Those two words are enough to make some parents shudder. I was among the gaggles of parents who dreaded the chore with a passion. But when our house went from one packed lunch to three, my husband and I knew our begrudging attitudes were not going to cut it. After a little creativity, more patience and a whole lot of practice, my hubby and I developed a system that I feel pretty gloaty and braggy about.
I wish I could snap my fingers and give you the perfect menu plan for packing lunches. I will give you my master list, but I have three kids. One likes tomatoes. One prefers peppers. You know how it goes. In spite of our best efforts to encourage our children to “eat the rainbow” they have preferences. There’s nothing wrong with that. But this is where it gets sticky and you may quickly find yourself relying on the same basic foods for each child. Because it’s easy. Because you’re busy. Because you’d probably rather be watching Real Housewives of OC. That’s why you need to plan a Master List now. Keep it handy. As you prepare breakfasts, lunches and dinners for your children, add to your list! Then, when school rolls around, whip your custom-made Master List out of your own back pocket!
But first, here are some of our tried and true tips: (I say our, because really, this has all been a total team effort. Thanks honey.)
1. Pack it the night before.
ALWAYS. Don’t leave it until morning unless you’re looking for a tantrum. (From YOU that is.) If there is something in the lunchbox that needs to be packed in the morning, (warmed pesto noodles, hot soup, etc.) write it down and leave it on the counter where you will see it.In our house, I make a list of what needs to go in each child’s lunchbox and my husband does it all while I take care of bathtime. For a while, we did school lunches together so he could get the hang of it. As in…Maggie needs her bagel cut up into bite size pieces or else she’ll just lick the cream cheese off. Sophia’s salad doesn’t get dressed until the morning, etc. Once he had it down pat, we divided and conquered.
2. Invest in good products.
If you plan to make it through the year with the same lunch gear, spend money on quality. My hubby found that the more basic the shape of the lunchbox, the easier it is to clean. Rounded inside edges mean crumbs and mush get stuck in there and cause even bigger lunchbox problems. Our favorite is the Crocodile Creek brand lunchbox.
You can get them at Kids City. The only thermos we have found that keeps food warm is the Thermos Funtainer. You can get them at Target. Oops, sore subject. Sorry moms. 😉 And, if you’re looking for the straw bottle that keeps beverages cold all day, even on a scorching hot NJ beach, you guessed it! Thermos Funtainer is the winner!
3. Ice packs.
Think thin! Lunchboxes can become full rather quickly, so the last thing you want is a giant blue slab taking up precious space. We favor this kind, by Crocodile Creek or this kind by Green Sprouts. Both available at Kids City.
4. Reuse. Save the Earth and your wallet and skip plastic bags. In general, look for reusable containers that are on the lean rather than bulky side, especially if you are going with a Crocodile Creek lunchbox. There are some great glass sets at the box stores and even mini Mason Jars with lids make good lunch accessories. Make sure you have enough reusable containers for two days worth of lunches so that you’re not immediately cleaning them out for the next day’s use. This variety is easy to clean and stayed with us the whole year! Yep, you guessed it. Available at Kids City.
4. CLEAN THE LUNCHBOX. EVERY SINGLE DAY.
I credit my husband for this genius practice. Whether you’re an all-natural spray or a Clorox Wipes kind of gal, just do it. Right when you get home, wipe it out, inside and out and hang dry. It will be fresh by the time you make lunches at night.
Keep a few permanent markers handy or invest in some washable labels with your name on them. Otherwise? All of those quality products you spent money on? One by one, kiss them goodbye.
6. Start the year out healthy.
Most of the time, we include just one “snacky food” in each child’s lunch box. If you start out following this rule, your child will get used to it and not expect Pirate’s Bootie and Cheddar Bunnies and Fig Newman’s in the same lunch. And then the day when you throw in some cookies and a piece of leftover banana cream pie? Ohhhhh yeah. It’s the stuff lunchroom dreams are made of.
7. Mix it up.
Don’t be afraid to throw in something that your child doesn’t normally eat. Just when you least expect it, that container of prunes might disappear.
They’re not just for dinner. Nothing makes this mama happier than knowing my petite five-year old is chowing down on last night’s veggie lasagna. When you’re cleaning up dinner, don’t throw away the 1/2 cup of remaining rice! Add some avocado chunks, black beans and a handful of cheddar and voila! Lunchbox ready!
