In our Food Styling 101 series, Lisa Bolton offers up food styling tips for conveying the stories you want your food to tell. Her advice will help you create food photography that entices readers to make your recipes and read your articles. Today Lisa offers up tips for food styling lunch boxes. Yes, it's that time of year again when parents are looking for creative ideas to entice kids to eat their lunch!

Food Styling School Lunches | Food Bloggers of Canada

As the song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” and no, it's not Christmas yet! Its back to school time! In mid-June most parents are counting the days till school is out, but come mid-August parents are often whistling a different tune. As the carefree months of summer roll to an end, many parents are starting to think about back to school schedules, routines and, of course, back to school lunches!

Coming up with lunches that are healthy, delicious and something your child will love five days a week can be a daunting task and parents often look to social media channels like Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration. As a food blogger, photographer or recipe developer this back to school "season" is an opportunity for some strategic food styling as it relates to lunch box creativity, especially if you're looking to work with brands.

Styles of Lunch Box Photos

The three most common styles of composition in lunch box photos are:

  1. Styling one consistent container with several different lunch combinations;
  2. A series of photos displaying in-progress shots of batch cooking; and,
  3. Food being cut and shaped in a cute and whimsical manner.

Bento Boxes

Bento Lunchbox for Kids

The days of brown paper bags and sandwiches wrapped in plastic or wax paper are behind us. With the increase in popularity of bento-style lunch boxes and many schools going waste free, there's more interest in finding creative ways to fill all those spaces in a bento box.

In this case, styling the shot is much more about what's in the container and not around the container. The style is minimalistic and clean. There's a direct contrast to how I would style a sandwich or soup shot meant to be consumed at home.

In a lunch box shot, I want to convey ease and simplicity, and respect that there's no tablescape for this meal. It'll be consumed at a table or desk and therefore the styling must be confined to the container.

Bento Lunchbox for Kids

The key to the bento lunch box shot is variety: a little bit of a lot of things. If you're including dips and sauces, leave the lids off. Most of the time, the bento box will look best from an overhead shot as it captures the distinct lines of each space in the container.

Don’t be afraid to style the box for a photo in such a way that the lid may not close. For example, in the photo with the chips and salsa, I fluffed up the chips to create a bit of height, knowing they'd have to be rearranged flatter for the lid to close.

In-Progress Shots

Mac N Cheese Doughnuts

I wrote about the importance of capturing raw ingredient shots here, and for this theme, in-progress shots are just as important.

When a parent has to make something five days a week, ten months a year, many are looking for batch cooking. In this case, when it comes to styling lunch boxes, it's important to document how you got there. For these mac ‘n cheese bites I want to style the pot of macaroni, the muffin tin and the final shot. With something so simple, readers will take away the "story" of the shot from the images, not necessarily the words.

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Mac N Cheese Doughnuts in a Lunch Box

The key to styling these in-progress shots is to ensure they have a similar look and feel, so if you put them all together into one photo, they look like they belong together. In this case, because I was using a red pot, I look to not only bring pops of red into the other photos but use the colour wheel to bring in complementary colours to the red as well.

Ideally you want the images to be shot in the same lighting as well. Because my stovetop lighting isn't near a window, I brought my macaroni pot over to the same backdrop I was using for the finished shot to create a cohesive set of photos.

Whimsical Lunches

Sailboat Shaped Kid's Sandwich

These are the most polarizing lunch box food styling shots. There are definitely the parents that are drawn right into the caterpillar made of grapes and the ninja cut-out sandwiches, while there are others that'll roll their eyes.

I'll be the first to admit this style of food isn't in my wheelhouse of artistic interest, BUT there's definitely a market for it. It really embodies the “play with your food” mentality and creative options are endless.  These can be the images that go viral on platforms like Pinterest and Instagram.

The best whimsical lunch box food images are those styled to support the theme. In this case, light and bright. (Rarely will you see a dark and moody kids lunch!)

PRO TIP: If you're using cut-outs, make sure your cuts are sharp. You may need to use the cutter to get the original shape, but then a very sharp chef's or paring knife to finish the edges.

Take advantage of this time of year when moms and dads are re-energized and inspired to create beautiful lunches for their kids. Because by June those kids might be lucky to get the half-eaten bag of fishy crackers.


Lisa Bolton is a food stylist, recipe developer and creator of beautiful food boards.  You can find her work at She lives in the Lower Mainland of BC.  Her first cookbook, On Boards, (affiliate link) is due to be released by Appetite by Penguin Random House in October 2018 and is available for pre-order. You can reach her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.


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