One of the questions I get fairly often is about my grocery lists. What staples I keep on hand, what I keep in my pantry, what do I buy for school lunches, etc. It is a topic that warrants several different blog posts, so for this one I am telling you about what is always on my grocery lists for packing school lunches.
I've mentioned in my lunch posts before that I try to follow the basic food pyramid or "My Plate" guidelines for my lunches.
That means in every lunch I try to have a protein, a fruit, a veggie, a grain, and usually some dairy. For my non meat eaters, the dairy is often also the protein.
I don't always manage to get every category in there, but that is my goal. And I don't do it just because it makes a well balanced meal. Honestly I do it because following a simple formula actually makes it easier to pack a good lunch. You don't have to think about it quite as much - just grab one thing from each category and you're good.
Once you have a simple formula to follow, lunch packing is even easier to accomplish if you have the right things to work with, so my basic school lunch grocery list includes staples from each of those categories. Each section below goes into detail about what is on my list and why, but if you just want to get straight to the basic list you can scroll all the way to the bottom and click to download a printable version. My printable list is also a great way to get your kids involved in figuring out what to pack - print out the list and give a copy to each child. Have them check off the things that they want in their lunch. My rule is that I want them to choose at least 3 from each category, that way I have some options to choose from when I pack their lunch.
I'm lately really loving packing lunches in our Yumbox containers. If you get the 6 compartment version, it actually tells you the food group category in each section. That makes packing lunch really easy - just choose something from each category, and off you go.
(Hint - these boxes are also a really great tool for when kids start packing their own lunch.)
My basic advice for stocking your fridge and pantry for easy lunch packing is to just make sure you have a little bit of variety from each the food groups, and you'll be good to go. With a few different choices in each group, you can make limitless combinations and lunch will never get boring.
So here are my basic lists. Remember, I have four kids in school and a husband who often takes lunch, so I might keep more on hand than most.
- Bread for sandwiches: I usually try to always have some kind of whole wheat bread at a minimum. Often I will also buy a few other kinds of breads for variety - maybe some rolls or biscuits, English muffins, bagels, etc.
- Tortillas: I try to always keep a good supply of big flour tortillas. These are great for quesadillas, burritos, wraps, pinwheels.
- Crackers: I like to keep a variety of crackers for packing in the "lunchable" type of lunches. My kids will get tired of the same cracker every week, so we rotate through them. Favorites are things like Ritz, Triscuit, and Wheat Thins.
- Snack crackers: little savory snack crackers are a great side. We usually have some form of goldfish, or Cheez-it, cheddar bunnies, little rice crackers, etc.
- Granola bars: my kids seem to get tired of any one kind of granola or cereal bar really fast, so I'm always looking for different choices.
- Cereal: Cheerios or other 'snackable' type of breakfast cereals (Chex, Puffins, Kix, etc.)
- Sliced lunchmeat: At least turkey and ham, and occasionally I will buy roast beef, pastrami, or salami.
- Blocks of cheese: I always have at least one big block of cheddar cheese in my fridge. We slice it for sandwiches, cut in cubes for more of a snack box type lunch, and shred it for quesadillas, nachos, burritos. If I'm feeling crunched for time then I will sometimes buy sliced and/or grated cheese.
- Packaged snack cheeses: cheese sticks, those round Babybel cheeses, we love the little cheddar Tillamoos from Tillamook, sometimes other shapes and sizes.
- Nut butters: Peanut butter, almond butter. If you do have a nut free school, then you can substitute SunButter (sunflower seed butter) in anything that you would otherwise use peanut butter for. My kids can't tell the difference.
- Yogurt: yogurt tubes, little cups of yogurt, or big cartons. I like to have a few flavors for easy packing, and I also always have plain yogurt. Plain yogurt is great with honey and berries, but it also makes a really great substitute for sour cream - you can give them tortilla chips and plain yogurt, and if you get a good strained greek yogurt then they are getting a decent amount of protein.
I try to always have a little variety of fruit. Some of the year it's a lot of oranges and apples, depending on what's in season.
- Grapes (different colors)
- Oranges (the little Cuties, or other easy to peel varieties)
- If berries are in season, those are always on my list.
- Any other seasonal and fresh fruits
Veggies are seriously hit and miss here, as I'm sure they are with most kids. But my kids are getting better and better about it - after many years of putting it in their lunch. Each of my kids has a different type of raw veggie that they will consistently eat, so I try to always have each of their favorites.
- Cherry tomatoes
- Red and orange sweet bell peppers
- Lettuce or other salad greens
- Sugar snap peas
Condiments and Spreads:
- Jam or jelly or fruit spreads
- Cream cheese
Snacky things and other stuff:
- Cookies - we go for the less sweet varieties for school: grahams, animal crackers, most of the little Annie's bunny snack cookies.
- Dried fruits - raisins, cranberries
- Fruit sauce - applesauce pouches
One of the fun things about the Yumbox is that little round spot in the middle. It's the perfect spot for a little treat. I will sometimes put a small cookie in there, or a chocolate covered almond. I don't think treats need to be on the must have staples list, but I do think it's nice to have a little something sweet in the lunch every now and then.
VALENTINE'S DAY IS COMING UP, AND WOULDN'T IT BE FUN TO PACK A LITTLE EXTRA LOVE IN THE LUNCH BOX?
To help you plan ahead, I've pulled together the lunches I made for Valentine's week last year. All of these lunches were super quick and easy to make, with just a few extra little tools and accessories. You don't have to make any special foods - you can make any food look fun and special. With a few cutters, picks, and baking cups, you can add lots of little heart shaped touches to what would otherwise be a normal lunch.Read More
Packing lunches in advance saves my week. It's one of the single best things I do for myself. Really, for myself. If I take an hour (at the most!) on Sunday to pack lunches for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, then that's free time I've bought myself for each of those very busy those days of the week. Monday afternoon comes, and I think "I've got to make lunches for tomorrow". And then I realize, "heck no! I already did that!", and then again on Tuesday I get to have the same conversation with myself. Or I can get up in the mornings before school and not have to stress about needing to get lunches made, in addition to getting four kids up, and dressed, and fed, and to school on time. This means a few minutes out of my crazy hectic days that I can take for myself, have another cup of tea, or get a little bit ahead on something else.Read More
Listen, I am busy. I've got four little kids, two cats, a husband, and a mountain of laundry that never seems to go away. I've got way better things to do with my time than carefully treating cut apples to keep them from browning. It's funny though, the things that never occur to you until other people mention it. I've been putting apples in the lunches since the beginning of lunches, and never really given it much thought. They're just apples. I cut them, they eat them.Read More
I've been packing school lunches now for 6 years - I started when my two oldest were 18 months and going to a little developmental toddler preschool a couple days a week, and now they are almost 8. In that time, I've tried a LOT of different lunch containers and lunch packing strategies. There are a lot of good lunch containers out there, and I would definitely still recommend many of them.Read More