10 Super-Efficient Steps to Hacking Paleo School Lunches

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I’ve often read paleo school lunch posts and swooned at the photos. But as I’ve done so, I’ve also felt a sense of failure. My kid’s lunchboxes don’t look like that.

My kids are 12 and as different as bacon and berries but they don’t have shiny, expensive lunch containers. Photos of the contents wouldn’t grace the cover of any magazine. And sometimes their lunches aren’t even nutritionally balanced!

Odd

Instead, the kids carry whatever insulated lunch package I’ve managed to pick up from the drug store. They get snacks in cup-size baby food containers (sometimes the ones they ate from when actually they were babies) and their food is kept cool by frozen gel packs that once accompanied the fertility drugs I took to become pregnant with them. The circle of life has never seemed so strange.

Keeping it real

So as part of my paleo mission to be transparent and honest, I thought I’d write about how I compiled my kid’s school lunches. My kids eat them quite happily but they aren’t beautiful to look at (the lunches, not my kids –they’re gorgeous! :-))

Sometimes I have misses but mostly we have hits and I work on the basis that if my kids are hungry enough, they’ll eat the food I give them. Not because it’s pretty but because it’s tasty.

paleo school lunches, paleo diet, paleo It’s pulled pork for lunch!

No longer hungry

When we transitioned to paleo school lunches well over a year ago, I noticed a huge change – my kids stopped coming home hungry. They often last until dinner with no after-school snacking.  None. It really amazed me. Another reason to feed kids good food, as if we needed one right?

I’m a big believer in keeping things simple and being efficient – we all have too much to do. I don’t want to spend much time preparing lunch day after day for 180 days so here’s how to hack paleo school lunches:

1. Take a modular approach. I like to automate everything I do in order to keep it easy and happening so I made up a system because I don’t want to think too much. I want to take the creativity out of making a school lunch, not add it in. So this is what I did: I made up a list of main dishes consisting of proteins and a list of sides (mostly raw veggies.) It’s on my fridge. You can see an example of my list below. Pull one item from the ‘mains’ column and at least two sides for every meal.

School Lunch Menu

Mains

Leftovers

Spinach Meatballs

Chicken Drumsticks

Turkey Meatloaf

Sausages

Mini Primal Frittatas

Hard-Boiled Eggs

Tuna or Salmon, Capers, and Mayo

Burger Patties

Tapioca Bread Sandwiches

Sides

Carrots

Tomatoes

Cucumber

Salad Greens

Peppers

Radish

Celery

Avocado

Jerky

Almond Butter

Veggie Soup

Pickles

Nuts

Trail mix with nuts, coconut shreds, seeds

Desserts

Fruit, especially berries

Pumpkin Muffins

Banana Bread

Fruit and Nut Bars

Brownies

 

paleo school lunches, paleo diet, paleo Click on this to see a larger image…

2. Plan your school lunch week. Just like for dinner, make a meal plan for school lunches. This takes out the what-are-they-going-to-have-for-school-lunch-today questions and the wasted energy and worry output. I’d like to say I have a form I fill out but in reality I scribble on a Post-It note and stick it on my school lunch food list.

3. Consider the nutritional balance of a whole day, not just one meal. In my house, if you look at any one school lunch, it might not seem well-balanced when viewed in isolation. My kids don’t like warmed up veggies (and I don’t blame them, me neither) and they don’t like veggies that have wilted, got mushed up or otherwise been altered from their original state. And sometimes at the end of the week, I may be low on veggies that will meet that criteria. On those occasions, lunch might be a little protein-heavy or veggie-light but that’s okay, we make up for it at breakfast or dinner.

4. Prepare in the morning. This is a personal preference but I find that spending ten minutes in the morning is easier, especially if you take this systematic approach. Making them at the end of the previous day can be a right pain particularly if you’re tired or tend to eat while you’re prepping food. But another reason to do it first thing is that you really want the food to be as fresh as possible.

5. Buy a thermos and use leftovers. Leftovers are a school lunch staple in my family, they probably comprise 50% -75% of the boys lunches. Leftovers cut down on effort massively and obviously you need a thermos to be able to send them warm. If your kids aren’t used to taking leftovers for lunch, it might take a while to transition them and in that case do it slowly, say one lunch of leftovers a week to start with. Gradually increase the number until most of their lunches are yesterday’s dinner.

6. Plastic cutlery. Send them to school with plastic cutlery but impress upon them that they must bring them home for you to wash. We’ve made one box of plastic cutlery nearly 3 years that way.

paleo school lunches, paleo diet, paleo Cold leftover roast chicken and raw veggies..

