Last summer, as we geared up for our very first school year, I put together a packing list for lunch. My ambitious plan was that Zip would help pack his lunch each evening, using the handy-dandy list to guide him. That happened, um, twice? Maybe? So much for good intentions. But the list still came in handy, providing Hubby and me with a blueprint for packing healthy, balanced lunches.
When it comes down to it, our boys’ lunches aren’t creative. Not at all. No fancy bento boxes. No black bean and quinoa quesadillas (is that a thing?). No strawberries cut into fancy star shapes, although I do occasionally use a dinosaur sandwich cutter gifted to us by a neighbor. We’re pretty darn basic. We aim for easy and healthy, and that’s enough for this momma. If it’s enough for you, too, read on and I’ll share our super-simple strategy. If you are saving time by buying processed boxed lunches of a certain brand name, I won’t judge. But I promise that you can pack healthy lunches in under 10 minutes.
What We Pack
We basically try to hit all of the food groups, packing an entree and three healthy “sides.”
- Entree – This is where the kids get their carbs and protein. Zip ate peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat every.single.day. So that’s, like, 180 pb&js last year. What can I say – the kid is a creature of habit. If your school doesn’t allow peanut butter, sunflower butter is a great substitute. Bee alternated sunflower butter and jelly with macaroni and cheese. He is a super-picky mac & cheese connosieur, so my goal this year is to find a homemade, whole grain recipe he’ll eat and ditch the store-bought stuff. If I hit gold, I’ll let you guys know! Other easy entrees include turkey sandwich, leftover pasta, meatballs, or soup – really, anything your kid will eat that you can send in a lunchbox!
- Fruit – This can be applesauce, a fruit cup, or a piece of fresh fruit. We pack everything from bananas to berries to cantaloupe. Since we generally keep a lot of fruit on hand in our house, I just grab from whatever is in the fruit basket or the fridge. Then I keep a “back-up” stash in the pantry – things with a longer shelf-life, like canned fruit and raisins.
- Raw veggies – Okay, so this is usually still in the lunchbox when I open it up at the end of the day. But I keep trying. Someday my kids will eat their vegetables. I hope. Baby carrots, string beans, pieces of broccoli, and celery sticks are all easy options.
- Dairy – Yogurt or string cheese. You could also do cubed or sliced cheese.
- Nuts or crackers – A couple of graham crackers or a handful of animal crackers or goldfish. Zip also loves when we packed him pistachios or mixed nuts.
- Something sweet, sometimes – The boys love having a treat in their lunchbox, but we try not to pack one every day. We also try to keep it small – fig newtons, a granola bar, one cookie, or a mini chocolate bar.
When We Pack
For us, the easiest time to make lunches is either while dinner is cooking or when we are cleaning up from dinner. I might pack the lunches while my husband does the dishes. If we have something like string beans on hand, I’ll wash and cut them all at once, then use them as needed throughout the week. Packing around dinnertime means one less thing to do once the kids are in bed. If we pack something that needs to be kept hot, we of course wait until the morning. It only takes a few minutes to heat it in the microwave and add it to the lunchbox.
Here is a little trick for keeping hot foods hot: Put steaming hot tap water in a Thermos and seal it for a couple of minutes. This will warm the inside. Then pour out the water, add your heated food, and seal tight. The food should still be warm at lunchtime. If it isn’t, check the Thermos seal – a leaky seal will result in cold food.
Keeping It Green
One thing that really bothers me is the idea of using hundreds of zip-top baggies throughout the year. Let’s see: 1 sandwich plus 3 sides = 4 baggies x 180 school days (give or take) = 720 plastic bags. Oh, times two kids, let’s make that close to 1,500 baggies. And over 18 years…Holy landfill, Batman!
But who wants to send their nice tupperware to school with a bright but forgetful kindergartener? We ended up buying each of the boys a sandwich container, which we marked with their names. They were really good about bringing those home. We then picked up box of plastic utensils, which we washed and reused as much as possible. Lastly, we purchased a couple of sets of small re-usable plastic containers, which we used for their sides. We expected the containers to come home, but since they were relatively inexpensive, I didn’t have a conniption if they ended up in the trash can at school. Ten or so containers lasted us through the school year. That’s better than 1,500 baggies, right?
And another handy use for those little containers: Zip needed to bring a snack each day, packed separately from his lunch. Putting his snack in a plastic container kept it from getting crushed in his backpack. I figured that out of necessity!
And that’s it! I can’t say packing lunches is my favorite thing to do, but it’s not the bane of my existence either. It makes me feel good that Zip would rather pack lunch than buy (although some days I wish he would buy!) and I love knowing the boys are eating healthy, energizing foods.
What do you pack in your kids’ lunches? Do you have any special tips or tricks?