Creative Ideas for Packed Lunches Kids Will Actually Eat

A young boy preparing a packed lunch in the kitchen at home before heading off to school.

Tom Werner / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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Eating lunch is not only important for your child's physical growth, it can also help them stay focused and mentally sharp. But that won't happen if the lunch comes back home barely touched.

Equally frustrating is when the lunchbox becomes a sticky mess. There's the apple with just one bite out of it, the spilled, half-eaten yogurt container, the wrappers of anything that's been opened, and the remainder of now-inedible food.

This adds up to frustration for parents and empty tummies for kids, not to mention food waste. If it happens regularly, parents may worry that their child isn't getting the nutrients they need to learn and grow.

As exasperating as this can be (kids get hungry, why don't they eat?), there are steps you can take to increase the chances that your child will eat the lunch you pack. Try these strategies to make meals more appealing for kids and to encourage them to eat lunch.

School Lunch After the Pandemic

Many parents and kids are getting used to packing lunches again after the COVID-19 pandemic. You might feel out of practice, but you will adapt to the new routine soon. If your child regularly bought lunch in the school cafeteria before remote learning and school shutdowns, but now has gotten used to eating lunch at home, they may want to continue bringing their lunch when school resumes in person this fall.


Reasons Kids Might Not Eat Packed Lunches

There are a variety of distractions that compete with the main purpose of the lunch period at school, which is eating a meal. Your child may be dealing with one or several of these issues on a daily basis.

Short Lunch Periods

First, understand that your child likely only has a very short window for lunchtime at school—often just 10 to 20 minutes once they actually sit down with their food.

If lunches are coming back home with a few bites taken out of multiple items, it might be time to speak with your child and the school about whether any options exist to allow more time to eat. You can also brainstorm with your child about how to maximize their eating time.

With the bustling activity of the cafeteria, finding a seat, socializing with friends, peer pressure, and the lure of recess competing with your child's grumbling tummy, your child might need some help navigating how to make time to eat.

Remember that for little kids, just opening containers and wrappers can be a challenge. Some students are reluctant to ask for help, or there might be too much commotion in the cafeteria for them to quickly get an adult's attention. Make sure your child's little fingers can easily open everything you pack.

Social Issues

Sometimes kids aren't eating due to other issues at school, such as learning challenges, bullying, negative body image, poor self-confidence, or even not wanting to have to go to the bathroom.

It pays to talk to your child (and possibly their teachers) if you are concerned that something besides the actual lunch is contributing to your child not eating.

Concerns Related to COVID-19

For children who are worried about germs in the cafeteria, first affirm their feelings. Many people (adults included) are concerned about picking up germs after the COVID-19 pandemic. Reassure your child that the school staff are being careful to clean tables, seats, and other surfaces between lunch periods.

Next, provide action steps your child can take to minimize their fears and ensure that they feel safe eating at school. Remind your child to wash their hands before lunch. You can also include a small pack of alcohol-based hand wipes in their lunch box to use just before eating.

If your child feels nervous about eating in a loud, crowded cafeteria after enjoying peaceful meals at home over the past year, listen to their worries and then brainstorm some solutions together.

Since lunch is a social time for the majority of students (and the noise tends to increase throughout the lunch period), maybe your child can focus on getting everything unwrapped and eating right at the beginning, before things get too noisy and distracting.

If you're able to provide a hearty breakfast in the morning and a large snack after school (in addition to the morning snack that some elementary schools allow for), your child may do fine with a smaller lunch. This would remove some of the pressure to eat a full meal during a lunch period that can be overstimulating for many kids.

Perk Up Packed Lunches

Here are a few tactics that are worth trying to help make your child's packed lunch more appealing and efficient to eat.

Plan Lunches Together

Let your child help you build the menu for their lunches. Having them come up with ideas (within reason) for what to include builds buy-in, excitement, and pride, which encourages them to eat what's in there.

