Guest blogger: More Alternatives to School Lunch

Sample lunch for my second grade daughter–homemade stuffed muffin with ground beef & cheese, sliced hard boiled eggs, marble cheese cubes, carrots, celery & cucumber, fresh cantaloupe. Total time prep = less than 5 minutes using items in my fridge & freezer. Total cost = slightly under $1.

I’ve been reading Fed Up With Lunch for a couple of months now, ever since a friend of mine IM’ed me and told me I had to check it out.
Truth be told, I have very little experience with school cafeterias.  The school I went to from K-8 in our small town did not have a cafeteria.  Everyone ate the lunches their moms packed.  High school was the first time I attended a school with a cafeteria and I preferred my mom-lunches.  When my own daughter started K, her school did not have a cafeteria either, so I knew from the beginning, I’d be making her lunch.
I understand there are times and reasons why a school cafeteria might be appealing.  I had many mornings where I thought, “I wish I could just give her $3 and let her buy something.”  It can definitely be easier.  If lunches are subsidized, it very well may be cheaper and necessary.  That’s another post though and involves changing school cafeterias themselves.  Fortunately, it can be easy and efficient to provide a healthy lunch for your child to bring with them to school.
Eating homemade, healthier lunches doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to be time consuming.  I think, for many people, there are multiple deterrents–the time involved, the idea that it will cost much more to send lunch than buy it, thinking that all they can figure out to send is a sandwich/apple/cookie/juice box, or thinking healthier = tofu and spinach so their kids won’t eat it.  
Over time, I’ve picked up ideas to make things easier, but one of the biggest tips is to have healthy food the kids like on hand and ready to go. I prebake a lot of items.  We make stuffed muffins (corn muffins with meats, cheese & veggies inside), mini quiches, and meat pastries (seasoned ground beef baked in flaky wrappers).  All this can be baked in an hour or two, then frozen.  There are usually several weeks worth of lunches in my freezer at any given time.  I also try to prebake desserts (mini muffins or cookies that freeze well) so they are there if needed.  We use other things as main dishes too, but it’s great to be able to pull something out of the freezer on a crazy morning.
Produce shopping is based on what’s on sale.  The kids know that we’re getting whatever items are a good deal any given week.  This week, we’re going to have bananas, strawberries, blackberries and cantaloupe, because that’s what is on sale at the nearby stores this week.  I wash and/or slice the items right away so they are already in serving form.  It’s much easier in the morning to pick up a container of diced cantaloupe than to have a whole melon that needs slicing. 
I also try to have certain items always on hand. For us, this includes blocks of real cheese, eggs to hardboil, mini bagels; pita breads, tortillas, baby carrots; celery, and a few varieties of whole fruit.  This is just based on my kids’ preferences, I keep their favorites in stock at home to make things simpler for me.
I actually don’t advocate school lunchtime as an experimental time.  Kids need energy for the rest of the day.  A PB&J on whole grain bread, baby carrots, an apple and a homemade oatmeal cookie that your child will definitely eat is much better than trying to send hummus, red pepper & kiwi if your child isn’t guaranteed to eat those.  I confine food experimenting to home; school lunches and snacks are healthy food I know they will eat.
Ideally, school cafeterias would serve fresh, healthy foods all the time.  I think it’s important and something that definitely needs changing.  But, in the process, what if just 1 or 2 of those 5 lunches per week that kids eat were healthy, nutritionally balanced (and not USDA balanced, really balanced) and from home?  If the end result is healthier food in our kids, isn’t it worth a try?
Quick bio: Shannon is a former middle school teacher and mom to a 7.5 and 4.5 year old.  She’s interested interested in quick, easy & fun ways to help her kids eat healthy and blog about their food adventures at
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62 thoughts on “Guest blogger: More Alternatives to School Lunch”

  1. Question about your frozen foods for lunches: do you simply pack them frozen, on the theory that they will have thawed and be room-temp by the time lunch rolls around, or do you bake/reheat them before putting them in the lunches?

