Tips for Packing Kids' Lunches

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Lunchmeat: Which to pick?

Oct 2009

As we struggle to add variety to lunches, I struggle about lunchmeat. Any lunchmeat eating medical types or microbiologists out there?

The nitrates/nitrites is one concern, but also -- how long is it good for? And is it better to get it from the deli counter vs. the packaged stuff in terms of shelf life/not growing any bacteria? Why do OBGYN offices give out pamphlets recommending pregnant women to heat up lunchmeat before eating it? Is that something we should be doing with our kids' lunchmeat?

I have one microbiologist friend who says just use it up quick. But, what's quick? We try to use it up by the end of the week, but I wonder about its integrity at that point.

I'm laughing as I write this, because it's kind of funny and gross to me -- but it's so handy for lunches! Any thoughts? Mom with lunchmeat issues!

Hi there-- As a mom and a professional chef, lunchmeat grosses me out. It seems like a breeding ground for bacteria, it has a weird texture and often comes with a strange slime....yucky. Plus it is very expensive, high in sodium.....sometimes I'll grab some when I am desperate but recently I've just been buying a small turkey breast (or half, or piece of a breast) and roasting it with salt and pepper. We can use this with sandwiches for the week. If there is a bone attached that can turn into soup. It is slightly more work but not much, and so much cheaper and healthier and tastier. Just a thought! P.S. My son does love salami, though, so we do that sometimes. Seems to last forever. Rebecca

You can buy fresh lunch meats without nitrates at Berkeley Bowl, Magnani's, and Safeway delis. Look for fresh roasted turkey for example. And, it will keep longest if you unwrap it immediately upon getting home, and re-wrap it tightly in cellophane plastic. Make sure each time you open it up for serving, you re-wrap it tightly in plastic. This will preserve it longer. I would stay away from the sorts you find in the supermarket on the shelf, even if it has a zip lock closure. These are generally the ones filled with all kinds of preservatives. I also don't like that the lunchmeats tend to be cured with sugar or honey, making them unappealingly sweet. Packer

I send my vegetarian kindergartner rice and bean burritos at least 3 times a week for his lunch. They're the Trader Joe's brand. I microwave them before school and he eats them at room temp. He also enjoys grilled cheese sandwiches at room temp. Tina

Try Tofurkey or Yves veggie lunch ''meats'' - they taste good and have none of the problems associated with meat. They have: zero cholesterol, low fat, no nitrates/nitrites, last longer out of the fridge, high protein, veg

Packing healthy snacks in kid's lunch

May 2009

We often pack sliced fruit (apple, pear) in a reusable zipped bag in our son's lunch for preschool, but it often gets mangled and ''yucky'' by the time he eats lunch. I'd love to continue to pack healthy snacks (veggies, fruits) and am looking for ideas - both what to pack and how. Thanks. anon

I buy little stainless steel containers to pack the fruits in. I've found them in Ichiban-Kan (the Japanese $1 type of store) in El Cerrito for about $1.50. They are just the right size for snacks with a plastic lid, easy for kids to open by themselves. I've also bought enameled containers of similar size from Daiso (another Janpanese $1.50 store) in Union City. Or if you want to spend $19.99, you can find similar stainless steel containers at the Natural Grocery Store in El Cerrito.

Pyrex glass bowls with lids also come in the small snack sizes. I usually go to the Corning store in the Great Mall or Vacaville outlets, so you can buy them individually rather than in a box set. Though those lids are a bit tighter for the preschooler to manage on their own (at least mine is not able to open one herself). But the Pyrex is great for food that needs reheating. She does get help from the teachers and parents at her school for lids and heating her food. Crystal

We have a bento box type lunch box from Laptop Lunches (do a websearch and you'll find it immediately. They are great! They keep the food separate in containers that are reusable and don't squish the food. One container has a lid for particularly juicy things, the others are open for easy access, but are protected by the lunch box lid. I LOVE this lunch box. Their website also has all sorts of great healthy lunch ideas. Laptop Lunches Lover

