Inside: Got a hungry teenager? Get healthy school lunch box ideas for teens, including hot, cold, and vegetarian options.
When your kids were little, you might’ve cut a PBJ into fun shapes or (no judgements here!) slid a Lunchable into an insulated bag and called it a day.
Packing a teen’s lunch is a whole ‘nother ballgame.
Teens have bigger appetites–and bigger nutritional needs. Middle and high schoolers are also busy kids who need lunches (and snacks) they can eat quickly during short lunch periods or between the school day and activities.
Need inspiration for healthy school lunch ideas for your teens? I’ve got you covered, including some simple recipes your kid will love.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 30+ Healthy Lunch Ideas For Teens (For Home or School)
Tip: Wish your kid packed his own lunch? It’s never too late to start! Check out my Ultimate Guide to Getting Your Kids to Pack Their Own Lunches, which includes free printables and strategies like assembling these grab-and-pack lunch packing stations.
Packing a Lunch Box For Teens
- Bigger portions: Depending on your child’s growth and appetite, they may need more food (you know your kid best, so remember the photos shown here are for ideas, not prescriptions for portion sizes).
- More satisfying main dishes: Your teen may now have access to a microwave in the cafeteria and be ready to expand beyond a PBJ to dinner leftovers and other hot foods (though a PBJ is a perfectly fine lunch too!). Scroll down to see my picks for the best thermos for teens.
- Supplemental snacks: Your teen may have after-school activities and need something substantial to keep them going–especially if lunch was at 10:45am!
Tip: Make good use of space by tucking filling, nutrient-dense items, such as snack balls and bites, cheese cubes, nuts, and seeds into empty spaces in the lunch box.
- Little kid lunchboxes: Your teen might wince at the lunchbox he carried in grade school or even middle school and want something more grown-up. Scroll down for my favorite lunch boxes for teens.
- Cutesy lunch bags: They may want to ditch the insulated bag decorated with camouflage or daisies in favor of regular brown paper bags. If you want a reusable option, scroll down for my favorite lunch bag for teens. Both of my kids carried it.
Lunch box ideas for teens to pack in a thermos
In our thermos experiments, liquids like soup stayed hotter longer than foods like pasta–which stayed warm, just not piping hot. It may help to “preheat” the thermos by pouring boiling water in first, dumping it out, then filling with food.
- Tortellini or ravioli
- Pesto pasta
- Mac-n-cheese (here’s my recipe for Instant Pot Mac & Cheese)
- Soup or chili
- Leftovers from last night’s dinner
- Black beans and rice
- Cold protein smoothie (try my Peanut Butter Protein Shake): Thermoses are good for keeping items cold too! Have your teen give the thermos a good shake before opening and drinking.
Tip: If your teen can microwave their lunch in the cafeteria, use a glass food container (or microwave-safe silicone lunch box) instead of regular plastic.
Cold main dish lunch box ideas for teens
- Sandwich, wrap, or sub
- Sushi: store-bought or homemade (here’s how easy it is to make simple sushi rolls)
- Salad with protein such as chicken, lentils, chickpeas, or salmon: pack dressing separately in a leak-proof container
- Pinwheels: here’s my recipe for Ham & Cheese Pinwheels but you can use any fillings
- Leftover pizza
- Charcuterie board lunch: fill compartments of a bento box with salami, crackers, cheese cubes, fresh fruit, and raw veggies with dip–be sure portions are big enough to be satisfying
- Hummus, pita, and veggies
- Pepperoni Rolls
- Cold pasta salad or quinoa salad
- Chicken salad with crackers or a croissant packed separately
- Sliced baguette and soft cheese (such as individual wedges of Laughing Cow)
Vegetarian lunch box ideas ideas for teens
- Hard-boiled eggs: here’s how to make hard-boiled eggs in the Instant Pot
- Veggie burgers and dogs, cut into bite-sized pieces
- Hummus, veggies, and pita
- Cheese sticks and whole grain crackers
- Yogurt and fruit
- Nuts (such as peanuts, cashews, and almonds)
- Seeds (such as sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds)
- Beans and rice
- Red lentil soup in a thermos
- Refried beans in a thermos
- Tortellini with red sauce or pesto sauce in a thermos
- Veggie nuggets
- Tofu nuggets
- Individual packets of nut butter or seed butter with crackers or apple slices
- Cottage cheese with fruit
- Grain salad (such as farro or quinoa) with veggies
- Roasted chickpeas
Fruit and veggie ideas for lunch boxes
- Main or side salad
- Individual cup of salsa or guacamole with chips
- Fruit cup or unsweetened applesauce
- Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries
- Apple or banana
- Clementine or sliced orange
- Dried or freeze-dried fruit
- Baby carrots
- Cucumbers or peppers
- Sugar snap peas
- Celery stuffed with cream cheese or peanut butter (dot with raisins or cranberries)
Sweet treats for your teen’s lunch box
- Granola bars
- Peanut Butter Quinoa Bars
- SunButter Cookies (nut-free)
- Chocolate Tofu Pudding (which my teen actually loves!)