  2. Your kids are very lucky to have a mom who cooks/bakes. I work with several women who don't cook at all, and their idea of a healthy lunch is mac & cheese in a microwave cup with some chips from the vending machine. One is the mother of two baby girls, and I shudder to think of what these children will grow up eating. My mom DID cook, and so the lunches you propose seem easy and doable to me, but I could see my co-workers balking at the planning and prep of a "stuffed muffin."

  3. Is there any chance you would share the recipe (or where you got it) for the stuffed muffin?

  4. I'd like to know where you got that lunch box! It's a great shape, everything fits in it so neatly.

  5. Yes, I'd also like the muffin recipe!! Great idea and great looking lunch!!!

  6. Our school has outlawed any items with peanut butter so a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich is out…

    My Mum makes similar muffins and the kids just wolf them down when we are visiting…

    I just wish I was organized enough to plan so far ahead and have the fruit diced and sliced and things in the freezer. I think people might eat them for snacks etc. as sometimes that is what happens to the "lunches only juice boxes" around this house…

    Nice post though and appetizing photo!

  7. I love the cute bento lunches, but am wondering about schools where there is no cafeteria – how are students who qualify for free/reduced lunch accommodated?

    I think it's important to realize there is a certain amount of privilege necessary to make fresh, interesting, produce-heavy bento lunches every day like the one above.

  8. [For those of you looking for the "recipe" it is posted in the archives of that blog – it is basically fatty meat and cheese in a box of Jiffy.]

    Ground beef is full of saturated fat, as is most cheese. Having these ingredients then stuffed into a Jiffy mix that contains (from their website): ANIMAL SHORTENING (CONTAINS ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING: LARD, HYDROGENATED LARD, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED LARD).

    I'm sorry, but I'm not thinking this lunch is any healthier than the standard cafeteria fare.

  9. Shannon-
    GREAT idea on the prebaked main dish items! I tried to see if the recipes were on your site, but it was blocked from my office (and I don't have internet at home). I would LOVE if you could share some with me! I am going to start packing lunch in August for my daughter. She will be attending a school with no cafeteria – although they do have catered lunches. I am on a super tight budget, so we will be doing packed ones. 🙂

  10. Shannon –
    For some reason, I can not get to your site at my office AND I do not have internet at home. I would LOVE if you could email me some recipes for the main dish muffins & such!!

  11. Yes, the stuffed muffins sound like a great idea! That menu is about what I serve my toddler. The only packaged food he eats is an occasional organic toddler granola bar. I didn't pack my son's lunch at his first daycare and couldn't stand what they fed him. I will definitely pack it when we move.

  12. Yes; any and every family could follow this model. I'd like to suggest getting the kids involved early and completely in provisioning themselves for school: even 5 year olds can place cut fruits and veggies into containers for lunch; a couple more years and they can make their own sandwiches and help with overall food prep; by the time my two boys were 10, they were helping prep the shopping list, maintaining the pantry log, consulting on menus, readying fresh foods for storage and refrigeration, cleaning and maintaining their own luch gear and packing their own lunches daily. We always did the next day's prep the evening before, after dinner and clean up. I have two wonderfully conscientious, capable and cooperative adult sons now because I recognized that they could and WANTED to contribute to their own upkeep when they were quite small. All kids do; when we don't encourage that bent, we discourage independence and initiative.

  13. Ditto what Mrs. C said……I made my own lunch starting in first grade and I was the youngest of 12!

    There isn't any reason that kids can't help pack lunches. If cutting fruit is a problem, get some "lite" fruit cocktail cups, sugar free cups of applesauce, the grocery store is chock FULL of alternatives to the crap they are feeding kids.

  14. How do you keep these items fresh in a lunch box for the hours before lunch time occurs in school?

  15. Thank you for posting the recipe, and for the idea! My kids aren't really into sandwiches in their lunches. (They won't eat mustard, don't like mayo if it's gotten warm and complain that their sandwiches are dry.) I pack them whole grain crackers and cheese pretty often but it gets old.

