This past year we all spent a good amount of time and thought into prepping our pantry for an emergency – but now as we head back to school our pantries may not be stocked very well for every day snacks and packing lunches. So we have updated of one of our favorite posts, because it’s so helpful for so many of you each year — our essential school lunch shopping list.

This is everything you need to feed your kids tasty, healthy food without getting in a rut of eating the same thing every day. Keep your pantry stocked with these items, and packing those lunch boxes and bags will be so much easier.

So, print this list and hit the grocery — and be sure to stop by the dairy aisle of course! — so you can be prepared for a great start to your kids’ school year.

This post is newly updated for 2021

Related: How I pack school lunches for the whole week in under 30 minutes — and keep them fresh too.

Essential school lunch packing list: Prosciutto wrapped cheese at Manila Spoon

Prosciutto-wrapped string cheese bites are easy and kid friendly, making this one of our favorite recipes for lunch boxes or after school treats. Find out how to make them at Manila Spoon.

The Essential School Lunch Shopping List:


Protein has become a big buzzword when it comes to feeding kids — especially during long school days when they need to focus — but the truth is that protein can be found in tons of foods our kids are already eating, not just in their sliced lunch meat.

Instead of juice boxes, send milk boxes. Instead of a sugary granola bar, find a more wholesome protein bar they love. Here are some other ideas that we put on our shopping list each week to help our kids get the protein they need:

  • Eggs, for hard boiling  — you can slice them, mix into egg salad, or serve whole
  • Cold cut slices — piled on a sandwich, wrapped around string cheese, folded and skewered with veggies and cheese, or wrapped up in these Turkey Pinwheel bites from Eazy Peazy Mealz
  • String cheese — cube it to add to a bento, toss it in whole, or wrap prosciutto around it as in this recipe from Manila Spoon
  • Pepperoni or salami slices — a favorite way to switch up the cold cut routine for our kids
  • Canned tuna  — tuna salad is such an easy meal (for kids who will eat it) but we recommend sticking with one can a week, max, due to mercury levels.
  • Hummus — serve with pita chips, sliced red peppers, or as a spread on toast

Essential school lunch packing list: Spiced Chickpeas at Chowhound

Not all protein is meat! Make these spiced chickpeas from Chowhound to snack on at school. It’s a terrific recipe. In fact, make enough for you to snack on too!

  • Chickpeas — we love this simple spiced chickpeas recipe from Chowhound for a great snack
  • Beans — whip up black bean, corn, and salsa with some chips, or send warm black beans and Spanish rice in a Thermos or other insulated container
  • Cheese cubes — because food is just more fun when it’s cubed, right? Save money buying slabs of cheese and cubing yourself.
  • Greek yogurt — or any of our favorite yogurt brands. But we do love Greek yogurt!
  • Quinoa — it’s packed with protein and can be served savory in these Quinoa Pizza Bowls at Gimme Some Oven, or sweet in these Chocolate & Peanut Butter Scotcharoos at A Saucy Kitchen. It’s also great for gluten-free eating.
  • Cottage cheese — you can send it with a drizzle of honey and fresh fruit for kids with a sweet tooth, or with a swirl of balsamic or sprinkle of paprika for those who like it savory
  • Peanut butter or sunbutter — Of course if your kids’ school has a nut-free policy, use one of our favorite no-nut-butter spreads.
  • Tofu — some of our kids gobble up super-firm tofu sautéed in olive oil until very crispy, as long as we put a generous helping of Greek seasoning on it first.
  • Edamame — you can buy it already steamed and shelled, then just give it a sprinkling of sea salt and it’s a tasty, kid-friendly snack.

Related: How I pack lunches for the whole week in under 30 minutes — and keep them fresh, too

Essential school lunch packing list: Pretzel bites at I Heart Naptime

Your kids will worship you for these delicious can’t-eat-just-one soft pretzel bites at I Heart Naptime like ours do! SO good.

