Packed School Lunch – How to Keep it Safe and Healthy

My memories of school lunches are far from pleasant, mystery meat covered with gravy to thwart any attempt at identification, boiled beyond recognition vegetables, tater tots or mashed potatoes, rice pudding, tapioca, fruit in syrup. Not particularly appetizing and I’m guessing not particularly healthy. Of course, my experience is from back in the late seventies and eighties though, and in England.

Today most of our local school districts have made huge steps to remedy the perception of unhealthy school lunches. In the England, school lunches have been completely revolutionized thanks in no small part to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. The change in school lunches is happening here too.

Last year I had an opportunity to visit a Grow 2b Fit and TMC for Children collaboration where Sunnyside School District’s Roving Chefs taught a group of grade school children how to cook nutritious meals. These meals were actual recipes used for school lunches. My perception of school lunches was blown – these meals were yummy and nutritious. The kids gobbled the food down, knowing full well it was chock full of vegetables.

Last year as I talked with the chefs, talk of school lunches was all theoritical, today as my eldest child starts Kindergarten it is very real. Looking over the Tucson Unified School District’s lunch schedule, it’s clear that school lunch has changed significantly since I was in school, or even since I taught school here in Tucson twelve years ago. Every meal includes fresh fruit or veg, whole grain carbohydrates, even the pizza has a whole grain crust. Wow! But, like many parents to a fresh-faced kindergartener I’m planning on sending a packed school lunch and substituting school prepared lunches throughout the year.

I asked Amanda Gavel, registered dietitian here at TMC for her suggestions for packing a healthy and food safe lunch.

Practice Food Safety

While food safety is definitely important, I think use of an insulated lunch box with ice packs will help to not limit the options so much while still providing a safe lunch.

So off to the store I went to pick up a few novelty ice packs. What little (or big) kid doesn’t like their lunch to look appealing? You can also just freeze your child’s water bottle and use that as an ice pack. By lunch time and out of the insulated lunch bag the water should melt in time to consume. We also include frozen berries or mango which double as both dessert and to cool the pack.

While those brown paper bags were standard for school lunches in yesteryear, increasingly most children take their packed school lunch in some sort of insulated lunch bag and with good reason. shares this:

Insulated lunch boxes help maintain food at a safe temperature until lunchtime. Perishable lunch foods, such as cold cut sandwiches and yogurt, can be left out at room temperature for only 2 hours before they may become unsafe to eat. But, with an insulated lunch box and a chilled freezer gel pack, perishable food can stay cold and safe to eat until lunch.

Why keep food cold? Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the “Danger Zone” — the temperatures between 40 and 140 °F. So, perishable food transported without a cold source won’t stay safe long.

Oh, and while preschool might have enforced the wash your hands before you eat, I’m not convinced my daughter is likely to voluntarily take off to the bathroom to wash her hands before eating. I’m including some moist towel in her lunch box. Not a perfect solution, but a start. (Safe food handling practices in preparation of the food are also important and you’ll find me singing an out of tune rendition of happy birthday twice while washing my hands with soap and water to make sure my hands are clean enough to handle food)

Include non-perishable foods

There aren’t a lot of healthier food items that are shelf stable for lunches. provides these examples of non-perishable foods: whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, breads, crackers, peanut butter* (given the increasing numbers of children with life threatening reactions to peanuts, this might be best avoided, sunflower seed butter is often a good substitute and is well-loved in this household), jelly, mustard, pickles, nuts* and seeds.

What to include
As for what to include, Amanda shares these resources that are rich with ideas for what to include in school lunch:

Nutrition 411

WebMd’s healthy lunchbox tips

I also like Wendolina’s blog. She uses a variety of containers and has fun with making a lunch. There are lots of ideas for foods to include and making it a little bit fun. Don’t we all like our food to look appealing?

Include your child in making their lunch the night before

Like all of us, my child likes some control over her life. Involving her in preparing her first kindergarten packed lunch meant that a salad was included (weird kid), she wanted the tomatoes and unsalted sunflower seeds. The left-over pesto pasta is one that she and I made for dinner last night (she picked the basil from the yard and once the ingredients were in the food processor got to hit the button.) Oh, and berries for dessert (they’re in season and so on mega sale at a local supermarket.) The lunch is healthy and tasty and I know she’ll eat it. It went together in about five minutes as we cleaned up from last night’s meal.

Don’t overpack

A constant battle between my husband and I surrounds the amount of food that is packed for lunch. I think he has hollow legs. At the end of the day it is frustrating to have to chuck the perishable food onto the compost, to the chickens or worse yet into the trash. This first few weeks of school we’ll be gauging how much food is left over and adjust accordingly.

Are you packing lunch for your child? What healthy foods do you involve? How do you make it appealing? What tricks do you have to keep it healthy and safe?

*Important Note
Before sending nut products in the lunch box, check with your school first about any restrictions on nut products and also educate your child about the importance of not sharing food, especially with children who have food allergies.A little education goes a long way, since attending a preschool with a zero tree nut or sesame product policy, our daughter points out every sesame seed or nut looking item on a baked good or cracker. It’s surprising where those products show up.


  1. Great post! I love the tip about the frozen water bottle (as long as it’s reusable *wink*) and the frozen fruit as a double duty cooler/dessert. My son is in half-day kindy this year, this will come in handy next year.🙂 Happy first day of kindy for you & your little girl!

    • Reusable just makes more sense fiscally as well as environmentally. Often the healthiest choices are the cheapest and most green, fun how that works out. The time difference on them riding to school versus driving? About 10 minutes. It’s close to my husband’s work too, so no parking fees either. Thanks for commenting Rachel.

  2. We use fit-fresh containers that have an ice pack that can be stored right under the lid. My boys love lunchmeat, so we store our rolled up Boar’s Head right in there. I also add fruit and a veggie (usually carrots), and a few “fun” snacks: Angie’s Kettle Corn or goldfish, usually.

  3. We have the same Panda- Bento container lol. We love bite-sized and we often do hummus and pretzels along with fruit. I also like to do mini skewers with cheese and fruit. The key for us is the smaller size – the more my picky (and anxious for lunch recess) son will eat! Thanks for this post and the “how much to pack” really helped me🙂

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