    I can't do a whole stick of butter, but I bet it would work with just about any corn bread/muffin recipe. I might try this lower fat one soon:

    I bet it would be great with some turkey sausage, or lean ham, cut into cubes. If it works out well, I'll let you know.

  16. I like the idea of packing lunches, but many of the sites I've come across with ideas are very misleading, like yours is. You say that the prep time is 5 minutes, but that's only 5 minutes in the morning. That doesn't take into account the hours you spend prepping the foods either on weekends or during the evening (assuming you are not a SAHM with kids in school, I guess).

    Also, quite a bit of what goes into these lunches isn't all that healthy, and some of it is forbidden in my son's school (like the peanut butter listed above).

    As much as I would love to think I could whip up a simple lunch in 5 minutes, I do let school take care of lunch, and I focus on breakfast and dinner.

  17. A common misperception is that all of the fat in beef is saturated. In fact, USDA data shows that half of beef’s fatty acids are the same as the heart-healthy fatty acids (monounsaturated) found in olive oil. In addition, the saturated fat in beef is unique. Approximately one-third of beef’s total saturated fat is stearic acid, which has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol in humans. When this is taken into account, the amount of potentially cholesterol-raising fatty acids is comparable in beef, fish and chicken.

  18. Hi, Shannon.

    Thanks so much for the great ideas and inspiration! My daughter goes back to school in August and we definitely plan on making better lunches. I would like to know where you found that adorable lunchbox and mini containers inside. Please advise,
    P.S. I would like to comment on the statement someone posted earlier about the jiffy mix and fatty meat (beef). There are many ways to make healthier meals. As Shannon stated, that was a shortcut version. Most people that cook know how to modify recipes to make them healthier or easier, if you choose…its your choice.

  19. I completely agree with Mrs. C. Yes, it takes more work (in the beginning) to get our children in the kitchen to help. But, that extra help pays off in their own self-reliance and self-esteem later on. To stifle that is to stifle their growth and productivity. The more thought and time they get to put in tot heir own lunch, chances are they are going to eat better and be set up for a lifetime of healthy style living. I love the bentos, i will be getting one for their lunches next year.

  20. It all looks so yummy. Crunch, grain, protein, color. Lucky child.

    I agree with Sarah, above, who mentions the privilege so many of us take for granted–of having access to a plethora of fresh foods, even on a budget. I'm still reeling, weeks (months?) later from the family in Food, Inc., whose daughters craved an apple but could not have it because one apple cost as much as their fast-food "whole meal."

  21. Have you heard from any schools that do NOT have a cafeteria?
    Our school has a "kitchen", but it is not equipped to cook any food. Rather it is packaged at a central spot, and delivered to us.
    Sometimes, a little "apple pie" is considered their fruit.
    And we have about 85% on free lunch &, it's probably the only "hot" meals my kids get.

  22. If this was the type of alternative meal I saw more often in my cafeteria…I would be delighted. Unfortunately, it is most common to see microwave popcorn, Easy Mac, Ramen Noodles, Potato Chips, Cookies, Candy, and the list goes on from there…foods that are laced with fat, salt, and sugar and very little nutritional value. Very few parents pack healthy lunches like these.

  23. The 5 minute prep time was using items I already had precooked in my freezer. It's why I precook, so I don't have to prepare full lunches in the morning. My kids and I will spend a couple of hours on a weekend making multiple batches of items so I have things to use for lunches. We do fresh items as well or leftovers, I just like having an emergency stash of food on hand. Right now, we've been experimenting a lot, so there are lots of "cuter" items on my blog, but the above is pretty standard for minimal work on my part.

    As for the PBJ, probably not the best example, I suppose, I wasn't thinking allergies. I figured if I said turkey & cheese, someone would preach the evils of deli turkey to me. ;o) FWIW, I couldn't pay either of my kids to eat a pbj sandwich, they both hate peanut butter. I cannot figure that one out for the life of me!