Take them to the store with you to pick out coveted items and dream up their ideal packed lunches. Some kids will be motivated by making a chart where they choose their own meal rotation for the week.

Assign Lunch-Packing Duty

In addition to having your child plan the menu, assign them the job of actually putting the items into their lunchbox. Not only is this a great opportunity to teach your child responsibility, independence, and basic meal preparation skills, but it might incentivize your child to eat what's in there.

When they have more ownership over the process and are allowed to choose their own lunchbox/lunch containers, it can make them more excited to eat lunch.

Another bonus is that if your child has to clean out and re-fill their lunchbox, they become much more likely to keep it tidy and throw out the garbage or unfinished items at school—before they form a crusty, gooey mess on the bottom of the lunchbox.

Give Specific Options

Kids can get overwhelmed with indefinite choices. It can help to give them specific choices for each category of their lunch. For example, let them pick between a ham, cheese, or nut butter sandwich for their main course and carrot sticks or cucumber for the veggie. Having limited choices will give your child agency over their lunch content while still having a nutritionally balanced meal.

Use Cutouts

Sandwich cutters in fun designs are a parent's best friend. That turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich might be more likely to be scarfed down if it is cut into the shape of a dinosaur, flower, or star.

You can also use large cookie cutters. Alternatively, you can keep it simple by cutting a sandwich into a fun shape using a knife.

This trick works for other items as well: Cut vegetables like carrots, cucumber, and zucchini into fun shapes. Turn watermelon and cantaloupe into bite-sized flowers and stars.

You can buy specialty vegetable cutters or just wing it with a paring knife. Not only will the cool designs make lunch items more appealing, but the small size will also make them less daunting and easier for kids to eat.

Think Small Serving Sizes

Big portions can be intimidating for little tummies and fingers. Aim to pack only as much of the foods as your child typically eats. Check with them and observe what they eat and leave behind.

More tends to be intimidating rather than inviting. Pack items in small quantities, but consistently check in with your child and ask what they like. This will help you figure out what they might want more or less of.

If you put in a whole apple, make it a small-sized one that'll be easier for small hands and mouths to eat, or cut up the apple into slices. Peel oranges and put them into reusable bags or cut up a banana and mix it with blueberries and other fruit to make a healthy fruit salad.

Don't Overpack

It may be tempting to overstuff your child's lunchbox with a big sandwich, full-size yogurt, several snacks, and a big cup of fruit. Young elementary-school (and older) kids are often too busy chatting with pals to eat so many items at lunch, however, and most don't eat huge meals in one sitting in any setting.

Think about how much your child eats at home and pack accordingly. If they tend to graze, don't expect them to eat a giant lunch at school.

Use a Bento Box

Lunch gets more fun when it's divided up into bite-sized portions. Dipping sauces or items to stack together into customized bites are also usually a hit. You can purchase a bento box-style container or make compartments in a more traditional lunch box by using reusable silicone cupcake liners or other small cups and containers.

Consider serving hummus or another yummy dip with veggies, feta cheese, and pita. You can also put rice, chicken, veggie slices, soy sauce, and seaweed in containers for make-your-own "sushi" or as an appetizing rice bowl. Alternatively, add black beans, cheese, salsa, and a tortilla and let your child build their own burrito.

Don't Try Anything New

Variety is good, but the school lunchbox isn't the time to try out a new recipe or food that your child isn't familiar with. Dinner is a better opportunity to encourage kids to try something new because you're there to eat it with them and talk about it.

However, if there are any foods your child loves but rarely gets, such as cut-up mango or seaweed snacks, do aim to send those to school when possible as a special treat.

You want to continue to encourage your child to try new foods—just don't have unfamiliar meals show up for the first time in their lunchbox.

Add Flavor With Fruit

Use fruit to add a sweet touch to your child's lunch. Jazz up water with some cut up fruit or give them grapes to go with cheddar cheese and multigrain bread.

If you do include sweets in your child's lunch, it's important to allow them to eat their foods in any order they want; don't use certain foods as a bribe to get them to eat others first.