Hard boiled egg, celery w/ peanut butter, trail mix, certain ''protein'' bars have less sugar, more good stuff, pieces of chicken, pieces of flavored tofu. anon mom

I've stopped packing pear and apple slices for this reason - they get all brown by lunchtime. Any other fruit works. Today I sent cut up strawberries and blueberries, some grapes, and some sliced melon. He also likes bananas and cherry tomatoes. I send them in mini Tupperwares or old deli containers, not baggies, so they don't get mashed. Hope that helps

Either get small apples that your child can eat out of hand, or put cut fruit in a hard container (tupperware, thermos.) anon

Hi! Try packing your healthy food items in containers instead of resealable bags. If the texture is the problem then the containers should help in keeping the texture the same. Use some containers like tupperware, rubbermaid or something along those lines. Hope that helps. Nanny in the know

Dear Pre-School-Lunch-Packing-Mom, Lose the ''reusable zipped bag''(!) and get a reusable hard plastic B-O-X (Rubbermaid-esque) to transport the delicate sliced fruit, etc. to school. Washable, reusable, pack-tight-able; what's not to like? (f.y.i: I found some brands might leak juices a bit - until I used a small piece of saranwrap on top, before snapping on lid.) --Keep 'em eating fresh!

Put the food in reusable tupperware instead. That will reduce the smush factor. For apples, sprinkle some lemon juice on them to reduce the brown factor. T.

Instead of putting things in plastic bags, I use a Japanese lunchbox. These are compartmentalized containers with a snap-on top. Some of them have compartments for spoons and forks too. You can get an inexpensive one at Ichiban Kan on San Pablo Ave in El Cerrito, in the Jay Vee Shopping Center, corner of San Pablo Ave and Moeser. They're made for kids so have cutesy designs. They sometimes have them at Hello Kitty stores or Sanrio stores in San Francisco, too. sue

Try packing the snacks in a hard, tupperware type container or try a ''Laptop Lunch'' box ( They sell them at the Natural Grocery stores in Berkeley and El Cerrito. They're pricier than other lunch boxes, but we've found them to be worth the extra cost. lovin' the laptop lunch

one word....tupperware...ok I really use the cheap option they sell at Safeway. One consideration is how easy it is for the kid to open. Pears are hard....they mush up eaaslity. You can pack a banana and cut a small slice at the top so they can start it easily. Or cut a slit down the middle and cut into sections if htey're ok wiht eatign the brown ends.

Other more hearty, but still healthy options: edemame, all fruit fruit leather, apple sauce, mango pieces, canned fruit, etc.

I also pack bento-style lunches like many of the other commenters. I post pictures of my preschool son's lunches here: Packing his lunches this way has made all the difference in what he can and will eat at lunchtime. Wendy

Dairy-free and nut-free lunch ideas

August 2008

Although I have managed to feed my child adequately for the past 5 years, I feel intimidated by the idea of having to pack lunch and snacks for kindergarten. Many of the suggestions in the archives include dairy foods and nut butters, which we don't eat. I would be so grateful to anyone who could share their vegan lunch ideas. cj

I feed my kid a vegetarian diet, but you can modify some of my suggestions below with veggie cheese. I bought a little thermos to keep food warm -- otherwise I'd be out of ideas!
Veggie/tofu hotdogs (no bun), with ketchup for dipping Quesadillas with vegetarian refried beans and shredded cheese Tofu cubes stir-fried in olive oil and teriyaki sauce Vegetarian nuggets (Morningstar, Boca, or Quorn), with ketchup Cheese sandwich Veggie ''meat'' sandwiches Cheese and crackers
Good snacks are baby carrots, any fruit, Veggie Booty, pretzels, chips/crackers, raisins...

I look forward to seeing other suggestion too! I always run out of ideas and we do more PB than I would like! The thermos is a lifesaver, though. Just plop the warm dogs, nuggets, or quesadilla (cut into smaller pieces) inside -- it's not just for soup! Lunch packin' mom

leftover fried rice?

