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

38 ideas for tackling the cold lunch conundrum

As I prepare for my children to return to school, I have mixed emotions (P.S. – pic on the right is out of date! My two oldest have graduated and my littlest, who isn’t even pictured, is about to turn 3!). In many ways, I love having them home during the summer. But I also long for the controlled chaos and hint of structure that comes with the fall. ๐Ÿ™‚ 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 little boys LOVE to have “hot lunch” at school. My older kids… not so much. ๐Ÿ™‚

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. 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 6 in school this year, an active toddler and a first grader, 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 lunch time menu! Make a list of 5-10 lunch ideas and then rotate through it every 1 or 2 weeks. 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 lunch time 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…
  • 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! You can see more details on the original picture on Facebook.

The Menu

Sandwiches/Main Dish:


Frozen Items (to help keep things cool)


Lunch Ideas Printable!

Print this handy little page with lots of 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

Get the tools:

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

Shop the Deals and Save Money:

  • In August there will be a TON of coupons you can use towards school lunch stuff! You can easily sort through what has right here. Printable coupons can make saving money really easy… just click on the ones you want and print away!
  • Typically, there is a huge Kraft sale at most grocery stores in August as well. And in years past Kraft also puts out a ton of coupons that you can match with those sales. You can stock up on cheese and lunch meat and the 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 $, it’s also awesome to never have to run out of some of those every day items.

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 you putting in your kids cold lunch?

EasyLunchboxes or the PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag

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

Start the day off right with one of these breakfast recipes!

Tips and Ideas for Making Mornings Easier with Cold Lunch Prep - ideas from a mother of 8!

Meal Type: Tips
Categories: Finger Food and Dips, Fruits, Healthy, Sandwiches and Burgers

Comments & Reviews

  • Mary McMahan

    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.

  • Laura Reeping

    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??

    • Cathy

      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.

    • Lauren

      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!

    • Lita Brown

      Make cheese quesadilas or toasties!

  • Savanna

    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.

  • Lisa

    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.

  • Kandace

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

  • Kim

    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

    • Moe

      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.

  • Dee

    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.

  • Julie

    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

    • Moe

      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.

    • Stephanie

      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…

      • Susan

        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

  • Kristy

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

  • Darlene Perdue

    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!

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