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School Lunch Thermos Ideas

“I not like saniches!”

My three-year-old daughter proudly announced as I opened her lunchbox and found it packed just as I had left it that first morning of preschool.


She didn’t actually mean she doesn’t like sandwiches, right? This can’t be correct. Surely she is mistaken. “Oh, sweetheart, you love sandwiches! Maybe you just didn’t want one today?”

She again proudly retorted, “I not like saniches!” The words burned my ears as I processed what that actually meant. This sweet little darling is sandwiched (no pun intended, ha) between my two PB&J devouring boys.

She, in one sentence, had flipped my lunch-making world, upside down. *Perhaps you have a child who is gluten-free, in which case, you also feel this pain quite well!

My husband came in to find me slumped over the kitchen chair. “Bad day at work?” Ha, no. Full-time job? Easy. Carpool schedule? Check. Laundry? Horrid (but manageable).

“It’s the LUNCHES,” I growled. He thought he misheard me,”Lunches?” And yes, I’ll leave it to your imagination what words I used from there to explain how the lunch packing situation had officially “won”.

His response was the hard line. “What? Packing lunches cannot cause you this much stress.  You know what? They just need to eat whatever you put in there!”

Uh-huh, I already know how this is going to go, but, I’ll give it a whirl! So a few days of my tough mom, “Yeah, You’re Gonna Eat This Because I Packed It!” act, and I was realizing first and foremost that I merely set myself up to be the recipient of a hangry, tired monster, which only led to further misery until her head hit the pillow.

How joyful.

So, there I stood, staring at the three empty lunch boxes as I tried to figure out how I could keep this whole thing simple. And as I pondered if there was some way to “force” this princess to like “saniches,” it hit me like a ton of bricks: the school lunch hour is the one and only time of their day where they have complete and utter control. So if the sanich-hater has spoken, she surely isn’t going to change her mind when no one is standing over her to say otherwise.

After some intense breathing and mustered-up willpower, an idea came to mind: lunch in a thermos.

“Lunch in a thermos?” I repeated out loud.

And so it began, The Art of Thermosing.

How to use a Thermos for Lunch

In the beginning, it was ugly. I have three lovely darlings with three very different ideas of what lunch looks like. So in my mind, I was trying to make this one-pot deal work across the board. 

After picking chunks of chicken out of chicken noodle soup (because one wants all the meat and the other wants all the noodles), I felt a need to readjust. There were some minor tweaks in general, but there was one major change that triggered my success. 

Think Pho bowl. 
Or even salad bar. 
All separate toppings, but easily available to throw in. 
Highly customizable to everyone’s desires.

Before I continue, I know what some of you are thinking… I pack lunches at night, this won’t work! Well, friends, if I can do it, you can too. As soon as my lovelies’ heads hit the pillow, I’m found either on the couch watching a show or enjoying time with friends, as I have to have a reset moment in the evening. Come morning?  Yikes. Hot. Mess. Express. So, rest assured, you too can finagle this, whether you’re a pre-packer, or if you pack like me, with one eye open slugging down coffee. 

Here goes…

Meal Planning: Thermos Lunch Ideas

Sometime between Friday and Sunday, I try to make the base of what I’m going to be doing that next week. For example, pasta. I will fix a large pot of pasta and put it in a big Pyrex container.  Sometimes my base is rice and beans, you get the picture (see my diagrams below 😎).

From there, I’ll fix the toppings that allow me to mix and match: sauce, meatballs (great to mass-make and freeze), ground turkey, placing them each in separate containers. You get the gist.

Come Monday morning, I throw the pasta in the microwave for a minute and start dispersing:  

  • One thermos gets pasta and sauce (with a side of parmesan cheese in the lunch box.)
  • Another gets pasta with butter and a meatball, no sauce!
  • And the third kiddo, whatever it is, throw it all in, he’ll eat it (God bless, he’s my easy one!)

Favorite Recipes for Gluten Free and Thermos-Friendly Kids Lunches

This can be done with many different variations of protein (see below!) — and many of them start in the crock pot or InstantPot.

I work full time, all three children are in sports and we are active in our community, so time can be very limited, even on the weekends! I have found that if I make a crock pot of protein (chicken, ground beef, turkey, etc), it can really simplify the process. 

Making pulled chicken in InstantPot – so easy!
pulling chicken apart with claws

In my trial-by-error method, I learned that recipes don’t have to be detailed or involved for kids to enjoy them. So, if you reference children’s cookbooks, you can find some fairly easy recipes for things like soups, chili or stews that can end up being delicious and very easy to throw together using a lot of staple ingredients. (Because grocery shopping is a whole other ordeal. I can’t even.)

The basic idea is that you have a bunch of ingredients – ready to go – to mix and match.

Hot Lunch Ideas and Combinations

Useful Ideas/Recipes for “Thermos Bases”

Useful Ideas and Recipes:

Useful Recipes:

Useful Ideas Recipes:

My kids also love to “build their own”, so some shredded chicken can turn into a burrito.

Useful Tools

None of these tools are required, but GOSH, the right tools sure do make lunch-making life (and dinner! for that matter) a lot easier.

InstantPot Duo ~ $99

This multi-use cooker is the King of the kitchen. Anything you can make in a slow cooker can be made in the InstantPot for a fraction of the time.

Stainless Steel Containers ~ $19

These nested containers are perfect for storing your ingredients for the week. Say no to plastic, these are BPA free and eco-friendly.

Meat Shredder Claws (for chicken/pork) ~ $15

These claws make quick work out of chicken or pork for the perfect pulled meat.

Best Thermos for Kids Lunch

Lunchbots Thermal Insulated Food Container ~ $24

This 8oz container is perfect for the little ones with smaller appetites. We love that it’s short and wide — easy for kiddos to eat out of, and super convenient to fill.

Thermos OG Stainless Storage Jar

Who can argue with the original Thermos. This is perfect for kids (or adults) who have a bigger appetite, as it fits 16oz of food. Has a built-in foldable spoon that makes it extra fun. The top of the Thermos can be used as a small bowl or cup – just as you remember it!

I can tell you the thermos lunch for kids has been a game changer in our family. My children come home in a better frame of mind simply from having substance for lunch and have learned to prefer it to over 7 bags of highly-processed snacks. 

It pays to take some time to understand their feelings and needs at lunch. That – in and of itself – is a hurdle. 

With that, Happy Thermosing, friends.


See also: School Lunch Planner and The Dinner Problem


  1. Love this article and recipe ideas for a warm lunch! When I’m making morning lunches, I heat up water and let it sit in the thermos for 5 minutes then dump it out. I immediately put the hot food item in the thermos and close the lid. My daughter reports this method keeps the food even warmer by lunchtime.

  2. S’nack containers by s’well are also great vessels for packing hot lunches. They’re low and wide so it’s really easy for kids to scoop their food.

  3. This is so helpful thanks! I’m happy to read I’m not alone! One hurdle I can’t seem to avoid….keeping food hot in a thermos! I’ve tried SO many options but no luck. Any tricks to keep lunch hot for 5 hours?

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