7. Give generous proportions of each selection. This is to cut down on the number of different items you have in their lunch – less stress and mess. I aim for three to four total.

8. Get the kids involved. If you have only paleo food in the house it’s easy as they get older to have them more invested in their lunch preparation. Have them roam your fridge and shelves to select what they want or have them choose from the ‘menu.’ They’ll eat more if they have more choice in the matter. Even if they are little they can still make choices such as ‘Carrots or celery?’ As they get older give them more and more responsibility. At 12, my kids get their own ‘sides’ while I prepare the ‘main course.’

9. Have a water only rule. Juice boxes are sugar water by another name. Have your kids get used to drinking water. After a while they’ll stop asking for anything else. Water bottles have become something of a status symbol at my kids’ school – a fad I’m willing to indulge. They like these Camelbaks.

10. Desserts only occasionally or not at all. My kids rarely get dessert. I worked to move them away from expecting something sweet at the end of dinner for a long time and thought it was self-defeating if I didn’t do the same at lunch. If they do get a dessert, it is something like a paleo muffin or a fruit and nut ball but only if I happen to have them made or if I’m a little light on the ‘sides.’ What can I say? I’m a tough-love kind of mom. :-)

Do you make paleo school lunches? How do you do it? What do you ‘serve’? Tell us in the comments!

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Alison Golden writes on the topic of paleo over at Paleo/NonPaleo. She aims to share ideas, inspire and motivate readers by teaching them how to live paleo in a non-paleo world. She is also the author of the bestselling book, The Modern, No-Nonsense Guide to Paleo, a unique tool that gives the reader hundreds of strategies to navigate the learning process to successful paleo living.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul August 28, 2012 at 7:47 am

As practical as always Alison! And it has a resonance with my own packed lunches which I take because the refectory doesn’t offer a Paleo solution! Chips or baked potato, or a sandwich. I especially like to bring cold meats from the night before and, like you and your children, don’t like re-heated veggies (ugh!) unless it’s cold but still crisp brocolli. I usually bring tomatoes and raw mushrooms. And snack on blueberries. incidentally, there’s a double Snickers in my draw that has been there for several months when I had a Paleo breakdown! It helps remind me not to!

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Alison Golden August 28, 2012 at 9:01 am

LOL, Paul. Practical’s my middle name. Glad it resonated with you. A refectory? I didn’t think they called them such anymore. :-) Yes, I’ve done that with chocolate – always made me feel soooooo good – that I was resisting, I mean. Thanks for commenting!
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Jonalynn August 28, 2012 at 8:09 am

Thank you so much for this post! My 14yo son just started school after years of homeschooling. For some reason, sending him with Paleo lunches has thrown me for a loop. She sheer volume that he eats as a growing, active teen boy is astonishing to me! It feels like I need to make an extra meal each day, but really I need to focus on making sure I have leftovers and plenty of fresh vegie sides!

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Alison Golden August 28, 2012 at 9:06 am

Oooh, good luck with that transition, Jonalynn. We homeschooled for nearly 2 years and so I know a little of what it must be like. I had one son in school as well as one at home so I’ve always had to pack a lunch and now that they’re growing like weeds, I know what you mean about having have gobs and gobs of food. Yesterday when they came home and unpacked their lunches, I reflected on the fact that it was lucky we didn’t have a dog waiting expectantly. There wasn’t a *crumb* to be seen in their food containers!
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Judy August 28, 2012 at 9:54 am

some great ideas :)
I’m SO TIRED of seeing “healthy” lunches on back-to-school sites that have a ton of grains and processed crap in them. *sigh*

IMHO, kids are never too young to help with food (I was assembling and packing my own lunches as young 1st or 2nd Grade, so 6-7 years old?) and getting them involved, having them make choices and decisions (even if they’re not always what YOU’D pick for them), is one of the best things you can do as a parent.

The whole insanely-well-presented lunchbox thing is… nice to look at, but as a young’n I was just as happy with a heart drawn by my dad with a butter knife in the PB of my PB&J.

I’ve seen the lunchbots boxes touted as very practical containers – depending on how many “courses” you want, you can get containers with 1, 2, 3, or 4 equal sections – throw trail mix in one, veggies in another, fruits in another, and a protien in another – voila, healthy lunch to go. I think that or a planetbox is my next lunchware purchase – I currently have to-go-ware double-decker tiffins and glass bowls w/plastic lids (some plain, some with cute designs), and I have several sets of the (old-style, they’ve redesigned) to-go-ware bamboo utensil sets (knife, fork, spoon & chopsticks in their own holder – TSA friendly too).
I’m looking forward to packing some hot lunches in thermoses and possibly the Ms. Bento I have (somewhat concerned about the plastic in the Ms. Bento).