Use Those Leftovers

Send your child's favorite dinners to school. If you had spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, roasted chicken, or enchiladas a night or two before, the leftovers can be a great addition to a school lunch.

Add some string cheese, broccoli bites, and other favorite veggies, and you've got nutritious lunch that your child is likely to eat.

Keeping foods at the proper temperature is especially important with leftovers. An insulated thermos preheated with boiling water works well for hot dishes, and a simple ice pack can keep dairy foods and other chilled meals cold until lunchtime.

Test New Options on the Weekends

Pasta salad with olives and feta? Pesto and cheese ravioli? Cucumbers with cherry tomatoes and a ranch dipping sauce? What about tuna and avocado rolled in a flaxseed wrap? Weekend lunches are the perfect time to try out different school lunch ideas to see what your child likes and doesn't like.

Creative Lunch Ideas

For more lunch inspiration, try these nutritious, kid-friendly recipes:

Ginger Asparagus Chicken Stir Fry

ginger chicken
Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD

Chicken, asparagus, and rice make a tasty, nutritious meal for your student's lunch. This recipe from Verywell Fit elevates simple chicken and rice with a boost of ginger and garlic. Even better, it all comes together in one large skillet. Customize it by adding in your child's favorite veggies, such as carrots, zucchini, or bok choy.

Baked Tofu Noodle Bowl

sticky baked tofu noodle bowl
Patsy Catsos, MS, RDN, LD

This satisfying fiber and protein-packed noodle, baked tofu, and veggie bowl from Verywell Fit will fill your child's tummy and super-charge their energy for the rest of the day. The tofu and veggies soak up a hard-to-resist sauce flavored with sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and rice vinegar.

Sesame Coleslaw With Teriyaki Chicken

Low-FODMAP Cole Slaw With Teriyaki Chicken
Patsy Catsos, MS, RDN, LD

Crunchy cabbage and carrots combine with a tangy dressing and teriyaki chicken to create a delicious, satisfying coleslaw. This hearty salad provides a variety of flavors and textures while hitting all the key components of a healthy meal.

Potato, Leek, and White Bean Soup

potato leed soup
Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD

Send the comfort of soup to school with your child. This one is a variation on potato leek soup from Verywell Fit. It's elevated with white bean, bacon, and scallions.

Chopped Salad With Garlic-Ginger Chicken

asian chopped salad
Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE

This flavorful salad delivers a rainbow of crunchy veggies paired with flavor-packed grilled garlic-ginger chicken. Your student will have all their nutritional bases covered and it all comes together with a punchy soy-lime dressing.

Vietnamese Vermicelli With Chile Sauce and Pork

vietnamese vermecalli
Patsy Catsos, MS, RDN, LD

Pork, rice noodles, and crunchy veggies combine for a satisfying meal. This recipe takes a while to prepare, but the payoff is big—sweet, salty, sour, and spicy goodness that is excellent at room temperature and can be used a for a few lunches (pack yourself some too). Plus, if you enlist your little chopper to help, you can significantly cut down on prep time.

Spinach and Feta Oatmeal Bowl

Spinach and Feta Oatmeal Bowl
Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD

This creative take on oatmeal turns the breakfast staple into an inspired lunch by adding in a fried egg, spinach, and feta. All the food groups are represented to ensure your child is getting all the nutrients and energy they need. Plus, breakfast for lunch might be just the draw your child needs to dig in.

A Word From Verywell

Do your best to encourage your child to eat their lunch but learn when to let go. If your child keeps coming home with a picked-over lunch, be patient, and try to avoid making lunch a battle. Too much negative attention for not eating everything could easily turn into a power struggle. Honor that some kids might not be that hungry until after school or simply can't focus on eating.

Instead of getting worked up, calmly talk to your child about what might be going on, and ask for their suggestions. If, after your best efforts, your child is still barely eating their lunch, just pack smaller lunches and plan to feed them a big breakfast and a healthy after-school snack.

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