Packing a Safe, Healthy, & Creative Lunch

Tabetha Woodside,
Food Science intern,
Clemson University Extension Service

HTF 1016

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School is in full force right now and for lots of families that means some of you have already been packing lunches for over a month. If your kids insist on home packed lunches but you find it to be a repetitive chore then why not “shake it up” and revamp your lunch packing plans? The following ideas can inspire creativity and help take the “chore” out of at least one of your daily tasks. These tips and tricks aren’t just for school lunches but can be useful for packing safe, nutritious, and creative lunches for anyone.

Packing safe & healthy lunches.
Packing safe & healthy lunches.

Food Safety

Start with Food that Has Been Handled Properly: Food is a tricky thing when it comes to safety. If not properly handled, harmful diseases such as Listeria and Salmonella can take hold. So make sure that when you are packing a lunch, you start with food that has been properly handled while it has been in your care, from grocery store to home. First, food that is cold or frozen needs to stay properly chilled or frozen between the grocery store at home. These foods are safe for 2 hours or less at room temperature and for less than an hour at 90 ℉.

Cross Contamination: Cross contamination is a huge concern when dealing with food that will be eaten as is (such as raw fruits and vegetables) at the same time as dealing with food that will be reheated or cooked. Start by making sure your hands, surfaces, and utensils are clean. Wash your hands with soap and water before starting lunch packing and wipe down all surfaces with some kind of cleaner. Then use utensils straight out of a drawer or dishwasher to ensure they haven’t been used on any harmful foods before being used for lunch prep. Additionally, if using a cutting board make sure that it is clean as well and use different cutting board for cutting fruits and vegetables versus raw meat. This is particularly helpful in reducing the likelihood that you or your child will get food poisoning from the harmful bacteria Salmonella.

Keep Cold Food Cold and Hot Foods Hot: To ensure that harmful pathogens don’t grow cold foods need to stay below 41℉ and hot foods should stay about 145 ℉. To make certain this happens, use an insulated lunch box. To keep cold foods cold, use a frozen ice pack or juice box and pack cold food in between or underneath these items. Additionally, you should not put warm food directly in a lunch box with cold food. Either give hot food time to cool properly before putting it in a lunchbox or use a thermos or other insulated container to keep it hot until lunch time. If using a thermos or insulated container, fill it first with boiling water and let it stand for 5 minutes to warm up the container. This helps warm up the container so heat isn’t lost right when the food is put into the container. After 5 minutes, pour out the water and immediately put the hot food into the container and put the lid on, making sure the lid is properly sealed and secure.


Planning will save a lot of stress when packing a lunch. For children, start by finding the school menu and letting them pick what days they want to eat at school so they can get hot foods on those days. Pizza, chicken nuggets, and nacho days are often the most popular and it will save you some time and effort to let children eat at school these days. Then, for you and your child, make a list of things they can pack. Try to vary it, maybe instead of a meat and cheese sandwich every day, include wraps, assembly mini pizzas, or soups, stews, and chili. Then you can ask your children what they want from the list, ensuring that they have healthy items (lots of fruits and veggies) to choose from! Finally, ask them to bring home uneaten items so you can ensure they are getting enough food or that you aren’t packing too much.


Lunch choices can make a big difference when it comes to total calories, fat, saturated fat, fiber, sugar, and sodium you or your child consumes during the day.

Food Groups: Try to incorporate one food from every food group: fruits, veggies, dairy, protein, and whole grains. If this isn’t possible, aim for at least three of the five groups. When choices carbohydrates, be sure to buy whole grains because the are more nutritious overall and have more fiber than white bread or other highly processed grains. Choose fruits and vegetables that are deeply colored to ensure you and your child get the most vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants possible. These fruits and vegetables, along with the whole grains mentioned earlier, are also a great source of fiber. Meat, beans, and legumes also provide a good source of protein and milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy product provide great sources of calcium and vitamin D if they are fortified.

Protein: Good sources of protein include: turkey, ham, roast beef, tuna, beans, hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter, nuts, and soups or chili.

Grains: Whole grains are good grains! These choices include whole wheat bread, cereal, pasta, crackers, and brown rice.

Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are low in fat and high in nutrient content and fiber. To keep it interesting, alternate between choosing raw veggies and cooked veggies. Good veggies to pack include: carrots, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, and celery. If you are looking for cooked options these can include: green beans, broccoli, sugar snap peas and corn. Fruits that are most popular are: apples, bananas, grapes, blueberries, peaches, strawberries, plums, and clementines. If you are going to choose canned or pre-packed fruits, look for fruits that are packed in juice as opposed to syrup.

Dairy: To get your dairy and calcium in everyday try packing low-fat or no-fat milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and cheese sticks, cubes, or slices.

Beverages: Avoid high calorie beverages! Save your calories for food and help your child start the habit of doing the same. Drinks can also contribute to your five food groups. Some choices include: low-fat milk in single-serve bottles, vegetable juices, 100% fruit juices, drinkable yogurt, and smoothies made with low-fat yogurt. Water is never a bad option either, but make sure to leave out sodas, energy drinks, fruit punch or fruit “beverages”. These drinks often contain corn syrup and other sugars that can come out to 12 full table spoons of sugar for fruit drinks or punch, and sodas have about 9 teaspoons of sugar.

Get Creative

The same ole lunch every day can get very boring, so vary texture, flavor, color and temperatures to spice it up some.

Texture: Have crunch and smooth elements in the same lunches. Nuts and sunflower seeds can do a lot to spice up a boring sandwich or salad.

Flavor: New condiments can also do a lot for plain meat and cheese sandwiches. You can try sun-dried tomato spread, horseradish (though probably not for the children), Chinese mustard, spreadable goat cheese, or even salad dressings like ranch or Caesar.

Color: The easiest way to add color to a lunch is fresh fruits and vegetables. Many ideas are listed above for fruits and veggies and some additional ideas include: red and green peppers, black olives, tomatoes with grated cheese, red onions, oranges, cilantro, or maybe some fresh vegetable relish.

Temperature: Have warm foods and cold foods in your lunch! A salad and soup add a good degree of variation in temperature, but remember to always keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold!


  1. "Food Safety Is a Must When It Comes to Packing School Lunches - EXtension." Food Safety Is a Must When It Comes to Packing School Lunches - EXtension. EXtension, 8 Dec. 2015. Web. 08 June 2016.
  2. Johnson, Carrie. "Packing School Lunches." IGrow. IGrow, 7 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 June 2016.
  3. Hunter, Janis G. "Packing Lunches for Work or School." HGIC 4246 : Extension : Clemson University : South Carolina. Clemson Cooperative Extension, Aug. 08. Web. 09 June 2016.

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