Tips and Ideas for Making Cold Lunches Easy and Cool {From a Mother of 8}

When it’s time for the kids to get back to school and summer or winter break, I have mixed emotions. In many ways, I love having them home during the summer and breaks. But I also long for the controlled chaos and hint of structure that comes with the kids being back in school! 🙂 Last year during registration, I heard a woman who works in the cafeteria tell someone else that hot lunch comes to about $50.00 per month per child. YIKES! For my family, that’d be $250 per month just for LUNCH! My boys LOVE to have “hot lunch” at school. My older kids… not so much.

So whether you will be having cold lunch for school, online learning, or home-school, here are some great ideas for making lunch time easy and healthy for everyone.

My Plan of Attack

#1 Get the Kids Involved

Over the past two years, my kids have been in charge of making their own lunches for school. It’s an easy thing for them to do if I’m prepared and have all the tools ready for them.

I think it’s also important for kids to have responsibilities at home (more than just keeping their room clean). With 5 in school this year, ranging from 12th grade to 1st grade, mornings will be CRAZY! So my kids MUST be a huge part of the lunch making process.

#2 Menu Plan

There’s no reason I can’t come up with a weekly lunchtime menu! Make a list of 5-10 cold lunch ideas and then rotate through it every 1 or 2 weeks. (HINT: I’ve got a free printable of lunch ideas below!)

I love using this app to do my menu planning and shopping. This will make shopping for kids’ cold lunches so much easier!

Below you’ll find a long list of lunch ideas and a free printable (see below) for you to keep in a handy place! Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments! Hang the list inside a cupboard drawer, in your pantry, or on your fridge for quick and easy inspiration.

#3 Be Organized

We have a “lunch cupboard” at our house. Inside you’ll find the bags, baggies, containers, peanut butter, honey, and other lunchtime snacks. It’s all in one place kept together, easy to find! Don’t have the extra space? Place items in a tote in your pantry!

I know some people (namely my sister) that will make up sandwiches for the entire week on Sunday evening and then throw them in the freezer. This is great for busy mornings! Just pull the sandwich out of the freezer, grab your fruit, snack and drink and lunch is ready!

Another family I know would make the lunches the night before. Each night someone is assigned to make lunch for everyone the next day. Bags/totes are packed and placed in the fridge. This definitely helps with the morning rush!

We thought this was pretty brilliant…

The Bin Method

Cold lunch ideas bins

You fill bins with the items for lunch, with a number of how many to take, and then the kids grab whatever they choose from each of the bins! Each bin has its own category of food. For example,

Bin 1: fruit to-go and veggie source bars
Bin 2: fruits cups and applesauce
Bin 3: cheeses and yogurts
Bin 4: Meats & veggies
Bin 5: granola bars or muffins
Bin 6: “junk food”, popcorn, or veggie straws

The options are really endless here and it is so fun to mix and match. You and the kids and prepare different things at the beginning of the month and they can enjoy it all month long.

40 Cold Lunch Ideas for Kids

Here are so many more fun, healthy, and delicious cold school lunch ideas that the kids can enjoy this year (and I am sure you will too).

Sandwiches/Main Dish:

1. Tortilla Pinwheel Recipe

Tortilla pinwheels are super cute and super delicious with ranch spread! You can also turn it into a “Sandwich Sushi” – tortillas with a layer of cream cheese, ham, cheese, and spinach leaves.

2. Pizza Puffs Recipe

These are so easy to make and I bet you have all the ingredients already. Its a fun way for kids to eat pizza with their cold lunch! See the recipe here.

3. PB&J

This is a staple in our home and we absolutely love our  fast easy homemade strawberry freezer jam recipe! Or you can try this version of a PB&J Roll-up for a new cold lunch idea.

4. Healthy PB&J Muffins

Peanut butter and jelly muffins are so easy and healthy. But they taste so good that really they should be a dessert!

5. Lunch Box Smoothies

My kids love smoothies and I love that it is so simple to add into my kids’ cold lunch boxes.

6. Angry Birds Lunch

Your picky eaters will have so much fun with this cold lunch idea that they will eat it all up!

7. Healthy Zucchini Muffins

I love zucchini and since it is still zucchini season, these zucchini muffins are perfect to have for your kid’s school lunch.

8. Salad

If you have kids or teenagers that love greens, try a salad for a healthy school lunch idea. We love to prepare all the parts separately at the beginning of the week, so that the kids can easily grab what they want and throw it all together at school (or at home).

9. Wraps

Wraps are such a fun idea for kids school lunches because just like a salad you can prepare all the ingredients beforehand and the kids can grab the ones they love the best and make it into a healthy wrap super quick. Check out these kids-proof wrap ideas here.

10. Mac & Cheese

We love making mac & cheese in our Instant Pot! You can whip this one up fairly quickly and serve it as a cold lunch idea the next day. (See how to keep it hot in the tools section below). Check out our favorite recipe here.

11. Soup

Our family loves this super easy Chicken Gnocchi soup for lunch. Also check out these other soup recipes for more inspiration for kids school lunch ideas.

