchbox every day – it tells him I love him without embarrassing him, and all the kids (and teachers) can’t wait to hear the laugh of the day!

  14. These are great tips! This is also helpful for the homeschool mom who doesn’t want to have to answer, “What’s for lunch today Mom?” or try to schedule a big sit-down lunch every day. Thank you!

  15. Patti Morfeld says

    seriously, why have I never thought about filling the water bottles immediately after washing??? So simple and so much more sane!!!!

  16. janet says

    Our girls have a 20-minute lunch period. My youngest always wants to pack. She says by the time she stands in the cafeteria line she has fewer than 10 minutes to eat.

Share Your Thoughts