1. Make a big batch of PB&J sandwiches in advance and freeze them.
A great idea from Money-Saving Mom: These will keep just fine for about 4-6 weeks. Just take one out of the freezer in the morning, pack it, and it will be thawed and ready to go by lunch time.
2. You can also freeze individual portions of rice or pasta and reheat them before you pack lunch.
Get the full instructions at Momables.
3. Put a rubber band around a sliced apple to keep it from turning brown.
Alternatively: Don’t slice the apple. But this trick is pretty neat!
4. Freeze drinks the night before and they’ll double as ice packs.
The rest of the lunch will stay nice and cool, and the drink should thaw by lunch time.
5. You can also freeze a clean, wet sponge to use as an icepack.
When it defrosts, it’ll come in very handy for cleanup. Instructions here.
6. Have your kids pack their own lunches.
You can stick a note to the fridge to remind your kids what should go in their lunch every day, and maybe lend a hand with trickier parts (like sandwich-making). But it’s easy to have them do their own assembly before bedtime every night. You’ll save time, and they won’t be able to complain about what’s in their lunchbox, because they put it there!
7. Make a snack station for your kids to choose from.
You can keep dry goods on the counter and perishables in the fridge. This tip from Real Simple saves time, helps eliminates the same-thing-every-day problem, and gives your kids some (but not TOO many) options to choose from.
8. Fill up reusable food pouches with homemade smoothies.
9. Hard-boil a bunch of eggs at the beginning of the week.
They’re an easy, prep-free way to add protein to your kid’s lunch, and will keep fine in the fridge. Pack with a little container of salt and pepper for dipping.
10. Make lunches at night, not in the morning.
It’s gotta get done one way or the other, but you’re a lot less likely to be frazzled (and thus pack a better, healthier lunch) when you’re not rushing to get out the door. You can also kill two birds by packing up leftovers from dinner.
11. Heat up soup or pasta in the morning and pack it in a thermos to stay warm.
No waiting in line to microwave it later. Just keep in mind that you may want to preheat the thermos and heat the food hotter than you normally would so that it stays warm until lunch time. Here are some helpful tips.
12. Mix homemade food with pre-packaged snacks.
Forget feeling guilty that you didn’t grind your own peanut butter and bake your own homemade pretzels, okay? That’s not a chill sitch, and there are plenty of individually packaged snacks you can buy that are perfectly healthy. Here are a few good suggestions.
13. Organize snacks for each day ahead of time.
You can buy divided plastic trays for a few bucks and set up snack stations in the fridge, with some variations day-to-day, at the beginning of the week. Then just grab and pack (with a sandwich) each morning. Get more info here.
14. Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes (and get rid of crusts).
Before you start with the “ain’t nobody got time for that,” let’s be clear: This takes literally five seconds. And it will drastically increase the odds of your kid actually EATING the sandwich you pack.
15. Cookie cutters are also a great way to jazz up fruit or cheese.
FACT: Food shaped like tiny hearts is considered 250% more delicious by children.
16. A lunch box with divided compartments cuts down on packaging and helps you remember all the components.
17. On birthdays and holidays, wrap each part of the lunch in gift wrap.
This obviously isn’t going to happen every day, but it’s well worth doing a few times a year.
18. Make your own healthier Lunchables.
Are your kids furious that you won’t send them to school with Lunchables, aka pretty much the worst thing you could possibly feed them? Address the terrible injustice by packing up cute divided tupperware with real versions of all the same foods (plus some actual fruit or veggies, for good measure).
Check out how this homemade DIY pizza lunch stacks up to the storebought version here.
19. Most kids love peanut butter, so just send them to school with a bunch of different things to dip in it.
20. Same goes for hummus. EVERYTHING is better with hummus.
Tips for how to make this tray here.
21. Use up leftovers from breakfast.
Most kids will be pretty thrilled to have pancakes for lunch, so don’t throw those extras out. Get more smart ideas here.
22. Give food cute faces with stickers.
A great trick for people who don’t have hours to spend on an elaborate bento box. Just wrap tightly in plastic wrap and stick ‘em on.
24. If your kids aren’t into sandwiches, try skewers.
Get some easy ideas here. Who doesn’t love food on a stick?
25. You can use tortillas for almost anything — from quesadilla pinwheels to DIY mini pizzas.
26. If you want to add a cute note but don’t have time to draw something, use free printables.
27. Print out this list of ideas and keep it on the fridge to stay inspired.
But remember: Sometimes the most important thing is packing the lunch your kids will actually eat, rather than the one you WANT them to eat. (We can’t all be Amanda Hesser’s children.) And if that’s PB&J every day, you may just have to roll with it. They’ll survive.