The Essential School Lunch Shopping List:

Bread + Carbs

Sandwiches are the staple of most school lunches, but varying it up makes a huge difference when your kid is eating around 200 packed lunches a year. So think outside the bread when it comes to carbs. Here’s what we’re buying:

  • Bread — yeah, we’ll start here. Sliced bread is a given, but also baguettes to serve with ham and cheese, garlic knots with sliced pepperoni, or biscuits and ham for a breakfast-for-lunch twist.
  • Tortillas — for wraps, quesadillas, DIY tacos, peanut butter roll-ups, or just eating them plain. You can also spread some nut (or nut-free) butter, cream cheese, or nutella on a tortilla, fill with fruit, roll it up, and slice it for a delicious sandwich-alternative.
  • Grains — we love DIY Buddha bowls for dinner, and we can easily reheat leftovers and pack them in a thermos in the morning.
  • Pasta — pack up your dinner leftovers, make a batch of plain noodles for picky eaters, or send in homemade (or not-so-homemade) mac & cheese in a Thermos.
  • Crackers — make your own homemade Lunchable-style bento, turn crackers into tiny pizzas, or send them in a lunch box with a yummy dipping sauce
  • Muffins — You don’t have to tell us (or our kids) twice to dig into a delicious muffin.
  • Pretzels — while hard pretzels are great for lunch boxes, our kids are suckers for big, soft pretzels, so we like to treat them once in a while with this homemade soft pretzel recipe from I Heart Naptime, shown above.
  • Granola bars — when you buy pre-packaged, look for added protein and low-sugar so your kids don’t crash. Ours love ThinkKIDS bars.
  • Chips — we’re all for indulging our kids with their favorites in moderation, whether your kids like pita chips, tortilla chips, or classic potato chips.

The Essential School Lunch Shopping List:


Fruit is a go-to for most kids, but that doesn’t mean they want to eat grapes every single school day. To keep it interesting, try a variety of fruits in a variety of formats. Here are some ideas:

  • Fresh fruit — Apples, grapes, strawberries, bananas, mandarin oranges, pears, cantaloupe and even “fancy” fruits like dragon fruit or mango can be cubed, sliced, or use that melon baller that’s collecting dust in your drawer. Browse the produce aisles, and try one new fruit a week to see if there’s something new your kid falls in love with.
  • Fruit roll-ups — while you can certainly buy the boxed stuff, we have a DIY fruit strip recipe we love, and it’s a fun way to get real fruit without too much sugar into a lunch box, in a format kids know and love.
  • Dried fruit — don’t forget to check the dried fruit aisle at your grocery for banana chips, chewy apricot bites, raisins (great for muffin recipes, ants on a log, or just snacks on their own) , or even sweet dried prunes. Kids can eat them on their own, or they’re great in homemade granola.
  • Fruit spreads — choose real fruit spread brands, like Field Day Organics, over sugar-laden jelly for kids’ sandwiches
  • Fruit squeeze packs — you can find some healthy, low-sugar fruit squeeze packs at big chains as well as smaller grocers now, and they’ll give your kids a nice energy boost to power through their afternoon classes.
  • Fruit juice — Great to keep on hand to blend into smoothies with fresh fruit, yogurt, even veggies.

Related: 5 items to buy at Costco to save a bundle on school lunch


Essential school lunch packing list: Pack veggies! via Lunchbots

Perfect veggie packing, spotted in this cute bento-style container from LunchBots

The Essential School Lunch Shopping List:


Veggies might be the item in our kids’ lunches they look forward to the least, but one per lunch seems fair.  We’ve found that sending tasty dips alongside helps make them more tempting. And of course, we’re not above sneaking some in to recipes so the kids have no clue they’re even eating them in the first place. Parenting win.

  • Fresh veggies as finger food — carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, radishes, sugar snap peas. Our groceries usually have snack-sized packs you can pick up on-the-go, but we’ve found it’s much cheaper to just set aside the time and peel and slice your own.
    And speaking of cukes, cucumber sandwiches are a Southern tradition, though kids everywhere love little cream cheese and sliced cucumber bites. (Just be sure to cut the crusts off for authenticity.)
  • Celery — serve with pb or cream cheese. “Ants on a log” was a favorite when we were kids!
  • Zucchini — for zoodles, our friends!
  • Avocado or guacamole — kids don’t have to know guac is made from veggies, and school lunches are one time we recommend buying the pre-made snack packs, because they won’t go brown like homemade. (Save the homemade for after school snacks.)
  • Cherry tomatoes — perfect for making a little salad more colorful, or spear with alternating cubes of mozzarella, and even drizzle a little balsamic for bite-sized deliciousness. (And yeah, we know tomatoes are technically a fruit, but, you know. Go with us here.)
  • Red peppers — sweet and crunchy, serve with hummus for protein or even some ranch or blue cheese dip.
  • Marinara sauce — perfect in a pinch for pasta or for mini pizzas (and all the mini pizza variations we’ve shared), and you can even blend in some red peppers or chopped spinach to amp up the store-bought.

Top image:  Krishnam Moosaddee via Unsplash