As I’ve been chatting with moms and getting back into the school routine, the topic of school lunches keeps coming up. Many have commented that they need to “do better” than last year when it comes to school lunches. I’m sure you’ve been there. Often we start the year with high hopes and lots of plans and things seem to peter out along the way. By the time we hit April or May we are exhausted and just limping along barely able to throw several prepackaged things in a paper bag…
By the time May rolls around, we are exhausted, but I think that’s only part of the problem when it comes to packing lunches. The other part is that we expect way too much of ourselves by making a plan we can’t keep because it doesn’t work with our family circumstances. Goals are great, but they also have to be realistic! The thing about school lunches is they happen every single school day, all school year long, so it is critical to have a system in place that works for you and your family.
Here’s what I did last year to solve this problem for my family:
Step 1: Investigate your options
To solve this, I first did some research to see how others had resolved this issue. I saw lots of amazing ideas out there, but ultimately we each have to pick an approach that fits our family in order to make it sustainable. However, for step one, I didn’t worry about that, I just spent some time on Pinterest looking at all the ideas, and pinned everything that I liked, regardless of it I felt it would work for us or not.
Step 2: Identify what’s important to you and your family
I next identified what was important to me. Ultimately, I wanted lunches that would be fairly healthy, liked by my kids and simple enough that I can pack them on busy days. I don’t think school lunch is the time to try new things. I want them to actually eat what I send so they have the energy for their busy days so having them like what I send is really important to me.
Step 3: Involve your kids and list ideas
I brainstormed with my kids, asking them for ideas about what they wanted to have for school lunches. Sure my son mentioned eating mac-n- cheese, chips, and treats every day (he were kidding… at least I hope!), but they were also helpful. They had good ideas, and mentioned things I woudnt’ have though about, like some things being too messy to be easy enough to eat during a short lunch break. I used as many of their ideas as I could, provided they fit my goals from step 2, and added them to my own, until I had a list of lunches that would work for them and for me.
I got a ton of ideas and recipes from the 100 Days of Real Food website. (Click here to check it out) *Just note, Her kid will eat tons of things cold like eggs, quesadillas, etc that some kids won’t like unless they are warm, so try stuff ahead of time, maybe for dinner or a snack, before putting it in their lunches.
Step 4: Identify your system and make a plan
Finally, I made a plan based on the ideas I gathered from my research that supported what I felt was important, and tailored them for my family. The key here is to look at the ideas you gathered and then pick something manageable for your family. You want something that you like, that you can actually implement, and that you can sustain. The following section explains the plan I developed for my family. Plus you can see a photo of it in the image below.
I prefer to have simple systems for things so I knew I needed something easy. I wanted it to be flexible so I opted not to use a system based on the days of the week ( for example: sandwich on Monday, thermos meal on Tuesday, that type of thing). I also knew I wanted more variety than some plans offer (like peanut butter & jelly every day). While I understand that some kids crave patterns and like having the same thing over and over, or that some kids are particular eaters and so options are limited, neither of these things applied to my kids. Instead, I started with a few ideas, and planned to rotate through them, adding ideas in as I found what worked and what didn’t. As you look at the options you find and decide what works, don’t let your self feel badly if your kids don’t love the same foods as someone else. Your goal is to find something that works for your family, so pick a method, pick some meals and make it work for you!
I gave myself permission to switch things up in case grocery shopping didn’t happen like I thought or if I ended up with unplanned leftovers. Even though I meal plan, life happens, and rarely does my week go exactly as I expect!
As I meal plan, I just plug in meals from the list in order. If I have leftovers I add that in and go from there. The next week, I pick up where I left off. Overall my system is nothing earth shattering, but it works really well for me and I was able to to use it all last year without running out of steam or having it fall apart.
The flexibility I wanted comes into play in a couple of ways. First, I can always skip a meal if I don’t have the right ingredients. Second, If I’m wanting to send a salad or wrap for lunch, I’ll plug it in for the day after I’m fixing something for dinner where I can just prep extra and use that. For example, if we are having tacos for dinner, the next day I’ll likely send a taco wrap or taco salad. So rather than plug this in when it comes up in my schedule, I’ll put it in where it makes sense and go from there. Third, anytime I have leftovers that I can send for lunch, I do that, unless I’m planning to use those leftovers for dinner a different day. And finally, I have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a back up plan, in case I need something super fast and easy. I rarely do that since we often have peanut butter at breakfast, and I try not have the same thing two meals in a row, but in a pinch it works great. Having flexibility means my list isn’t always implemented exactly in order, but I’ve decided it doesn’t matter, I just get back on track the next day.
They each have a hydro flask we send daily filled with water, so I just put a little plastic water bottle in their lunch box. I have looked and looked for a reusable one small enough to fit our needs but so far I haven’t found one. If you have one, please let me know where you found it! We used to do 100% fruit juice boxes, but my kids prefer water so I was happy to skip the juice and just do water.
I’ll also add a treat some days. They don’t get something sweet every day, so they love it when they do!
How long does it take to implement?
I’ve timed myself (yes I know that’s super strange, but it helped me to know how long this whole process was taking!). It takes me about 10 minutes a night, and I’ve gotten faster as time has gone on, probably just the habit and repetition has helped streamline things. If I’m sending something more labor intensive like a salad it might take longer, but usually I can be done within 15 minutes even then.
I almost always pack lunches the night before. even if I’m tired, I try to push through, knowing its only ten minutes and it makes my life so much easier than doing it in the morning! It is amazing to wake up in the morning and not have to deal with lunches. I pack either while I’m fixing dinner (hey, if I’m cutting veggies, it barely takes more time to slice a few more!) or cleaning up from dinner. In addition to packing lunches, I also fill the kids’ water bottles, get a snack ready if they have after school practice or rehearsal, and get my coffee ready (this is of upmost importance- I love my morning coffee!!!). I also take a moment to check my calendar for the next day- this has saved me as it helps me remember things like school dress up days!