- Nut-Free Snack Bites (nut-free)
- 4 Ingredient Protein Balls
- Chocolate or other flavored milk box
- Homemade quick breads like Banana Chocolate Chip Bread or Chocolate Zucchini Bread
Tip: If your teen is a more picky eater, school lunch may not be the time for new recipes or foods (save those for snacks and meals at home). Show your kids these lists and have them choose what looks and sounds good to them.
Healthy snacks for teens
Maybe your kid buys school lunches in the cafeteria but it’s not quite enough food. Or maybe they need nourishment between school and sports practices or after-school clubs.
Teens need a lot of food to fuel all their growth, development, and activity. Grab these ideas for assembling Healthy DIY Bistro Boxes for after school. They’re satisfying snack boxes that include protein, carbs, and other needed nutrients.
Nutrients teens need the most
Teens need good nutrition for all the growth and development happening right now. Unfortunately, diet quality tends to be pretty low during the teenage years, according to the most recent Dietary Guidelines For Americans. So they may not be getting what they need. Here are the nutrients teenage boys and girls may be lacking, according to a scientific report–plus food sources that can help fill the gap:
- Iron (girls): Fortified cereal, beans, lentils, beef, tofu
- Protein (girls): Beans, quinoa, yogurt, beef, tofu
- Folate (girls): Enriched grains, spinach, broccoli, oranges, bananas
- Vitamin B6 (girls): Chickpeas, potatoes, beef, chicken, cottage cheese
- Vitamin B12 (girls): Nutritional yeast, salmon, beef, milk, yogurt
- Phosphorus (girls & boys): Yogurt, cheese, lentils, cashews, brown rice
- Magnesium (girls & boys): Chia seeds, almonds, edamame, peanut butter, potatoes
- Choline (girls & boys): Eggs, beef, chicken, beans, Brussels sprouts
What’s the best teen lunch box?
I love a bento box for keeping foods separate without the need for disposable plastic bags. But a lot of lunch boxes can seem babyish to teenagers. Some of the best lunchboxes for teens:
 Lunchbots stainless steel are another simple option for divided containers. It comes in different sizes and configurations.
 Lunchbots silicone: The compartments come out, so they can be rearranged or removed, depending on the space you need.
 Planet Lunchboxes in a variety of sizes and configurations. The smaller one shown above is great for snacks.
What’s the best lunch bag for teens?
I like PackIt, a freezable lunch bag with built-in cold packs. You keep the bag in the freezer, so there’s no need for separate cold packs. It comes in a variety of colors and styles. My boys carry their classic lunch bag in black.
What’s the best thermos for teens?
We’ve tried a lot of them over the years, and I’ve even done tests with a thermometer. The best ones we’ve found are the Thermos Funtainer and the Mira Food Jar. Ask your teen if their school has microwaves in the cafeteria to heat their lunch as well.
I’m worried my teen isn’t getting enough protein. What are some protein-rich lunch ideas?
Most kids (and adults) get enough protein each day, since all kinds of foods contain protein–not just meat. But if you’re concerned, here are 50 non-meat protein ideas for lunchboxes.
Tip: Teen athletes generally need extra protein and more food overall because they’re using so many calories for exercise. So be sure they’re getting what they need at lunch and encourage them to pack pre-practice snacks. Here’s a list of Sports Snacks For Kids.
Help! Sometimes my teen eats her packed lunch but is still hungry!
Like adults, teen appetites can vary from day to day. If your teen is occasionally still hungry after her lunch, she can pack a few items in her backpack or lunch bag just in case, such as:
- A protein bar
- A box of milk (dairy or non-dairy, in shelf-stable packaging)
- A baggie or container of trail mix
- Whole grain crackers
- Banana or apple
Lunch boxes shown in this post
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.