How to plan and pack healthy teacher lunches

In all my years as a teacher, packing lunch has never been a priority. I never know what to pack for lunch outside of leftovers. Lately, my go-to lunch has been salad kits. They are super easy but then I’m left eating salad every single day at lunch and I’m not a big fan of the same food every day. Plus a salad isn’t as filling and then I’m more susceptible to saying yes when there are other treats available. If I could make healthy, filling lunches each day it would save me time and calories. That’s why I’ve asked my friend and wellness coach, Marija Crosson, to share some of her best tips for packing healthy lunches for school.

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What makes for a great lunch

Lunch is the meal that has to sustain us the longest throughout the day.  I use the following ratio as a guide to make that happen:

  • I always start with 50% veggies to make me full. I shoot for 2-3 cups of greens and/or raw/roasted veggies. For greens, try arugula, kale, mesclun, and spinach. For roasted veggies, try broccoli or cauliflower. For raw veggies, try bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, or cucumber.
  • Then, I incorporate 25% protein to help keep me full longer. I shoot for a ½-1 cup of eggs and dairy, chicken, turkey, beef, pork, game, seafood, or plant-based protein. For meat and fish, try shredded chicken, ground turkey, baked salmon, or canned tuna.
  • The last 25% of my plate is fiber-filled carbohydrates to give me sustained energy. I shoot for ½-1 cup starchy veggies, beans, and legumes, or whole grains. For starchy veggies, try roasting acorn squash, butternut squash, or sweet potatoes. For beans and legumes, try black beans, garbanzo beans, or lentils. For whole grains, try brown rice, farro, whole grain pasta, or quinoa. When choosing processed and packaged carbohydrates, look for at least 1 gram fiber for every 10 g total carbs
  • Then I add in 1-2 accessories to make the meal pop with flavor. I shoot for 2-4 T of healthy fats/dressing/sauce/condiments. Try avocado, cheese, nuts, seeds, or vinaigrette.

Salads, bowls, and stir-frys fit this approach really well. You can use the above ratio to create your own combos but if you prefer to cook from a recipe, my favorite meal prep lunches come from the following food blogs: Ambitious Kitchen, Eating Bird Food, Fit Foodie Finds, Love Leaf Co, and Our Balanced Bowl. I think it’s helpful to build up a master list of recipes you’d like to try so then each week, the research is already done for you.

I used to organize my recipes in a Pinterest board but found it cumbersome to cook from. Recently, I’ve fallen in love with the Paprika Recipe Manager. It’s the best $4.99 that I’ve ever spent on an app. You can store, categorize and rate recipes, create shopping lists directly from a given recipe and also map out what meals you’re eating on which day. But even more than that, I love how each recipe has an ingredients tab and a directions tab, making it a breeze to keep track of where you are while you cook.

Big picture planning

I’ve learned that a little bit of strategy before jumping into this process goes a long way.  

When it comes to planning, ask yourself:

“Would I rather eat the same thing every day?” → {choose one recipe} or

“Would I rather mix things up?” → {choose 2-3 recipes to alternate across the week}.

When it comes to prepping, ask yourself:

“Would I rather have a bigger prep once? –> {on Saturday/Sunday/Monday for the week} or “Would I rather have a smaller prep twice {on Sat/Sun for the next 2-3 days and then mid-week for the last 2-3 days}

Having the right gear also makes this process a lot easier.  There is nothing worse than a lunch that spills all over your bag. And after my fair share of tests (and ruined bags), here are my favorites:

Option 1: Ball mason jars

  • I like using the wide mouth quart sized mason jars for salads and bowls

Option 2: Snapware glass containers or Sterlite Ultra-Seal plastic containers

  • I like using the 2 cup rectangular container for plain Greek yogurt + fruit or quinoa salad
  • I like using the 4 cup square container for stir-fry, salads, and bowls

When trying to decide how many to buy, a question worth asking yourself is:

“Would I rather save time and energy?” → {Buy multiple containers so you can pack them at one time} or

“Would I rather save money?” → Buy one container and keep the prepped ingredients separate in the fridge to assemble the night before.

Weekly Planning

On Thursday or Friday, I look at my weekend and what we have going on, then block out three chunks of time into my schedule.  During the first block, I sit down to plan out my meals for the week by looking at my master list of recipes and deciding what I want to eat that week.  I then make my grocery list by cross-checking the ingredient list with the items I already have in my kitchen.

During the second block, I go grocery shopping or place my order online. Did you know that if you are an Amazon Prime member, you get free 2-hour delivery through Whole Foods?  Check to see if they deliver in your area. It has helped us save a lot of time. Another good option is Instacart – they partner with local grocery stores to also deliver your groceries. Most local grocery stores now have a delivery or order online with pick up service.

During the third block, I cook the recipes and portion them out into my lunch containers. Each night, I pack everything (silverware included) into my lunchbox and put it into the fridge. Then it’s super easy to grab and go in the morning!

Benefits of packing

Incorporating even just a few of these meal planning and prepping tips will help you save money, time, and mental energy.  It will also help you increase your energy so that you can thrive throughout the school day. How good would it feel to simplify nutrition so that you can focus on what matters most?


Marija Crosson lives in Philadelphia with her husband Michael and son Owen. She is a literacy coach who supports K-3rd grade teachers with curriculum and instruction. She is also a virtual health and wellness coach who helps high performing women feel good from the inside out. Find more tips and tricks follow her on Instagram and join the conversation on Facebook If you would like to participate in one of her boot camps or have questions, contact Marija at marijacrossonwellness@gmail.com

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