My son has dairy, egg and nut allergies, so I pack his lunch for preschool instead of wondering about what they provide. Here are a few of my staples:
Trader Joe's sesame seed butter and jelly wheat or rice pasta with Earth's Best margarine (no dairy) and veggies. turkey or ham sandwiches w/margarine Amy's soy cheese pizza slices carrots/snap peas with a container of hummus for dipping noodle soup w/vegtables (i usually make some for dinner and send leftovers) rice and beans soy yogurt
Nothing here is ingenious, but I hope it helps! mom of allergy kid

Hi. Although my vegan son isn't in kindergarten yet, I have some ideas that may help. Here they are:
* tofurkey sandwich * pasta salad * pizza slice (we use the Trader Joe's dough and sauce) * bagel & soy cream cheese * pita bread & hummus * eggless salad sandwich (Whole Foods)
Vegan Mom

How to keep foods cold or hot in the lunchbox

Feb 2004

Hi, How do I pack cold things (cold milk, cold juice, blue ice) and hot things (hot food in a thermos) for a kindergartener's lunch at the same time? Can they go in the same (soft, insulated) lunch box? If not, how best should I do this? If yes, do you know where I can get such a lunch box? My daughter is bored with sandwiches and I want to do hot food (which I have not done.) However, I don't want her to have to carry too many things. Help! Anonymous

I send my child off to school regularly with a cold drink and a hot meal. It took a while for me to figure this one out. Here's what I do. First of all, I bought a thermos at the Crate and Barrel outlet on 4th street. They are a good size for a lunch box, and are stainless steel rather than glass. (when I bought him a glass one it came home the first day shattered inside). They cost about $11. If you find one somewhere else, great...I just recommend it over a plastic one (doesn't keep things hot) or a glass one (breakable). I leave the lunch box with cold foods in the fridge overnight. In the morning I heat up wha! tever is going in the thermos and put it in then. His lunch box is insulated, so the juice stays pretty cool, and he says the hot stuff is plenty hot. Good luck!

Awhile back I bought lunchboxes that have two compartments: one for hot and one for cold. The top has a compartment insulated fr cold drinks. This unzips to expose the lunchbox where one could put in warm food. They were at Costco but I have also seen them at Target. They are not big and bulky and would work well for a younger child. ara

See also: Lunch box to hold hot and cold foods


How to pack milk in the lunch

Oct 2007

Hi, Could you please share with me how you're packing milk in a lunchbox? I've been using the little Rubbermaid juice box; however, we started two new ones this school year and they both leak. This is getting messy and so I'm looking for alternatives. Also, I'm getting worried about unsafe plastic and chemical leaking. I haven't done enough research to understand this entirely, but is the little plastic juice box safe? Does anyone know? I'm looking into the Klean Kanteen (stainless steel) bottle. Has anyone used this for milk? Does it work OK? My kid is 9 years old and this is all for her lunchbox. Thank you very much for your advice. Anonymous

You can try to use a stainless steel thermos. They do make small sizes. I got one in Japantown. I am sure other places carry it. Otherwise you can get ultrapasturized milk in small juice like containers that do not need refrigeration and Trader Joe's carries it as do other grocery stores although Trader Joes is cheaper. I used to drink ultrapasturized milk when I was in Europe. It is pretty standard there although it is just catching on here. Juliet

Luckily, my child's school has milk at school, but if I had to pack milk I would use a real thermos with metal inside, not plastic, if you don't like plastic. Or, although they are disposable, Horizon makes those little ''juice boxes'' of milk that are UHT treated so they don't need to be refrigerated. anon

I buy small milk boxes, like juice boxes, at Trader Joe's. They are aseptic containers and the milk is fine. You can also get aseptic milk boxes at other stores, like Andronico's. But I've never found them at Safeway. Rebecca

I've come up with packing cold milk in a water bottle (Nalgene or other) and adding milk-ice cubes (milk frozen in ice cube trays). The cubes melt by lunchtime, and the kid gets cold milk. LD

We pack milk for our son in a metal sigg bottle. We clean it with boiling water. We make sure the bottle is cool/cold when we put milk in and we put an ice pack in his lunch box. It's worked great. No leaking or leeching. susan

You might try the new milk cartons (Horizon, Clover) that can be kept at room temperature or chilled overnight to be reasonably cool at lunchtime. They are sealed, completely safe and delicious. You can find them at Whole Foods or other health food stores, and Trader Joe's makes them too. They come in 8 oz cartons and are new so they are frequently on sale.

