I haven’t really experienced this whole Back To School frenzy since my kids are only in Preschool and that goes year round. I didn’t have a break from packing lunches, but I guess most working parents don’t. But we do have a new chapter starting later this month, and that is Kindergarten for my eldest. And the fear of school lunch peer pressure. We toured her new school recently and she was pretty excited about getting food from the cafeteria line – me, not so much. Fueled by the fear of this nation’s horrific school lunches, I vowed to up my lunch packing game so I can conquer my 5-year old’s temptation.
I’ve always packed my kids’ lunches and snacks simply because I know what they’ll eat or won’t eat. Our preschool actually has a great lunch program from an organic (!) caterer but it’s $20 a week and doesn’t give snacks, so I always thought I can do better than that. I’m not gonna sugar coat it: it’s a little tiring at times to come up with tasty, and healthy ideas that are not always the same, especially when the school is nut free and one of your kids refuses fresh fruit. But after almost 2 years of packing 2 lunchboxes 5 nights a week (did you do the math?), we have come up with a list of tried and true favorites. We still add to this list, and we also still get rejections here and there, but overall it works. And we never spend more than 30 minutes to get it all done. That time includes my own lunch and snacks as well.
But before I spill my list of favorites, I also wanted to share with you our most helpful tools. Plus some extras that I’ll be buying myself for this coming school year.
First off: the actual lunch box. Splurge a little on this because you want your kid to actually want to carry this to school. Let them pick out their own (from your list of pre-approved ones). I highly recommend getting an insulated lunchbox, because even with some reusable ice packs thrown in, those tin-boxes don’t keep anything cool.
These Wildkin Lunch Boxes are super durable, wipe clean, and have a mesh pocket inside for utensils and napkins. My daughter still has her first one. This size works well for preschoolers or “lunch-only” boxes.
It also perfectly fits these multi-compartment inserts.
If your kid goes to an all-day preschool or will be in after-care, (or is simply older already), you’ll want to get a decent sized lunchbag that can carry 2-3 snacks in addition to the actual lunch. Buy big. You don’t have to fill up the whole thing, but nothing is worse than trying to cram in 4 odd sized Tupperware containers and it just doesn’t fit. Trust me. Go bigger.
If you’re like us, you may already have a plethora of various tupperware containers in your house. We use these containers for most of our preschoolers’ lunches but I’m also looking to get this lunch blocks kit because it comes with the tiny condiment containers. Dipping food in sauce (or fruit into yogurt) makes healthy food more fun and appealing, and that’s all part of my anti-cafeteria plan
For lunch-only boxes, I really like the Yumbox Leakproof Bento Lunch Box because it has a bunch of different sized compartments, and it’s leakproof (for your dips or yogurt). It’s BPA free, but ECOlunchbox makes a similar one in stainless steel, if you prefer to steer away from plastics altogether.
We found that leftover dinner makes for an easy lunch the next day. I just reheat it the next morning and put it in one of these food thermoscontainers. They fit quite a bit of food (10 oz) so it works well for preschool through elementary school kids. This is perfect for pasta, soup, fried rice, but also cold foods, like yogurt & fruit.
The same brand also makes these super sturdy water bottles. I love that they’re stainless steel. They keep their water cold, have a lid that keeps the straw clean, and you can send them through the dishwasher! And when I say sturdy, I mean drop-on-the-tile-floor-no-cracks sturdy!
They do hot and cold, so if you’d rather send in hot tea, it will keep that hot too. Get one for yourself as well 😉
Here are some other essentials that will make packing healthy lunches a little easier and more fun:
Reusable silicone cups are for more than just cupcakes: they make excellent little food containers to separate wet from dry. Just don’t go by all of the examples in this picture… candy corn and pickles don’t count as vegetables.
These sandwich cutters are a big hit in our house. Let your kids be a part of making lunches by letting them cut out their own sandwich.
How many plastic sandwich baggies do you go through each week? Too many, right? What if you could have a sturdy, reusable, fun baggie that comes in different sizes? Try these lunchskins! They were invented and designed by moms and are washable, too. My husband started using these for his daily lunch as well.
Utensils. For the love of the planet, please stay away from disposables. I know kids lose stuff all the time, but let’s do our part of reduce/reuse/recycle and go for reusable utensils. I love these Interlocking Brick Utensils since they connect like “Lego’s” and that may actually entice my kids to keep them together after they’re done eating. But knowing my 3-yr old, I still have some extra forks and spoons. Maybe someday the other ones will reappear again.
Now that you’ll be packing delicious & healthy lunches every night, maybe get a new stylish lunch bag for your self :).
I love the look of this one and this brand has some really cool other designs as well!
Oh, but wait: call me crazy, but I think this thing is going on my Christmas wishlist. A personal crockpot to do some slowcooking while I work? Sign me up!! What do you think?