  24. I love the guest bloggers. They provide different perspectives and fresh ideas on the school lunch topic.

    Love the lunch box! It looks like a lot of fun to eat, with fresh veggies and fruit.

    And I love the stuffed muffin idea. It sounds like a great snack. I do a lot of non-wheat muffins, but usually sweet not savory ones, so I'm dying to try your muffin recipe. Thanks for posting the link!

  25. Quoting from the guest poster's entry –
    "…were healthy, nutritionally balanced (and not USDA balanced, really balanced)…"

    Who or what organization should choose what that standard would be? What would be suggestions as how it should differ?

    Since it is hard to "hear" tone in writing, I want to add that I'm not being sarcastic or rude, I'm honestly interested.

  26. That looks like a perfect lunch, thank you so much for sharing. A great guest blogger post 🙂

  27. @Kathryn Grace, that doesn't make any sense to me. I can buy a whole bag of snack-sized apples at the store for $2 to $3. So they end up being a quarter each. Any parent who claims they cannot afford fresh fruit for their kids has never even tried.

  28. thankyou for such a great post!I felt like I was reading my own story ….

    I now have 2 adult sons who understand about healthy eating, and who take responsibility for what they eat. Isn't that, as parents, one of our MOST important jobs??

    I have been following this post prety much since the start. I am in turn, both horrified and boosted by what I read.

    To the lady who said " I just wish I was organised enough to do the same" …please try, it is so important for your childrens future health.

    Why do you think Mrs Q is putting herslf through this in the first place?

    By the way, I have been a canteen manager at a primary school in Perth Western Australia for 10 years. In 6 weeks I am leaving my much loved job to start teaching the canteen management course to other prospective managers.

    We have had a huge government led shake up here in the last 5 years; the food is so very much better than it used to be!

    It can be done.Change does not come easily , but bit by bit we have to change this around for our kid's sake.

  29. Someone above asked about keeping things fresh. I'd like to hear more about that too. Did I miss a discussion of this in the comments or on another post?

    Every now and then, the media will have on someone that will say meats should not be unfrigerated for more than two hours, and there was some limit on dairy too.

    Do you have a post where you discuss this?

  30. I bought several bento lunch sets recently, from local Asian markets. If you have any decent-sized Asian markets in your area (Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese) try looking there. They usually have a housewares section that includes lots of storage items, and the prices are usually better than the trendy lunch sets you can find online.

  31. I also pack bento-style lunchboxes for my kids because they don't sandwiches. An insulated bag with a "blue ice" pack keeps everything cold well past lunch time.

    I use the easy lunchbox system ( has the containers and plenty of ideas for things to pack in lunches), and use the same blue and green silicon Wilton cupcake liners (found in the cake decorating section of a craft store)that are in the picture above, when I need to further section off the large section.

    My grocery store's natural foods section also sells bento style "Laptop Lunch Boxes", and I think I've seen them on too. I just don't like having so many containers to keep track of wash, etc. so I went for a different way to pack them. is also full of photos with ideas of what she packs for her kids' bento style lunches and has links to places where you can buy the boxes.

  32. for those of you asking about keeping things fresh… one of the easiest things i've done is to buy organic no sugar added juice boxes and stick them in the freezer. they keep everything cool/refrigerated until lunchtime but defrost just the right amount to drink

  33. I think it's interesting how the guest blogs lately seem to focus on bringing lunch from home. Any privileged, middle-class parent with extra time COULD make their child's lunches.

    I thought this blog was more interesting to read when the focus was to make school lunches better for all those kids who qualify for free or subsidized lunches –you know, the ones with single parents working two jobs without insurance. Those parents don't have the time, money, or access to a good grocery store, that would allow them to pre-bake stuff every weekend. They're probably working their second job on the weekends.