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Alison Golden August 28, 2012 at 10:22 am

Yes, my kids particularly like hearts drawn with sharpies on brown bags. I agree about the plastic thing – it’s a concern. I think we have to weigh up what is most important to us. A PlanetBox is waaay out of so many people’s price range that I want to be honest and put it out there – I use plastic. It has only been this last year (6th grade) that we’ve brought home as many containers and bags as we’ve taken to school and the idea that my kids might lose a $40 lunch container is more than I could bear. Hot lunches and thermos’ are definitely the way to go. Thank you for commenting!
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Judy August 28, 2012 at 10:46 am

I hear you on the expensive lunchbox thing! (this is why I’ve entered several contests to win a planetbox – lol?) So far in life, I have not permanently lost any lunch containers (*knocks wood*), but I think some people have better luck with that than others ;)
Re-using what you’ve got on hand is always good, and plastic is cheap and durable – I’m not ashamed to say I used to use a bunch of ziploc/glad reuseable/disposable containers, and they worked like a charm :)

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Shannon August 28, 2012 at 10:59 am

I dont think this is just for kid lunches – I’m going to seriously put this to use for my own work lunch. I stand in front of the refrigerator each morning asking myself what am I going to eat before I run out the door to sit in morning traffic.

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Alison Golden August 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Great, Shannon! I’m glad it works for adults as well as kids. I am very familiar with that fridge stare….
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Helen August 28, 2012 at 11:04 am

Great post!

I was wondering abt the dessert part.. but then you explained it nicely at the end of the post.. :) In Norway we are not used to desserts after lunch anyways (originally dessert were something you only ate after sunday dinner – and that was it for the whole week. But now of course snacking has (sadly) become a part for our culture as well…)
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Alison Golden August 28, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Yep, dropping the dessert thing was a necessary step but once you do it, you don’t miss it I find. Sounds horrifying at first though and I still have visitors who think a meal isn’t a meal without dessert. Ah well…
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Leea August 28, 2012 at 11:26 am

Love this! I do the same menu-on-the-fridge thing! …for myself, I don’t have kids. I really loved the simplicity of Paleo when I first started, but then I got caught up in making elaborate dishes that resemble my non-Paleo favourites. I don’t even try that anymore. As a busy shift worker who spends 12 hours a day in a vehicle I am never without my lunch bag! Im always on the go so once a week is my ‘cooking day’. I toss chicken, and fish in the oven. BBQ steak and turkey burgers, and sometimes a few veggies. I then toss it all into the fridge. Voila! Paleo meals for a week are served! Pair it up with a veggie, and either some nuts or oil and you have a balanced meal. So simple!

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Alison Golden August 28, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Ooo, so now I’m wondering what you do, Leea? UPS/Fedex driver, trucks, cabs? I found I did that too – started simple, got complicated, then focused back on basics again. I think it’s easy to do. I’m sure many can relate to that.
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Anne-Marie August 28, 2012 at 11:48 am

What I LOVE about this is that you can have everything ready – pre-cut or not – in the fridge, post the list of what they can have on the fridge and get them to put their own lunches together as long as they follow the rules – one protein, minimum 2 sides. My youngest boys are 12 so they’re plenty old enough to do this on their own.
I am a HUGE fan of getting my boys to make their own lunches and will often pre-make all kinds of snack-y stuff (a big flat rubbermaid container of cut carrots, celery and cauliflower lives in my fridge) as well as homemade lara bars and such in the freezer. I’ve never thought to lay it out in a chart format for them though. That idea is pure genius in my mind. Thanks so much for sharing!

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Alison Golden August 28, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Makes *such* a difference when they help don’t you think? Feels like the effort involved is reduced by 75% when all I have to worry about is the protein. Glad the ideas helped, Anne-Marie!
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julie August 29, 2012 at 3:10 am

Loved this post! Thanks for keeping it real. That was my favorite part actually!

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Alison Golden August 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm

I’m glad for that, Julie. And thanks for saying so. :-)
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mary b August 29, 2012 at 7:37 am

We’re back to school today, so this past weekend the boys & I sat down and made a lunch list of all the things they would be willing to take. I like your idea of breaking it down though. My guys do help pack lunch in the morning so that would make it easier. The big request this year was to bring BACON!
I never understood why people would send dessert (or why it is on the school lunch menu) since we would never have eaten dessert with lunch at home. However I do send in something like a paleo muffin once in a while, but that is instead of fruit or trail mix.

