T-minus one week and counting! Wednesday of next week my oldest will be starting back to school, followed by the little guy on Friday (strange schedule right? I’m sure they have their reasons, but I think I would prefer a Monday start and a full week of school). And despite not feeling like we’ve quite had our fill of summer, I also feel ready to start back to school – except for the part about packing lunches. And maybe the more rushed morning routines. It’s nice not to have to get the kids out the door before I can start in on whatever I’m doing for the day. But back to the lunch boxes.
Packing lunches for the kids is a necessity for my picky eaters. I highly suspect that the $2 per day for school lunch would result in the majority of the food going straight into the garbage untasted (except maybe dessert!) and I’m not ok with that. While my kids can look ahead at the lunch calendar and choose days they would like to eat the lunches provided at the school, most of the time we just plan on them taking lunches from home. In the past I haven’t minded that at all and suspect that in the long run it saves us money, too. However, making lunches every day can quickly get old or become a struggle to send things that the kids will eat completely and not return half-finished or complaining that they are “sick of eating ____.” So I have developed a strategy of sorts for sending a variety of lunch ideas while still having to do only a minimum of prep and planning.
#1 – Make a list. Nope, not a shopping list, but a list of the things my kids willingly eat regularly. I know you can bring most of them to mind on demand, but it helps to have it written down somewhere so that when you are grogily packing lunches first thing in the morning you don’t have to worry about it, or you can look at the list before heading to the store and think “oh yeah they haven’t had grapes in a while, let’s pick some of those up.”
#2 – Categorize. When I’m throwing together lunches I like to grab 3-4 items plus a drink and call it good. I want it to be quick and easy, but I also want to get in most of the food groups if I can. So I shoot for:
-a main item: typically something with protein, something that will fill their stomachs and hopefully stick with them for a while
-something dairy, usually yogurt as this comes in many different varieties and flavors (greek, kid friendly with characters, Gogurt, drinkables like Danimals, with toppings, with granola, in a parfait, etc. etc.)
-a fruit or vegetable
-a filler/add on such as pretzels or crackers
I am hoping that I can teach this concept to the kids so not only will they be able to pack their own lunches, but apply it to meals in general. (one can hope, right?)
#3 – Supplies. Everything is easier if you have the right tools for the job. When it comes to packing a lunch for school, of course you need a lunchbox but I also like to have on hand some ice packs, sandwich containers (no one wants a smushed PB&J!), napkins, inexpensive plastic forks and spoons (my kids usually remember to bring them home but just in case they get tossed I won’t be too upset), napkins, a thermos for keeping things warm, and other small storage containers in a variety of useful sizes. I always find it’s useful to have multiples of everything, maybe two of each per child.
This also applies to the food choices themselves. You don’t have to buy everything your kid likes every single week, but try to keep at least two or three things from each category on hand. I always stock extra juice boxes or fruit cups when I find them on sale. Or when I am making something like waffles or muffins that I know go over well in lunch boxes I will make a double batch and freeze the extras so I can just pop one in the toaster or microwave in the morning while I’m packing their lunch.
#4 – Variety. I try not to send the same main dish more than twice in one week and their tolerance for the same fruit more than two or three times in a week runs thin. Once I pushed it too far, giving my youngest applesauce for weeks (in my defense it was just about the only fruit he would eat at the time) and he got to the point where he flat out refused to eat applesauce at all. It took us months before I got him to try it again and he will now eat it happily, however, I am not going to make the same mistake twice. Even when kids appear to be happy eating the same thing over and over and over, change it up. Variety leads to better nutrition and to better attitudes toward food.
#5 – Make it fun. You don’t have to do something unexpected every day – and it’s probably more effective if you don’t – but adding in something a little bit unique a handful of times per month can go a long way to keep them enthusiastically eating their lunches. I know, I know. Some of you are about to running away screaming, thinking there is no way you are going to be able to pull off a themed bento box like the one you saw on Pinterest the other day, right? Those are adorable, and I am totally that mom, like, once a year 😉 The rest of the time, I go for something a little faster and easier to pull off, but will still give the kids a little boost when they open up those lunchboxes. It could be as easy as slipping in a cute note or lunchbox joke (I have a bunch of fun printable ones pinned on my Back To School Pinterest board if you need any ideas) or adding a cup of jello, a carton of chocolate milk, a slice of last night’s pie, or a piece of leftover Halloween candy. Maybe you have some leftover holiday napkins – stick those in the lunchbox. Or fun toothpicks – spear a few cheese cubes or some grapes and ta-da! Instant kebab that will have the kids grinning. Or shaped sandwiches – those are big hits and it only takes one of those sandwich cutters or even a cookie cutter. Maybe you want to get a little more elaborate, as I sometimes do. Then you can roll out the bento boxes, the themed lunches, trick them for April Fool’s or gift wrap everything from your Elf on the Shelf. Fun doesn’t mean hard or labor intensive, it just means different than the routine.
Ok down to the nitty gritty. Here is my (hopefully always growing) list of ideas for the lunchbox.
-sandwich (usually peanut butter though we do finally have the oldest enthusiastic about ham sandwiches with mustard and onions. And sometimes I switch it out for Nutella or one of the other flavored nut spreads)
-muffins (this one is my #2 Go To for sure)
-waffles or pancakes (again – I make bigger batches than I know we will eat and freeze them ahead of time)
-french toast sticks
-make your own “lunchable” with cheese, crackers, and cold cuts
-bagel and cream cheese
-trail mix (or just nuts)
-leftovers (this is rare mine will want them though Kaitlyn does love to reheat mashed potatoes and gravy)
-soup (again, not usually something my kids go for but once in a while I get lucky)
-breadsticks and pizza sauce
-protein bars or protein cookies (my brother is the king of make-your-own protein treat recipes)
-cup of noodles or easy-mac (good options if they have access to a microwave in the caffeteria, which my oldest does)
-yogurt, Gogurt, and all the variations
-yogurt parfait or yogurt with granola (dry cereal in yogurt would also be good)
-smoothies (I usually do a combo of yogurt, fruit, milk/juice/almond milk, and maybe add in some Carnation Instant Breakfast or protein powder. You can make these ahead and freeze individual servings. Just be careful which containers you use – these leak easily especially if the kids are careless about putting lids back on after lunch)
-milk/chocolate milk (duh!)
Fruits and Vegetables:
-carrots (usually with ranch for dipping)
-celery (usually with peanut butter, especially when the main dish is light on protein)
*that’s pretty much the entire list of fruits and veg my little guy will eat. For my daughter the sky is the limit. She loves all fruit including mango, kiwi, berries, melon and has been known to gobble down handfuls of snow peas too.
-chips (not usually my first choice but of course a favorite for the kids)
-Pop Tarts/toaster streudel
-fruit roll-up/fruit leather
So there you have it – my plan for dealing with lunches for this school year. Hopefully I can get the kiddos to try a few more things and be able to add to it by the end of the year. Anyone have more suggestions to add into the mix? Are we ready for this?!!
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