Easy back to school lunches your kids will love

There's an obtainable magic that happens in our Colorado kitchen on school mornings between 6:30 and 6:45am. Instead of waking up feeling like we’re already behind, my husband Randy and I calmly ease into our day. While the rest of the house sleeps, we quietly and efficiently work side-by-side. Our rhythm feels meditative. I pull food out of the fridge to pack in Cole and Will Riley’s school lunch bags while Randy makes them a well-rounded and filling breakfast of eggs, avocado, cucumbers and banana slices to dip in almond butter. These are intentional calories that we know will nourish our boys and produce focused energy their teachers will appreciate. 

What's in their lunches? We'll get to that. 

I was raised by two smart and hard-working professionals who chose to give me lunch money instead of sending me off with a brown paper bag. I’ve always been a good eater and so I had no complaints about the school lunches. In high school I fell into a routine of a bagel, cream cheese, lemonade and two Ho Hos for lunch. These items looked more appealing than the hot lunch options. Although they seemed healthy enough, they put me to sleep. Literally. In the class following lunch my eyes would glaze over, I'd struggle to look engaged, and I’d end up jolting awake right before the bell. My afternoon slump continued into my professional career, accompanying me from job to job as I moved up the corporate ladder. 

Today I have non-stop energy all day. Gone are the food comas. What changed? My diet, nothing more. And when my diet changed, so did the whole family’s. Randy and I got rid of the worst offenders—things like gluten and dairy, and we feel better—more focused and energetic, and no longer bloated.    

When it comes to food Randy and I are in sync and not willing to compromise. We know the impact sugar has on energy and behavior. The thought of dealing daily with the typical whining for more and more sugar that comes from kids addicted to it makes us shudder. Our boys eat well because we’ve trained them to do so. In this case, nurture is winning over nature.

I’ve overheard parents mentioning that they feel their kids shouldn’t miss out on lunchtime treats...because they're kids. As if sugar were a birthright. Other parents have told me that they’re the ones with the sweet tooth. That their days are long and stressful and therefore they deserve to eat what they want. They admit they could eat better and be a better example to their kids, but that it feels too hard. It just doesn’t appear worth the effort.

What do I tell them? 

First, that I get it. They’re human and genetically designed to like sweet foods. Second, not to allow their personal cravings for unhealthy foods to negatively influence their children's fate. Easier said than done, but it is possible.  I write more about emotional eating and tips to combat it here. 

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Deep down would you like your kids to eat better? Would you like to give them something more nutritious than the school provided lunch—which you know is less than stellar? But maybe it feels like a better option than a homemade lunch where the Oreos, Cheez-its and juice boxes slip in? If this happens, don’t feel badly. Big Food spends millions of dollars a year convincing us to buy processed, nutrient-deficient convenience items. Maybe you were originally drawn in by the convenience of those treats and didn’t see the true cost. Don’t be trapped by habit. It’s not too late. Your kids are neither too young nor too old to take on new healthy behaviors. 

So how do we take something that feels so complicated and make it seamless and easy?

I’d quickly lose interest in making homemade school lunches if I were hard boiling eggs, baking bread and cutting up vegetables each morning. It comes down to prioritizing, planning and prepping. I prioritize time each week for meal planning and food prepping. Once a week I batch cook—meaning that I spend about 120 minutes prepping vegetables, making sauces and baking so that all I do on school mornings is find a few good food combinations. It takes very little effort and in the grand scheme of things, very little time.

Consider doing an experiment. Remove the processed convenience foods from your kitchen. Start feeding your kids real whole foods at meal times. See what they gravitate toward. And then build off of those ideas. Taste buds change often. If your kids don’t like a certain food, be patient. Keep reintroducing it until they decide that it’s acceptable. But note, they’ll never like something new if they know all they have to do is wait you out for the good stuff. If your kitchen is full of treats, you’ll never win them over.

This morning I made both boys their lunches in less than 10 minutes. This is what I packed in Cole's lunch. What's inside? Sugar snap peas, cucumbers, carrot sticks + celery sticks to dip in almond nut butter and grapes. They also got an Epic bar for added protein.

Thinking this looks sparse? Recall that their breakfast was full of healthy fats and proteins— NOT SUGAR, so when it's time for lunch they're hungry but not hangry

Feel like you need some more ideas?

Here are a few of our favorite lunches:


The way forward is not difficult.

Randy’s and my morning meal-making moments are one of intention, connection and flow. So step out of your comfort zone, slow down and dive deep into the possibility of making more healthy meals for your family. 

That which you admire in others, you are capable of yourself.