As far as containers go, Nalgene is controversial I heard. (It's also not good to reuse plastic water containers). I tried bottles I found at Rainbow Grocery etc that don't have Bisphenol-A but found they weren't as strong. For more info, here's a Sierra Club article link.

I haven't seen the Kleen Kanteen, (but they are pricey at 35-50 a bottle! and cannot be used for hot beverages). The plastic tops are made of #5PP, which is recommended and doesn't leach. You might want to use this with an icepack, but is that a lot for her to carry each day? Perhaps a good smallish glass or steel-lined thermos would work better, cost less and be even safer (keep the milk fresh and cold). tabs

We use the Sigg bottle and I clean it with water and white vinegar to get the smell out. I have also put the Sigg bottle in the dishwasher. I believe the main problem with plastic is the off-gassing that occurs when they are exposed to the tremendous heat of the dishwasher. We still use some plastic and I end up hand washing. A major pain but I do believe the plastics are a concern. off plastic

I give my son milk in his lunch for preschool. I put it in a klean canteen (12 oz) with a screw lid that I bought at the berkeley ecology center. It works great for milk. At his preschool though, they keep the lunches in the fridge so I don't have to worry about the milk going bad. (They go to the park for lunch one day a week and those days I give him a milk box instead.) Andi

I didn't see the original question, but I didn't see what I do in the answers. I pack my kids' milk in a regular Playtex straw cup in a thermal lunchbox with an ice pack. I use the ice packs left from my breast pump. They're thin and rectangular and just perfect for a lunch box. We do car trips this way, too. My kids are milk-aholics, and we bring those totes meant for baby food and, instead, pack two straw cups and two ice packs. The milk stays cool for quite some time. (We don't leave the totes in the car; we bring them along in stores, restaurants and friends' houses, so the ice packs don't melt too quickly.) Gwynne

Hi Someone mentioned that Kleen Kanteen are very expensive -25- 50 they have them at the Ecology Center on San Pablo for the small sippy size $9.50 and $2 for the lid or sippy lids- shop there and support green businesses- and Sierra club too. - I have also heard that sigg bottles are coated aluminum with teflon- both not so healthy- go stainless steel-- liza

I use a metal Thermos container with a plastic straw. It works pretty well. It's the one thing I've found that my son will actually use. And I have to be quite careful -- he's got a sensitive nose and sense of taste, and any hint of spoiled milk odor will make him refuse to drink out of it; so we rinse immediately after school, and wash with baking soda often. It helps to freeze the bottle for about half an hour before pouring in the milk (keeps the milk colder). And it definitely doesn't leak. Karen

June 2006

May we please have your advice on how to pack milk in lunchbox for 3rd graders and up? We want our daughter to drink non-fat (plain and organic) milk at lunch and so far we've been using a little Rubbermaid container -- the kind with a push-up thing to drink from. Our daughter is starting 3rd grade next year and this little container seems a little babyish for such a grown up girl. If you have suggestions on what other containers we can use, we'd appreciate it very much Anonymous

I don't think that cup thing sounds babyish at all. In fact, I have an adult co- worker who drinks juice out of the same thing, I think. It is a waste of money and packaging, but Horizon makes little ''juice boxes'' of organic milk, I don't know if they have low-fat though. They are UHT processed so they don't have to be refrigerated anon

Thermos makes a wonderful thermos for lunchbox drinks. You can buy them at Target and they come in great designs and colors. The selection is best in July and August when they bring in ''school stuff.'' It is made completely of stainless steel. The top pops up and you have a straw to drink from.