    And I have to admit I get a little tired of the self-righteous attitude of the guest bloggers telling everyone else how great they are at making fabulous lunches. I make my daughters lunch, I use bento boxes, I pack fresh fruits and veggies –I'm one of those privileged parents. From the comments, it seems like most of the readers are too. Enough with patting ourselves on the back –what can be done for the parents who can't do this?

  34. @Renee — The lunches that I eat are the lunches that the kids coming from homes at or below the poverty line eat. It is very depressing for me and a lot of readers to see this stuff every day. I try to balance out some of my grim lunches with some interesting information from people who are working hard to feed their kids right (and in this case there isn't a working cafeteria at the school).

    School lunch is such a big, complex problem that it overwhelms me sometimes. I think this blog and project would be pretty sad if I didn't balance it out with a little light-hearted stuff occasionally. Plus the guest bloggers often teach us new things or share viewpoints or perspectives that I can't.

  35. @Maggie – check out Tom Noughton's movie FatHead is a great source for what is really good for us and what's not. And he backs it up with LOTS of research. His blog is also on that site. Everything in his movie eventually makes it to his blog 🙂

    This has been the best guest blogger post yet, IMHO. Great information…and from a Mom!

  36. please, Renee, this is not about who is " better " or more privileged. The people who post here are obviously interested in the overall topic of how to feed our kids better, or they would not even be here.

    Mrs Q hit it on the head when she said that the issue is very complex. Of course we all want the same thing – better food for our kids – and some of us , myself included, have made it our working job to try to help.

    I just don't think it is very constructive or helpful to make derogatory assumptions about some of the posters' perceived socio economic status just because they are willing to spend some of their weekend standing in their kitchen doing what they can for their kids.

    Should we not be "patting them on the back" as you say?

  37. I guess I am privileged, as other posters said, in that my husband & I both have jobs that allow us to afford food for our kids' lunches (I honestly don't think we could afford the almost $3/meal @ school daily but if I didn't work we'd qualify for reduced lunch) and I work standard hours so I can pack lunches before bed or before school.

    Otherwise, I think I'm a fairly average person. I have 2 school aged kids, assorted pets, bills to pay, and a crazy calendar. I work 2 part-time jobs to supplement my husband's income. I often have to decide between getting a load of laundry done or getting an extra hour of sleep.

    I realize not everyone can afford to pack lunches, but if you described the steps involved in showering and brushing your teeth each morning and how long that takes, people wouldn't say "OMG who can do that every day? Who has the time? That's nuts!" Yet it takes me less time to pack 2 healthy lunches than to shower and brush my teeth. I don't say that to pat myself on the back – I often dread packing lunches but my kids refuse to eat school lunch (plus the pesky $ thing).

    While the focus of this blog is school lunch, lunches from home are often not much better. My district had to issue a written ban on cans of soda in lunch boxes. That blows my mind. We can't expect schools to invest time & money in healthy lunches but then turn around and say, "Well, that's fine for them but it takes too long and costs to much to pack a healthy lunch from home so I'll just send Lunchables and Coke." Lunches across the board have to be improved so that all our children have the opportunity to realize their full potential. I think some of these conversations are important for redefining the community standard for what lunch should look like.

  38. @Renee, is it necessarily our fault these same parents chose to have kids? You know, sometimes we forget that such free lunches are a form of help and certainly not an entitlement. It is sad to see those lunches, but what do you want states to do when they are in the red. It's easy to say let's help each other when we have the capacity and things are going well, but when things are bad, how can you expect help when everyone is struggling already.

    Bottomline, although the food is certainly sad, it's better than nothing.

  39. I am interested to know how much of this typical lunch your 2nd grader eats? Does she bring home the leftovers or toss them at school? It seems like a lot of food to me. Not chastising. Really! Just interested in comparing what gets eaten by my own 2nd grader.

  40. Not only healthy, but many of your creations are fun looking. Prestentation makes eating healthy more enjoyable for our children.

