When my kids first started school, I was a little ambitious in the lunch-making department. Perhaps I had seen a few too many bento box photos on Pinterest (Have you ever tried to sculpt a ball of cooked white rice to look like Hello Kitty's head? I recommend that you don't). I would craft ham and artisinal cheese pinwheels, skewer berries, pen little love notes onto napkins, and then pack it all up in an eco-friendly lunchbox. It was exhausting.
Yes, there was the satisfaction of knowing my kids would have a colorful respite in the middle of the day when they got to eat food that I lovingly prepared (while still half-asleep and chugging my first of many cups of coffee). But as they got older, I wondered if I was going over the top for them or for me (insert working-mom guilt). I also had an "ah-ha!" moment while volunteering in the school cafeteria as a lunch aide: Kids don't always appreciate the efforts behind the lunchbox masterpiece you labored over. Sadly, much of those custom creations end up untouched, uneaten, or swapped for a pack of Oreos. It's then that I realized that if kids took more ownership over the process of making their own lunch, they might actually eat more of it, instead of deep-sixing it into the trash bin.
So I started with baby-steps. While my son and daughter were in elementary school, I still handled the main dish or protein, while letting them take over the snacks and sides. Then as they got older, I started relinquishing control over the main items in their lunches. In the process, I learned a few tricks for making the lunchbox routine run as smoothly as possible, while also including the family in not just the packing, but also the shopping (because the two must go hand-in-hand). So here are a few tips to get you cracking on that school lunchbox station that will have you surviving back-to-school, and maybe even looking forward to it!
1. Make space in the fridge and pantry.
If you have a walk-in pantry, consider dedicating a shelf to the non-perishable items like snacks, bread, and sweets. If you don't have a pantry, then a couple of shelves in your cupboard will do. Get a few bins to keep lunch stuff organized and separate from non-lunch items (this also helps to keep track of when favorite chips, cookies, or juice boxes are running low) and then post a DIY lunchbox station sheet to remind everyone what to pack and their options. I have my kids pack one item from each of these five main categories:
One Main Dish
One Healthy Snack
Tips to Organize Lunch Bins:
I have a total of 4 ingredient bins for our school lunchbox station. All of the bins can be pulled out when it's time for them to make lunch, then lined up on the counter to make a school lunch packing assembly line.
- Keep one bin in the fridge dedicated just to lunchbox station items, because it's easier to pull out the entire "lunch bin" rather than having your kid rifle through the crisper drawer like a wild raccoon. This bin might have sandwich ingredients like cold cuts, but also perishable snacks like yogurt tubes or cheese sticks.
- Keep fruits and vegetables for lunch in a second bin.
- Keep a third bin in the pantry for lunch sweets and snacks.
- Store non-perishable items used to make main dishes (for example bread, crackers, peanut butter) in a fourth bin.
Ingredient Ideas for School Lunches:
Main: Wraps, bread, condiments, cold cuts, jam and peanut butter; crackers and cheese slices; hummus; ranch dip and crudites.
Fruit: Berries, apples, clementines, watermelon sticks, fruit salad.
Vegetables: Baby carrots, celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, edamame.
Snacks: Veggie chips, pretzels, popcorn, pita chips, yogurt tubes, cheese sticks.
Sweet: Yogurt-covered raisins, cookies, granola bars, chocolate chips, fruit roll-ups.
And don't forget the leftovers! Whenever I make pasta, soup, or quesadillas for dinner, I try to set aside a couple of extra servings for lunch the next day, especially when the kids are in a bit of a sandwich-rut. A batch of brown rice and roasted vegetables is always great to dip into as well for wraps. Some other dinnertime dishes that hold-up well for the next day include Yakisoba Chicken, Fried Rice Restaurant Style, and BBQ Chicken Sandwiches. Just be sure to pack last night's dinner leftovers in a container and place it in the in the fridge lunch bin where your kids can't miss it.
2. Get into the reusable container habit.
It's time to break-up with baggies and disposable containers. Mother Earth will thank you and there are so many nifty little lunchbox containers available now that you truly won't miss the throw-away stuff. Keep a variety of sizes in a bin dedicated just to your lunch containers (you don't want them getting them tossed in with the regular Tupperware rabble) alongside your DIY lunchbox station so that it's easy for kids to find the right-sized container for whatever they're packing.
There's just one rule: Make it mandatory for kids to empty out containers and place them in the dishwasher (if possible) as soon as they get home from school so that they're clean to fill the next day. When my kids "forget" to do this (which in all honesty, is often), then they are stuck with having to hand wash them the next day.
3. Make your school lunchbox packing station age-appropriate.
Start slowly with younger kids. No one should expect a first grader to whip up a turkey club. (Still, don't underestimate the power of a young foodie!)
- Young kids (elementary-school age) can butter their own toast, slather cream cheese on their own bagel, or make their own peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (If they can operate an iPad, they should be able to handle a butter knife.) Have younger kids select and pack their own snack/sweet/fruit/veg selection, while you prep their main dish (sandwich, leftover pasta, soup, wrap).
- Once kids hit middle school, they should have the skills and maturity to start making their own sandwiches or re-purposing leftovers (especially since they have been watching you do it for years at this point!). If they are particularly independent in the kitchen, have them check out these lunchbox recipes for inspiration.
4. Pick a time to pack school lunches.
As much as I wish that we were a night-before family, we are definitively a morning-of family—meaning most of our lunchbox assembly occurs in the early scramble between waking-up, hunting for clean clothes, and gobbling down breakfast. The daughters of a friend of mine are the opposite, they prep their entire lunchbox after dinner so there's one less thing to deal with before the bus comes. I admire them greatly, but if you're like us, just keep in mind that you will need a little extra time in the morning. And again, having everything ready to go in bins will make things that much quicker and easier.
5. Remember that lunch doesn't have to be boring.
Every once in a while, a chorus of whining will erupt from my children, who claim to be bored with their lunches. When the whining becomes too much to bear, try this:
- Throw in a few unexpected bonus items into the lunchbox bins (there's nothing like a chocolate pudding cup to cheer everyone up).
- If they want something new (for example, if one of their friends brought a new kind of flavored popcorn to lunch or they have a sudden hankering for salami sandwiches), then they need to add these items to a running grocery list that's kept near the lunchbox station.
- Also, if a favorite item runs out, then it's up to the kids to mark it down so we know to restock the next time we hit the supermarket.
And a tip for the parent in charge of grocery shopping: Don't forget the list! Or better yet, take a photo of it with your smart phone so you won't forget it in the car.
These kid-friendly sandwiches and wraps make lunchtime fun.
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We've put together a month's worth of school lunches your kids won't trade away.