Some other awesome school lunch ideas packed with nutrition and yumminess include:

12. Leftovers
13. Cubed Chicken/Ham/Cheese (Kebabs)
14. Lettuce Wraps
15. Bagel Sandwiches
16. Waffle with peanut butter or applesauce
17. Homemade Lunchables
18. Ham/Turkey Sandwich
19. Tuna Sandwich
20. Homemade Uncrustables (use a cut and seal tool like this)


21. Homemade Cheez-it Crackers

I hesitate buying Cheez-its because they are usually gone in a day! But these homemade cheese-its are so simple to make and my kids LOVE having them in their homemade school lunch.

22. Fresh Veggies & Homemade Hummus 

Our family recently discovered how easy it is to make hummus! You can whip this up in 5 minutes and serve it with some fresh carrots and celery all week long. The kids will love it apart of their school lunch and you will love it as a healthy snack throughout the day! View the full recipe HERE.

23. Fresh Fruit

Check out this list of healthy fruits that you use for lunch ideas to add healthy energy into your kids’ day. Also check out this post to learn some tips to make your bananas last longer!

Some other great side ideas include:

24. Triscuits with cream cheese & sliced cucumbers
25. Applesauce (we love GoGo SqueeZ)
26. String Cheese

Frozen & Cold Items

27. Drinks

We love making our own homemade strawberry lemonade and using these cute portable drink holders, perfect for kids cold lunches.

28. Pineapple

Check out this step-by-step guide for freezing pineapple. You can then add it to your cold lunch for all your pineapple loving kids!

You can also freeze other fruits or sides to keep your kids’ cold lunch nice and cool. For example:

29. Grapes
30. Blueberries
31. Peaches
32. Go-Gurt


33. Healthy muffins

Here’s a healthy muffin recipe you may like to add into homemade lunch ideas list.  Be sure to check out all these different muffin recipes to find the perfect one for your kid’s cold lunch!

34. Fruit leather

If you have a food dehydrator, then you need to try this homemade fruit leather! It is so easy and delicious. Only three ingredients! A perfect lunch idea for kids (and adults).

35. Popcorn

Our family loves adding popcorn to our cold lunch idea list. We recently bought a popcorn machine, but did you know you can DIY Microwave Popcorn? Also check out these other delicious and healthy popcorn recipes.)

36. Homemade cookies

Admit it, they’ll love this the most (and so will you). Check out all our cookie ideas so that you can try a new one each week for a fun new cold lunch tradition.  Also try freezing cookie dough ahead of time so that you can have fresh cookies ready in minutes!

37. Healthy No-Bake Peanut Butter Oat Bars

I love not using my oven and these no bake bars are exactly what my kids need for healthy and delicious.

38. No-Bake Chocolate Granola Bites Recipe

Also another yummy school lunch idea that is healthy and easy to make. See the full recipe here.

39. No-Bake Energy Bites

And if you have kids that are in after school programs, these no bake energy bites are a delicious snack at the end of the school day.

40. The Best Chocolate Zucchini Bread Recipe

We are big zucchini fans over here. So of course we love to have our favorite zucchini bread every once and a while for a healthier school lunch treat.

Cold Lunch Ideas Printable

Print this handy little page with lots of cold school lunch ideas! Hang the list inside a cupboard, drawer, in your pantry, or on your fridge for quick and easy inspiration!

Lunch Ideas Printable

Download the Cold Lunch Ideas Printable

More Lunch Tips

Cold Lunch Ideas

Tip #1: Get the Tools

When I asked our readers about this a while ago, they had a TON of great hacks for making cold lunch “cool” (and “hot”!). And it starts with the tools!

Tip #2: Shop the Deals and Save Money

  • Printable coupons can make saving money really easy… just click on the ones you want and print away!
  • Another way to save money on cold lunch supplies is with sales. Typically, you can find Kraft sales at grocery stores during the back to school time. And, in years past Kraft also put out a ton of coupons that you can match with those sales. You can stock up on cheese and lunch meat and then pop them in your freezer. (Cheese will store well, unopened in your fridge, for at least 6 months.)
  • When you find a great price on food and/or supplies, stock up to last you for the whole school year if you can. Not only is it nice to save tons of $, but it’s also awesome to never have to run out of some of those everyday items.

Cold Lunch Ideas for Kids at School

Got Special Diets?

So… what else?

Anything I’m missing? What have I forgotten? Do you have favorite brands that you love to use for some of these items? What are your favorite cold lunch ideas? Let me know in the comments!

Make packing lunch easy with these handy lunch boxes!

amazon lunch containers

EasyLunchboxes or the PackIt Freezable Lunch BagPackIt

Find even more healthy ideas from this list of healthy snacks!

You might also like these back to school breakfast recipes!

Meal Type: Appetizers and Snacks, Recipe Roundup, Side Dish, Tips, #StayHome, Back to School, Fall
Categories: Finger Food and Dips, Fruits, Healthy, Sandwiches and Burgers

Comments & Reviews

  • I recently saw a tip I thought was great. Freeze a wet dish sponge in a zip lock baggie and it becomes your ice pack. It never leaks because it’s inside the baggie.