My 12 year old daughter still uses hers and drinks milk everyday at lunch. I chill it overnight in the refrigerator and put one ice cube in it in the morning. The milk will stay cold for at least 4 to 6 hours. Here is a link: Sabrina

We use the clear rubbermaid containers whith the flip up spout (no straw). Kids at our elementary school (at all grades) use similar containers. I recommend that you go to a big store (like a Target) and shop with your daughter for one that meets your needs. Our needs are a container that won't spill milk in the lunch box. Anon

Sept 2003

Hello, I've read all postings regarding how to pack a school lunchbox. They were very helpful but I still need help. Could someone please share with me about how to pack milk in a school lunchbox? My kindergarten daughter does not like soy milk or the ''Fresh'' milk (in a box just like the juice box; we found it at Andronico's). We don't want to get her started on the chocolate or strawberry flavored milk because of the sugar content. We can't find the little box of milk that used to be available in the frig at Safeway. We thought about packing the milk in a container, but have not been able to find a good container. We tried a plastic bottle (the kind new moms can use to store breast milk), but our daughter cannot open the bottle if we screw it tightly (to prevent the milk from spilling). Does anyone have any idea? Please help. Thank you very much. Amy

Can she buy milk at school in the little cartons? It usually costs the same as if you were buying it at the super market. anon

My son is also very particular about his milk, so I completely sympathize. I found a 20 oz bottle at Walgreens with a screw-top lid and a fold-down straw. It also has a freezer insert - a detachable cylinder that attaches to the inside of the lid when the bottle is in use, then goes in the freezer the rest of the time. In the morning, the frozen cylinder is removed from the freezer and attached to the lid. I fill the bottle with 20 oz of milk, screw on the lid, and voila! It stays cold in an insulated lunchbox for hours that way, without spilling, and always accessible because of the fold-down straw. Kathleen

My older child takes milk (has since preschool) to school every day in a thermos, with a cold/ice pack next to the milk. We have been doing this now for six years and it seems to work (she says that the milk remains cold and she has never been sick from it). My other child (toddler)gets milk in a special container (her lunchbox, it turns out, is too small for a full thermos) that we bought at Target. It is like a small sports bottle (with a pull up top) that has an insert that is frozen (can be removed and kept in the freezer until used). This also seems to be working well. Good luck

I have two suggestions for lunchtime milk storage:

If you want 100% leak proof, the containers that come with the Lansinoh Milk Mate breast milk storage system are amazing. They have a little plastic piece that fits in the lid creating a perfect seal. The lid only needs to be screwed on to normal tightness. The whole set comes with 10 bottles and a storage rack for $28, Im not sure if its possible to buy individual bottles.

I have also had pretty good success with Rubbermaid's plastic Crocodile Juice Box with pop up straw. However, on more than one occasion it has leaked substantially (in these cases it was found upside down and most likely sat upon). They're available in the Tupperware section of Target and cost around $4 for two. (They really look more like elephants than crocodiles). Hope this helps

I have been using an insulated sippy cup with valve and putting it in a soft lunch box with a zipper that has a sleeve for an ice pack. Her milk is still cold when i pick her up from preschool at 4:30 in the afternoon. dawn

I never found a solution to this problem --even with refridgerated bags and ice packs, the milk didn't stay 'refridgerator cold' and neither of my kids would drink it. They even complained about the milk in the cafeteria being warm (since the food workers set out flats of cartons before the lunch hour starts). What worked for us was the substitution of alternative calcium-rich foods: mozzarella cheese sticks, Baby Belle wedges, leftover cheese pizza, yoghurt, even pudding (the cooked kind, not instant). Yes, some of these have sugar, but my kids eat pretty healthy overall and as long as there aren't multiple sweets in a lunch box I haven't seen it as a problem. They're in middle school now, and one is skinny, the other completely average in weight (though I am overweight) And if they want a drink, they get a frozen water bottle (sometimes 50% juice) to drink. When they were little, these were refillable sippy juice boxes, now they are sports bottles! Chris