10. Bits and pieces.
Packing lunch does not have to be about a main course. Especially if your child is not a big fan of sandwiches, focus on small servings of many different foods instead.
11. Trail Mix.
This idea came from my hubby. He says, “it’s a great way to include lots of items at once and the kids always seem to enjoy it!” Also a go-to if you’re in dire need of a run to the food store.
12. Let them help.
A lot of the time it’s just plain easier to do it without the kids. But sometimes they’re interested and want to help. It can be pretty empowering for a 5-year-old to make her own sandwich. It can also be a good talking point for the 3-year-old who wants yogurt and bologna for her lunch every day. Give them choices and talk about needing lots of “different foods for healthy bodies.” Sometimes, giving them the power is exactly what is needed to make some new healthy food choices.
13. The Master List.
Start it now. As you feed your child over the next few weeks, add more to your list. Keep it in the kitchen and when you feel yourself starting to get bogged down into the swamp of lunchbox desperation, pull out your list for inspiration.
And without further ado, our always evolving Master List:
Nitrate free cold cuts
Cream cheese and jam
Peanut butter/almond butter/sunbutter and jam
Baguette with butter/cream cheese and jam
Leftover roasted chicken/steak/pork
Nitrate free bacon
Whole wheat bread
Homemade white/wheat bread
Leftover hamburger bun
“Crunchy” lettuce (anything light green for those new to enjoying salad)
Mixed greens with spinach
Any veggie need apply!
Some of our kid-tested salad dressings
Annie’s Asian Sesame, the only way one of my children will eat salad
Newman’s Own Creamy Balsamic
Any kind of Caesar
Yogurt with granola on the side, to be combined at school
Cream cheese as a dip for carrot sticks, peppers, pretzels, etc
Fresh Mozzarella, tomato, basil and balsamic
Cheddar cheese and crackers ( DO NOT put them together! The crackers will be a soggy mess by the time snack or lunch comes around.)
Greek yogurt mixed with honey and cinnamon, as a fruit dip
Cottage cheese, mixed with fruit or as a dip for veggies, pretzels, etc.
Goat cheese, swirled with some blueberry jam and served with crackers and a blunt knife for child to assembled
Other Healthy Choices
Muffins (By adding a few chocolate chips, the kids will never notice if you use whole wheat flour, flax seed and veggies!)
Rice cakes with peanut/almond/sunbutter (We like Lundberg’s mochi sweet rice)
Dried fruit, especially cranberries and cherries as an alternative for the raisin-tired child. (Don’t rule out figs, prunes and dates. My three-year old says they are candy!)
Dried Green Beans
Beans (Kidney, garbanzo and black are our favorites)
Mashed sweet potatoes
Yogurt covered raisins
Trail Mix (Cereal, raisins, small crackers, dried fruit, dark chocolate chips, nuts, pretzels, granola.)
Fruit squeezes (Great to have on hand when the fruit supply is dwindling!)
Homemade popcorn (get jazzy with some add-ins like parmesan/garlic and cinnamon/coconut/vanilla)
Dips, dips and more dips! Guacamole, salsa, whipped boursin cheese and peanut butter are some of our favorites.
Sweet potato chips
Food Should Taste Good Chips
Fresh fruit (This is in every lunch box, every day, usually two servings.)
Other Main Course Ideas
Soup, soup, soup!
Pesto noodles, hot or cold
Pasta! (We make a big batch of plain pasta and integrate different sauces and other ingredients to keep it fresh…a great way to use leftover steamed veggies! Mix up the pasta variety, too!)
Leftover cold chicken with dip or sauce
Nitrate-free rolled deli meats and cheeses
Pancakes/waffles with syrup
Macaroni and cheese (our favorite, but go easy on the cayenne and nutmeg!)
Meatballs (serve warm in a thermos and let child put on a whole wheat hamburger bun with some shredded mozzarella)
Tacos with all the fixins, child assembles (cold leftover shredded chicken works best)
Sushi (we do cooked or vegetable only at lunch)
Shrimp with cocktail sauce
Oatmeal (Check out this post for an easy way to serve steel cut oats in a snap!)
Now, help me add to my list! What are some of your additional lunch favorites?
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This is great! This is my first year of packed lunch so I’ve been looking at this stuff. Do you use the divided containers or is it just easier to have a lunchbox with individual containers inside?
Christin, we’ve not done divided containers before. I think it gives your more freedom to pick and choose.