  • We have nut allergies– very bad! It is hard to come up with nut-free lunches… My daughter hates sandwiches.. Any ideas for cheap lunches without pbandJ??

    • I’ve got two with peanut allergies as well. We do ham and cheese sandos or tuna fish. Sometimes I send them with protein bars because they get sick of the sandos. More expensive though, but cheaper than school lunch! Instead of bread, try tortillas or pitas… sometimes cutting the sandwich cute and fun helps as well. Or send meat and cheese with crackers.

    • One of my kiddos is in a nut-free classroom. He LOVES peanut butter, but we’ve been able to deter him everyone once in awhile by doing apple butter sandwiches–sometimes with banana slices or a bit of jelly for additional flavor. We’ve also thrown apple butter in between two apple slices or crackers. I do a lot of meat and cheese roll-ups too–a very basic food, but they think it’s super fun. In those silicone muffin tins, we also do groups of cut up veggies, fruits or cheese squares. They keep the items separated well. If the kids are sick of the typical veggies, our go-to to switch it up is pickles; they love the sweet gerkhins, and I at least feel good about them getting a veggie!

    • Make cheese quesadilas or toasties!

  • I would like to say especially with younger kids to keep in mind how your lunch items need be cleaned and how often this needs to be done. For example I buy each of my kids two water bottles that way we don’t run into the issue of packing a lunch and hand washing everything at the same time. I make sure my kids lunch boxes are machine washable and that we have plenty of lunch containers on hand. Also double check your containers that they can be put in the dishwasher before buying them. Couple things I have learned about buying reusable water bottles for my kids is that often kids can have these on their desk and we had an issue with other kids touching the top mouth parts as they would walk by my daughters desk. So make sure the mouth part is fully covered. Also having a straw in a water bottle is not the best, they are hard to get clean and most of the time the water bottle is useless if your kids loses the straw. The best reusable water bottles I’ve found are in the camping section of the store. They have a screw on lid attached to the bottle (no lost lids or looking for it in large box of other lids) and usually a wide mouth for easy cleaning and most come with a sipper insert that is easy removed for cleaning. Walmart carries one we like called Outdoor Products .5L Cyclone Water Bottle. One bonus is that they run about 4 bucks and are very durable. Hope this helps and many days of happy lunch packing.

  • My kids are snackers and love when I give them bento box lunches in ice cube trays at home. Fruit, vegetables, meat, noodles, nuts, crackers, even candy! A little but of everything. Traditional Japanes bentos include rice, fish or meat and vegetables but you can customize to please any appetite. Here are 2 sites with products and ideas.

  • My oldest love pasta salad – I dice up some left over chicken and 1 batch makes 2-3 lunches

  • Love all the tips and ideas. I still give my boys pb and j sandwiches for school but instead pb, we use wow butter. Nowadays there so many alternatives to peanut butter, finding which one you kids like is the hard part. Sometime I wouldnt tell them and they dont even know the difference lol

    • My son has a peanut and hazelnut allergy. We found Wow Butter at walmart. I can’t stand peanut butter unless paired with cantaloupe. But when my son asked me to try the Wow Butter I was amazed to learn that my issue with peanut butter is not the flavor but the texture. I love the Wow Butter. It tastes just like peanut butter but doesn’t get all gummy and stick to the roof of my mouth. It’s been his peanut butter fix for at least the last 5 years.

  • When sending soup or left overs, I put boiled water in the thermos for 10 minutes – lid on. Remove the water, add your heated left-overs and they usually stay hot until lunch time.

  • I have a son with sensory processing disorder ( very picky eater). And we have just found out that he is allergic to MSG. So now I’m thinking how am I going to do school lunch in September Ahhh

    • My son has that. He is 15 now but still a picky eater. I know that I am an extremely picky eater and often wonder if that is why. I eat foods based on texture and lean toward salty and avoid sweet. I also like sour foods.

    • My son is also a VERY picky eater (literally 12 things he eats, with about 6 more that he will occasionally eat) and lunches and dinners are always difficult. He is 6. Getting him to try new foods are not fun. It started when I switched his (homemade) baby food to bite sized finger foods.
      He doesn’t like PB, won’t try J, so sandwiches are butter or cheese, no crust. Yogurts (in a cup, no gogurt), “squishy’s” like Mott’s snack & go pouches, fruit snack, cheese slice or stick, chips or crackers, milk…

      • This sounds like my 6 yr. old grandson. We do the same as you. No jelly. No sandwich and he dislikes meat. Occasionally he will eat like bacon or a taco. This is the first year he ate a hamburger. So we send plain tortilla, or I will placed peanut butter in it and roll it up. Pasta. I’m making energy bites with oats now also. It’s hard. Good luck

  • How can I get a copy of ur recipe booklet for the breakfast menus?

  • What can you substitute for peanut butter? My baby boy hates peanut butter and his school has alot of food allergies. I need some help!

  • This is my favorite recipe! So good and so easy to make!

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