  41. As someone that was eligible for free lunches at school, I still didn't eat them. They were disgusting with the exception of the "mexican/tex-mex" items. On her limited salary, my mom found a little money to buy items for my lunches as long as I made them myself because she knew it was important to me and that I needed food as a basic necessity. From about 10 years old on, I had to make my lunches. I was in a single parent household where my parent worked. It does take some shifting of priorities and some time to make sure your kids know how to cook, use utensils properly and how to clean up, but it can be done.

    As an adult I still see the value in putting some time aside to make my lunches, using the same tips some people mention above – prepare a little extra at dinner time or set something aside before mixing it with everything else, make stuff on the weekend, make items that freeze well. Buying fruits and veggies that are "in season" generally mean they are way cheaper and they taste better (i.e. don't expect to buy cheap apples in the summer or berries in the winter) Keep an eye on ads in your area to see what's on sale each week. I even manage to buy organic foods while not spending a fortune. Today I stopped by my local dollar store that carries produce and got a pound of organic spinach, a pint of organic cherry tomatoes, 2 lbs of bananas and 5 ounces of baby portabella mushrooms for a total of $4. I can easily whip up delicious meals for the same price or less than what people even spend on fast food meals.

    As a society, imagine if we stopped subsidizing the foods we shouldn't be eating and encouraged more people to grow their own stuff and spend money on the things that REALLY matter. So many times I see people complain about not having money for good food when I see them spending money on very non-essential items whether it be cable tv, multiple tvs (& the electricity needed to run them), cell phones, movies, ipods, clothing, cars and even just things like soda & sugary juices. Those aren't essential. None of those things should even be considered BEFORE shelter, food and water. People aren't just coming up with these spending habits as adults – they see their parents making those decisions when they are growing up and continue to make those decisions.

  42. What a great post Shannon! You sound just like me: "We're not buying it unless it's on sale!" Lunch packing takes preparation and work, but so does parenting and anything else we try to do well. I've made "homemade corn dogs" with Jiffy Mix as well as a healthier version. It just depends on the day, and every day is different. Some days are more "successful" than others. It's great reading different ideas that we can incorporate and make our own, depending on our kids/family needs. I'd love to involve my kids in making things to freeze and thaw for lunchboxes. Love that idea! The main thing is that we try, and hopefully teach our kids good nutrition and what healthy choices look like. Thanks for sharing some of what works in your house Shannon! – Kelly Lester, mom and CEO,

  43. M @ 3.54pm …

    very well said! A " shifting of priorities" is indeed what is desperately needed at ALL levels of the community – starting at the TOP with the big companies, but we all know that isn't going to happen until they get a scare.

    Your tips and suggestions are all very welcome and useful, and things that I, as a mother and a canteen manager in a Primary school, use just as a matter of common sense. Most of the reason for that is because I am 47 years old, and was raised and educated by my mother to know about these things.

    (And by the way, she worked 2 jobs most of her life, and my father was only around when it suited him. I was cooking for my family by the age of 10. There was no fast food in the little town I grew up in.)

    For a lot of people, the world is a different place now, and it is a sad fact that most of the people who would most benefit from this site, and sites like it, probably don't even know of their existence.

    Maybe I have missed it, but have we had a dedicated discussion page about tips and ideas about what works for other people for producing cheap healthy food for their children?

    Maybe we could gather up everyone's ideas, and get them sent out to the young parents in some of the schools that would most benefit? Just an idea…..

    Our State Government funds an information session called "Snackshop", where qualified nutritionists go out to schools and give sessions on preparing healthy, cheap, home made lunches and snacks.

    The schools have to make the first move in applying for a session, and they have been an outstanding success.

    It is all about education. I repeat – The big companies will not get rid of the terrible rubbish they sell until people realise it is a very unhealthy waste of money and stop buying it.

  44. Shannon WTG I love your blog and I think it is wonderful how you make lunches for your kiddos and I plan to do the same thing with my DD when she starts K this fall.

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