What about kids who don’t like the same things?
My kids don’t love the same foods. My son doesn’t like salads or casseroles. He loves veggies, but not all mixed up! My daughter doesn’t love yogurt. I took their preferences into account when making my plan. The days I plan to send a salad for my daughter, my son will have yogurt. If the leftovers I’m sending are things I know one of them doesn’t love, then I pack an “alternate” lunch for the other. I know this sounds overly accommodating, but it works for us. If this wouldn’t work for you, the just10 minutes packing so its not a big deal. Almost always they eat the same thing, and when they don’t, its usually almost the same, with the exception of the “main dish” (so the sandwich, salad, etc).
Make it fun:
I do three things to make school lunches fun for my kids in addition to having let them give input into the ideas
First, I let them pick their lunch box. Over the years we’ve had everything from a fire engine lunch box, to super bright fun colors, to Lightening McQueen, to camouflage. Right now both my kids have “pack it” lunch boxes that you keep in the freezer. I let them pick whichever color/style they wanted from the options available for the type of lunch box we wanted them to use.
Second, I buy fun napkins to put in their lunch box even though I’m convinced my son doesn’t use the napkin I send! I buy them on sale when I can. They get to pick fun colors or patterns or ones with inspiring quotes- whatever they like. The party supply aisle at Target has lots of fun options for younger kids as well as pretty ones my teenage daughter likes but I find them at places like Home Goods and Party City as well.
Third, I like writing notes on the baggies I put in their lunchbox. I keep them simple- using fun colored sharpies I write simple messages such as:
- I love you
- We are proud of you
- Good luck on your math test
- We are praying for you
- *sometimes I’ve had my parents write some notes on baggies, and then I’ll add those in occasionally as a fun surprise from grandma and papa!
On each note I include a simple heart which I have told the kids means “I love you,” and a simple happy face which they know means “I love spending time with you” I started putting those two symbols on their baggies back when my son was in preschool and couldn’t yet read. I taught him what they meant and just kept it up.
10 Tips to keep it all super simple
Since we use pack it lunchboxes that have to be kept in the freezer, I put the items to go in their lunch in a simple plastic container at night when I pack their lunches. In the morning they take the items out of their box and put them in their lunchbox.
If it works better you could easily assemble all the lunches for the entire week on Sunday. I’ve just found it simple to pack lunches while I’m already in the kitchen fixing dinner and cleaning up but we all need to do whatever works best for our family.
Most evenings before dinner, I cut up fresh veggies and make a “veggie tray” that my kids nibble on as I fix dinner. I just toss some of those into baggies for their lunches at the same time I fix the “veggie tray” for them.
Get an apple slicer/corer- my mom told me I needed one of these and I laughed. I mean, really, how hard is it to slice an apple? It’s not hard, but if you don’t have a slicer/corer, you need to get one. I’m serious it makes slicing the apple so simple,
You can make a big batch of smoothies in the blender, then scoop individual servings into sandwich size ziplock bags. Put all the bags inside one gallon freezer bag and freeze. The night before just pull out one baggie and put it in the fridge. It will defrost over night. In the morning, just mush the baggie a bit to mix things up again and its ready to go! Put your thermos into the freezer the night before or even the morning of, so it gets cold and will help the smoothie stay cold longer.
On days you want to send hot food, warm your thermos with boiling water for 15 minutes (with the lid on) before filling with hot food- this helps the food stay hotter longer. I didn’t think this would make much of a difference but it does!
If I’m sending something hot in the thermos, I will pull the”pack it” lunch box out of the freezer the night before and let it defrost on the counter. That way the lunch box isn’t cooling off whatever is in the thermos. I make sure that the rest of their lunch doesn’t have to be cool (think natural applesauce packets, pretzels, etc). I have forgotten a few times and ended up having to use the hot thermos in the cold lunchbox. My kids said it was “ok”- not great but ok, so if you forgot, don’t panic! It’ll still work!
Salads and wraps are more labor-intensive, but they aren’t inconvenient. I just try to plan these on days so whatever I’m fixing for dinner the night before can “overlap.” I try to cut up stuff for dinner that will work for lunch. It makes everything faster and with our busy schedule, that counts for a lot! Often I will make enough salad for me to eat the next day for lunch as well. I have this container that I use for sending salads.
The kids can help if you want. Even small kids can help pack lunches and for some people this make life easier. For me, I use my packing time to pray for my kids. I know that makes me sound super spiritual, but it’s not about that at all. It’s just a good reminder to pause and pray for my kids and their busy day at school. My kids are old enough to pack themselves, but I like doing this for them. If I was working full time, I’d likely delegate this to them. At times, when we’ve had foster care craziness going on, I’ve had them help me, but at this point, I do it, and they know I pray for them as I pack. When they open their lunch each day, I hope a part of them remembers that I love them and am praying for them, and that this knowledge helps them both feel encouraged and supported.
Since my kids don’t help me pack lunches, I have a plan for what they will do while I pack. that way I’m not interrupted. Over the years, the plan has changed, depending on their age and what they can do. When they were much younger, I would have them sit right in the kitchen with me and look at books or draw. Now that they are older, they get ready for bed while I clean up the kitchen, pack lunches, and get my coffee ready to go. The key is to set yourself up for success and part of that means making sure you can do what you need to do while also making sure the kids are take care of.
So this is our plan. What do you do? Comment below with your best school lunch tip and be sure to sign up to be notified when we post new content!