Phoebe’s headed into second grade this week, which means I’ve got a couple years of this elementary school thing under my belt. Packing school lunches every night has become less like a stressful chore, and more like something I can do in under 5 minutes with my eyes closed. 😉 Which is a good thing, since Henry’s starting Pre-K and this year I’ll be packing 10 lunches a week, 40 a month, totalling 360 lunches packed this year. That’s a lot of PBJ’s.

If I’ve learned anything from the past couple years of packing school lunches, it’s that a little planning on the front end saves a lot of time in the end — and having a few systems in place can make this a daily ritual that you and your kids come to actually enjoy.

Since I’ve been getting organized for the year ahead, stocking up on lunchboxes, bentos, thermoses, and healthy packaged snacks, I thought it might be helpful to share my strategies and fave products here that won’t break the bank. These may not be the most insta-worthy approaches, but they get the job done in a way that actually fits our lifestyle (y’all have surely seen those packed bento boxes floating around the internet that are #goals but totally impractical. Sorry, can’t do it.).

And since I’m sure y’all have some great tips too, leave a comment and let me know how you keep the chaos to a minimum and pack healthy lunches that your kids will actually eat. Scroll on for my school lunch plan for the year ahead.

Stock up on the lunchbox supplies you’ll need to stay organized all year.

My kids don’t like it when their food touches, and I don’t like having to use hundreds of plastic baggies over the course of the year, so bento boxes are a must for us. They also make it easy for Phoebe to pack her own lunch since she knows to fill each of the 4 compartments with something different (so she doesn’t just pack raisins for lunch). Cute lunchboxes, inserts, and thermoses are musts. Get extras so you’ve got backup when you haven’t run the dishwasher, and be sure to designate a cabinet or drawer in your kitchen where all of it can be stored.

Create a school lunch formula.

I like to have a general rule-of-thumb for the types of lunch combos that work for my kids, so when I’m tired/stressed/busy, I don’t have to think too much. I usually do a main course (sandwich, rice cakes with peanut butter, tortilla roll-ups), a veggie (carrot, celery, bell pepper strips, or edamame), a fruit (whole apple or clementine, berries, cut up pineapple or mango), and something fun (yogurt squeeze, mini muffin, applesauce, small cookie, or even a small piece of candy!).

Create a “School Lunch Basket” in the pantry and a “Snack Drawer” in the fridge.

I have a designated basket in the pantry that’s just for school lunch supplies, and stock it with healthy packaged snacks like ZBars, trail mix, GoGo Squeeze Applesauce Pouches, and pretzel packs that we can grab and toss into lunchboxes. I also just designated the very bottom drawer of our fridge as the “snack drawer,” which has been game-changing. I fill it with apples, clementines, yogurt pouches, and baggies full of cut up veggies and grapes. I can quickly toss these healthy items into lunchboxes, and the kids know that they can help themselves to a snack from this drawer whenever they’re hungry. They feel so independent being able to choose their own snack, and I’m not having to say “no” to unhealthy requests all the time.

Get them involved in the action.

My kids love to help out with the process of packing lunches — and the beauty is that they’ll usually eat a whole lot more out of their lunchbox when they got to help choose what went in it.

A few easy tasks my kids can help with:

  • Slicing cucumbers, bell peppers, and celery with their kids knives.
  • Filling celery with peanut butter and rows of raisins for “ants on a log.”
  • Using cookie cutters to cut out shapes from sandwiches.
  • Filling baggies or bentos with their lunch items.
  • Putting berries on a wooden skewer, ’cause they’re just more fun that way.

A little creativity goes a long way.

My kids get tired of seeing the same things in their school lunchbox day after day, so I’ve found that even the tiniest bit of fun infused into their lunch gets them excited to eat. Sometimes I’ll do something really creative (like the sandwich roll sushi rolls, above), and sometimes all it takes is using a cookie cutter to turn their PBJ into a heart shape. It’s easy to get stuck in the school lunch rut and fall back on what you know your kids will eat, but throwing something new into the mix will add a little fun to their lunch period.

Toss in a note from mom.

I love the thought of making my kids smile when they open their lunchbox at school, especially at the beginning of the year when they’re still transitioning into their new schedule. I try to include a little note to remind them I’m thinking of them — it doesn’t have to be elaborate, even just this morning I wrote, “I’m so proud of you! Love, Mommy.” I’m really liking these cute cards (similar) from Target that I can slip into their lunchbox each day with a prompt that I can fill in the blank.

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