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Alison Golden August 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm

I’ve never had much luck with cold bacon, goes too hard – the type we get, at least. I’ve used lists for my kids since Pre-K. Got so tired telling them all the time. Give ‘em a list and all you have to say is ‘Read the list.’ Works like a charm.
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NJ Paleo August 29, 2012 at 8:58 am

These are all great ideas! I’m definitely going to utilize the thermos idea more this year. I think my kids will enjoy more hot food this year, especially when the weather is colder.

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Alison Golden August 29, 2012 at 3:51 pm

You’ll wonder why you didn’t do it earlier, NJ. ;-)
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Barbara September 14, 2012 at 9:46 am

Thanks so much for this list! I decided I needed to start packing lunches next week. My daughter told me yesterday that the school decreased the protein portion and increased veggies and grains. She said MOM WE’RE HUNGRY! lol. She really felt sorry for the boys. She said that kids are stashing food in their lockers because they’re hungry. Okay… end of rant.

I was googling paleo lunches and I found your site and another one. I looked at the other one first and saw a very nice shiny lunch box with paleo lunches that my kid will “love”. HA! Not only a bit complicated but I KNOW my 7 yr old won’t eat that pretty picture that was displayed.

Thanks so much for giving my a good idea the direction to go.

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Kristine January 14, 2013 at 11:54 am

Our lunch-packing philosophies are very similar! Here’s another meatloaf to add into the rotation. http://kristinerudolph.com/a-little-before-after-lunchbox-meatloaf/

And, meatballs … why don’t I make more meatballs!!!???

Great post.

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Stephanie Smith April 14, 2013 at 10:12 am

Thank you for these ideas! I’ve gotten fed up with the school lunches, way too grain and bread heavy, and my kids come home from school starving! Why am I paying so much for school lunches, when I have to re-feed my children? They’re going to school with their first Paleo lunches tomorrow, thank you for these ideas!

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Kirsten October 4, 2013 at 9:17 am

My son went paleo a couple of weeks ago. He is 16. Last year we did a mixture of the school lunches and paper bags…finally he told me that the school lunches just weren’t good…we stopped, but the brown bag thing got old quick. Then I became paleo, and the idea of the everyday sandwich fell by the wayside. I love what you said about getting a thermos. I have never used one, and frankly was a little concerned at how warm the food would stay, but you have helped me overcome my fears. I did invest in a lunchbot, and a bag to carry it in. He enjoys having Japanese foods and chop sticks. One thing I make is a small omelette with scallions that I fold into a square, and top with coconut aminos. He also loves meatballs and homemade ketchup (he calls it “red sauce”) since it tastes so much better than the corn syrup garbage of the olden days. I think I have turned the corner, and it makes me feel great. Thanks for the good ideas. I am going to make a chart to keep things quick and easy!

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sarah October 4, 2013 at 10:14 am

The only thing I disagree with is packing lunch in the morning. My daughter has to be out the door at 7:10 and since we workout in the morning it is much easier on me to pack them at night. If I am sending hot food that obviously get heated and put in the thermos in the morning but I do all veggies and usually fruit (apples & pears being the exception) the night before. That is just what works for our family.
We have 3-section containers from Target (yes they are plastic) but they were only a few dollars and do a great job at keeping the food separate and they fit nicely in the lunchboxes. Also make prepping much easier since I am only dealing with one container.
Also, I try and remember to add a fat every day – usually avocado or olives. My kids are young enough that they have snack every day too so I usually do a fruit and a protein (salami, organic cheese, kefir smoothie etc..). I want my kids to want my snack instead of the wheat based items their friends inevitably have so I try and make it appealing.
I also do sometimes allow them to take pb&j on sprouted or Ezekiel bread. We don’t have celiac or even wheat sensitivities so we avoid it by choice and the kids know it is a treat. They also know they have to eat their veggies that day or they won’t get a sandwich the following Friday. I always say “We eat our healthy foods first and then our treats.”
Also, if they are still hungry after school they know the first thing they have to do is finish their lunch – with as much as I invest in food we don’t waste it!

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hmrf May 2, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Finally!
Finally a post on paleo lunches that’s useful even if you’re not the paleo parent of the year where everything’s awesome, looks great and where there are forced smiles on every picture.

I like this.

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christina July 27, 2014 at 11:03 am

Do any of you have suggestions for lunches for a nut free school? This is my struggle as most paleo (easy and fast as I’m a working mom) are nuts or trail mix. Other options seem to involve a lot of prep.

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