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 a healthy lunch is not only important for your child's physical growth, but it can help them stay focused and mentally and emotionally sharp.

The paradox of kid's lunchboxes is that they often come back home barely touched. Even more confounding is the sticky mess the lunchbox becomes. 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 the now-inedible, smooshed food all left inside.

This adds up to frustration for parents and empty tummies for kids, not to mention food waste. If it happens regularly, it can be worrying—potentially impacting your child's ability to learn, regulate their feelings, and behave at their best.

But as exasperating as this can be (kids get hungry, why don't they eat?), there are steps you can take to pack lunches that will get eaten. Below, we share creative ideas for lunches that most kids are sure to gobble up, as well as some general tips to help make that happen.

Lunch During the Pandemic

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many students will be doing distance learning for some (or all) days of the week, for the foreseeable future. This means school lunch may be at home some or all days of the week.

If this is the case for your family, you can choose to do lunch as you normally would at home or, to keep your child in a school-like mode, you can operate as if your child was going to school by continuing the lunchbox packing routine.

Why Kids Aren't Eating Your Packed Lunches

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. Plus, with the bustling activity of the cafeteria, socializing with friends, peer pressure, and the lure of recess competing with your child's grumbling tummy, it's no wonder not much eating takes place.

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

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.

So, it pays off to really talk to your child (and possibly their teachers) if you are concerned that something besides the actual lunch may be contributing to your child not eating.

Still, for many kids, in addition to lobbying your school for longer lunchtimes and/or snack breaks in class, there are many small, simple changes you can make at home that can dramatically improve your child's lunch consumption—and ease the clean-up process.

Helpful Tips

Here are a several easy tactics to employ to make your child's packed lunch more tempting:

Play Chef

Let your child help 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 writing up a chart detailing their meal rotation for the week. Take this one step further by having them log what does and does not get eaten each day. Then, adjust what you pack accordingly.

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 will incentivize your child to eat what's in there.

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

If your kiddo only asks for things like candy, potato chips, and other less healthy options, it can help to give them specific choices. For example, let them pick between a ham, cheese, or nut butter sandwich.

Give them reign over which fruit to pack. Or let them choose between pretzels and tortilla chips. This way, they feel agency over their lunch content but are still eating a healthy meal.

Use Cutouts

Sandwich cutters in fun designs are a parent's best friend. That turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich is more likely to be scarfed down if the sandwich is cut into a dinosaur, flower, or star. You can also use large cookie cutters. Alternatively, you can keep it simple by trimming off crusts and/or cutting a sandwich into a fun shape or multiple small pieces 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. Your child isn't likely to eat 20 baby carrots—the reality is that most kids who like baby carrots will probably consume just four to 10. Aim to pack just how many (or less) than they can really eat in one sitting.

More tends to be intimidating rather than inviting. So, pack items in small quantities. Leaving them wanting more will also make them more excited about the item if you pack it again the next day.

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 to make it easier for your child. 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. But young elementary-school (and older) kids are often too busy chatting with pals to eat so many items at lunch, and most don't eat huge meals in one sitting in any setting. And too much can actually make it harder for your child to tell what's in the lunchbox or bag.

Think about how much your child eats at home and pack accordingly. If they tend to graze and/or eat several small meals, 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. There are some cool bento boxes on the market you can purchase, or you can make your own compartments with reusable silicone cupcake liners or other small cups.

Consider serving hummus or another yummy dip with veggies, feta cheese, and pita. Or put rice, chicken, veggie slices, soy sauce, and seaweed in containers for make-your-own "sushi" or as an appetizing rice bowl. Alternatively, put in black beans, cheese, salsa, and a tortilla for your child to 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. Most young children like to stick to their comfort zone. Dinner is a better opportunity to encourage kids to try something new. Many kids also don't want to open their lunchbox to anything "weird" or complicated to eat that they'll need to juggle or explain to their friends.

That said if there are any foods your child loves but rarely gets, whatever that may be, such as cut-up mango or seaweed packs, do aim to send those to school, when possible, as a special treat.

Definitely encourage your child to eat new foods—just don't have these unfamiliar meals show up for the first time in their lunchbox.

Sweeten Naturally

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 some cheddar cheese and multigrain bread. Make other sweet goodies such as a cookie or brownie a once-in-a-while treat. You can also encourage eating by offering to include a sweet treat if they promise to eat the rest (or most) of their meal 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.

Note that you'll want to be sure your child will eat the meal at room temperature or that there is an accessible, easy-to-use microwave available.

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. Try some of the ideas below!

Creative Lunch Ideas

For more lunch inspiration try the below 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 elevates simple chicken and rice with a ginger and garlic flavor boost. Even better, it all comes together in one large skillet. Customize it by adding in any of your child's favorite ingredients, 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 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 elevated with white bean, bacon, and scallions. Nonfat Greek yogurt, which replaces the heavy cream, butter, and/or sour cream used in traditional recipes, cuts down on saturated fat without sacrificing creamy deliciousness.

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 healthy, satisfying meal. This recipe takes a while to prepare (over an hour and a half) but the payoff is big—sweet, salty, sour, and spicy goodness that is excellent at room temperature. 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 aim 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 post-school snack.

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