I have bought a refillable plastic container from safeway or longs, that is kind of squarish, like a juice box, and has a flip top that my children can easily open and close. The night before I pour in about 2-3 inches of milk and place the container in the freezer. The next morning I fill the rest of the container with milk and it generally is still cold at lunchtime. eve

Hi Amy. At Longs Drugs near Safeway on Pleasant Valley and Broadway (and probably at Target, K-Mart, etc.) they have these plastic bottles with built-in straws. They seal for a no-leak lunch, and your child does NOT have to unscrew anything, just pop up the straw and then push it back down to seal it. They come in two sizes, 8oz and 14oz approx. I just wash them in my dishwasher after rinsing or soaking them a bit. To keep your milk cold, they also sell at Longs little blue ice freezer packs that are just sized for a lunch box. Take care! Tiffany

Rubbermaid sells these beverage containers that have this hard plastic built-in straw that you fold up to drink. They don't leak, and would be easy for your child to use instead of something that screws on and off. I think I've seen them at Target as well as at Albertsons. anon

We use a First Years sippy cup with a flip-up spout cover that effectively prevents lunchbag leaks but is easy enough for our son to open himself. If your daughter thinks she is too old for a sippy cup, try the ''sport bottle'' version: I bought ours at Target. Holly

How old is your daughter? Would a sippy cup be okay? If not, Rubbermaid makes a vairety of packable drink containers. I use Gerber sports bottles for my boys (3 1/2) and freeze their drinks overnight so that they are still cold by lunch- which would be particularly important with milk. Good luck anon

We usually send our (pre-school) daughter's milk in an insulated cup with a top that has a built-in plastic straw that folds down into a cover so it can be completely sealed. It's hard to describe, but if you search on the web for ''Playtex Insulator Sport,'' you can see it. I bought a four-pack of the cups at Costco about three weeks ago for about $12. robin

I know this because I wanted to serve milk at my kids' birthday parties...Andronico's sells the little milk cartons! Christina

Lunch for sandwich-hater

Lunches - My daughter hates sandwiches - We do yogurt or she likes a container of marinara sauce to dip string cheese into or I wrap a high grade of bologna from the butcher around a piece of string cheese and a pickle sliver with some mustard and toothpick it. Sometimes I send crackers or baguette sliced thin and a small container of spreadable cheese.


One thing that my 7-year-old likes for lunch is roll-ups, which consist of pieces of thinly sliced ham or turkey (or salami if he can nag me into it) rolled around a small stick of cheese and held together with a toothpick. I pack 2 or 3 roll-ups in a little plastic container and then give him some carbs in the form of crackers or a granola bar. I trust him not to goof off with the toothpicks, but that might be an issue for some.


Another member asked for ideas on bag lunches that don't involve sandwiches. I've found that do-it-yourself lunchables are a big hit with my 11-year-old. This usually invoves 1 or two kinds of crackers, 1 or two kinds of pre-sliced cheese, and 1 or two kinds of pre-sliced and cut luncheon meats. You can make up a bunch of these in advance, and put them in lots of plastic baggies, or you can also get special tupperware-type containers with little compartments that work well for this. I've found Japanese ones to be especially good (ours are actually from Japan, but you can probably get them in Japantown; ask for Bento boxes). To this main dish I usually add a piece of fruit, some small desert-type item (like a fruit roll-up), and a box juice or small plastic container of juice.

Another lunch idea if your child is old enough to handle it, and has access to very hot water: Cup-a-Noodles or similar items. Sometimes you can get a cup of hot or boiling water from the school lunch counter to make this a possibility.


One of my kids doesn't like sandwiches in his lunch either. I give him:

- pizza: order extra next time and freeze leftover slices in baggies
- a baggie full of dry cereal
- packaged sushi from the grocery store
- bread sticks and string cheese
- try different kinds of bread too like hamburger & hotdog buns, baguettes, cinnamon bread, cheese bread, etc.