There are tons more things you can get to make a homemade lunch more fun and appealing, like fun reusable napkins, trivia or friendship notes, bento picks (although I’ve found that asking my Starbucks loving friends to bring me those green spill-stopping sticks from their lids works well too. And it’s free!)
OK, so as promised, I’ll share some of our most popular healthy kids’ lunch ideas and a few snacks. Don’t worry, they’re not super fancy and no, my kids don’t eat salad for lunch. At least not yet There are hundreds more ideas, but these are just a few that worked for us. If you want to know why I prefer to spend a little time on making our own lunches, read this post here.
Hot lunches (which go in that thermos):
A lot of times we have leftovers from dinner. If they’re not quite enough, then I just stretch it with some rice or pasta and extra veggies. We always have a variety of frozen veggies as well in case we’re out of fresh ones.
– Veggie “fried” rice: just cook some extra brown rice for the week. The key here is to chop the veggies so small that they can’t pick anything out. Broccoli, peas, onion, carrots, corn, spinach, peppers, zucchini, … all works well. Season with a little bit of soy sauce, garlic, and (fresh or dried) ginger, then add scrambled eggs for protein and you’re done. You can also add diced chicken or shrimp.
– Spaghetti with hidden veggie sauce: whether you make your own pasta sauce or use the jar, always upgrade it with extra veggies, like shredded carrots, zucchini, peppers, etc. Shredded veggies also go well in meatballs.
– Mac-N-Cheese with Applegate hot dogs, and peas
– Rice “casseroles”: again, rice with veggies as a base and then simply add fresh or dried herbs, chopped spinach, chopped mushrooms, diced chicken (or other meats/proteins), add a splash of heavy cream and then top it with some shredded cheese. I learned that my kids are way more open to trying new foods if they get to sprinkle cheese on top.
– Soup: endless varieties! Chicken noodle with chopped carrots, celery and herbs; tomato soup with extra mashed carrots or peppers; butternut squash soup with a bit of sausage; potato leek soup, etc. If you’re afraid that your kid will pick out the veggies and just eat the noodles, puree the soup in a blender before adding the rice or noodles.
Aside from the obvious ham & cheese sandwich, there are so many other options. If you can’t get veggies in the sandwich, serve them on the side. You’d be surprised how fun they think it is to eat frozen peas with their fingers. Here are some tips on making sandwiches a little less boring:
– use hummus or guacamole instead of mayo
– make it a wrap instead
– make the wrap into pinwheels and skewer each one along with a cherry tomato
– sandwich on a stick: cubes of bread, cheese, turkey, tomato, cucumbers, …
– panini or grilled cheese sandwiches: apple/cheddar, ham/cheese/spinach,
– veggie quesadillas
– pasta salad with shredded or finely chopped veggies, cheese and grilled chicken
– homemade chicken nuggets with ketchup or BBQ sauce for dipping (look for low sugar varieties), along with green beans, broccoli or cauliflower (finger foods)
– mini pizzas on mini-pitas with hidden veggie sauce and cheese. Make those in batches and freeze. Serve with finger food veggies or put the chopped veggies under the cheese during cooking
I know it can be all too easy to throw in a bag of chips or Animal crackers and call it a day, but we all want our kids to thrive at school and at home. Processed foods that are full of artificial ingredients, sugar, preservatives, and salt are not going to help our kids with that. Look for snacks that provide protein, healthy fats, fiber and vitamins to keep them full longer without the post-sugar crash or jitters they get from artificial ingredients.
– fresh fruit and veggies; serve them with a dip to make it more fun.
– Nuts, if they’re allowed at your school, make a great snack. Add in some raisins, pumpkin seeds and a few chocolate chips, and you have a healthy trail mix
– plain popcorn (stovetop) with just some butter and salt or cinnamon
– simple whole wheat crackers and cheese
– yogurt (plain is best with some maple syrup or honey and some fresh fruit)
– smoothies (check out simplegreensmoothies.com for recipes and tips)
– raisins (not the chocolate or yogurt covered ones…)
– homemade mini muffins (great way to hide more veggies)
– pancakes (yes!) – you can add apples, and bananas and make them into a hearty snack. I have a great recipe right here
– apple chips (recipe here)
– or, for a sweet treat that is actually sugar free (and nut free), try these
Energy Bites (makes about 20 tbsp sized):
– 20 pitted medjool dates (softened: soak in water or steam for 10 mins)
– 1 cup raw sunflower seeds
– 1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
– 1/2 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
– 1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries, soaked in a little water
– 1 tbsp flax seeds
– 1 tsp cinnamon
– 1/4 cup mini chocolate chips
Pulse the dates in a food processor until they’re coarsely ground
Add the sunflower and pumpkin seeds, pulse until well chopped
Add the coconut, raisins (drained), cinnamon, and flax, and pulse until just combined. Don’t overmix it.
Pour the mix in a bowl and stir in the chocolate chips.
With a tablespoon sized measuring spoon scoop out the “dough” and then press it firmly into balls. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to set them. They keep in the fridge for a week (if they last that long, yumm!!).