I was thrilled by all the comments and emails I received after Part 1 of this article two weeks ago. I love hearing from parents, and even more, I love knowing that there is a huge interest in upgrading the variety and quality of foods you send to school with your kids.
So this week I’m sharing advice, ideas and strategies that I’ve offered to many parents that have worked for me and I hope will inspire you. Let’s start with lunchboxes.
Find a Lunch “System” that Works for You
By the last day of school in June (well, really, a couple months before that), the lining of my kids’ thermal lunch bags had completely blown out, so it became my summer mission to find a new system which would work with their growing tastes and needs. A good packing system is just one part of creating a great home-packed meal. You need to make sure it is both big enough to hold all the lunch/snacks they’ll need, functional enough to keep those foods from spoiling or being mashed and flexible enough that you can be creative with what you pack.
There are a lot of “systems” out there that come with fancy inserts, their own cutlery set (something experience has shown disappears quickly), matching water bottle, you name it. They are pretty spiffy, but they can also be pricey.
The top of the line Laptop Lunches are too fun for words, but can run you up to $40. All of these are worth taking a look at if you’re willing to make an investment that, granted, will last you many years (replacement parts are available), but sometimes a creative approach will give you the same results for a modest cost.
I miraculously happened upon a couple of Sub Zero insulated lunch bags at Walgreens that cost $5.99 (so nice my husband had me go back and get him one). I paired that with a new lunch system by Rubbermaid called Lunch Blox, which snaps together with a slim cold pack locked in between containers – about a $10 investment at Target.
A couple of Enviro BPA-free water bottles (found at MOMs) completed my custom sets. We road-tested them at camps and they rocked! The largest of the containers is big enough for a sandwich but also great for an entrée. The medium container we used daily for fruit and yogurt, and the two smaller ones were for more cut-up fruit and a crunchy snack.
The lunch bag itself was large enough to hold the water bottle as well as the occasional large rice cake, granola bar or fruit rollup. All this is a long way of saying: spend some time finding what will work for you and your kid. Having the right equipment makes packing their lunch so much easier.
Have a Plan and Stock Your Pantry
My regular readers know that I encourage meal planning in a big way. Packed lunches are no different, because part of your frustration likely comes from not having what your kid wants ready to go at a moment’s notice. You can alleviate this by making sure your pantry and frig are stocked each week with a variety of snack items and lunch options – just make sure these are default items on your shopping list.
In my pantry, we keep varieties of rice cakes, pretzels, granola and fruit bars. The fruit bowl or frig is stocked weekly with seasonal fruit that can be sent whole (bananas, apples, clementines) or cut up and put in containers (peaches, strawberries, melon). Peanut butter is always on hand, but cream cheese and jelly is a favorite alternative. Deli meats and cheeses are maintained as well. But here are a few of my really favorite things to send:
Last Night’s Leftovers: Most kids don’t care that it’s cold if they ate it in the first place. We’ve sent cold pasta dishes, homemade pizza, casseroles, baked chicken and veggies and rice and beans. Almost anything is a go, and it’s a quick way to think outside the (sandwich) box and use up what tends to lie fallow in your frig.
Soups Chilis, Curries, Stews: You can add a small thermos to your lunch system, warm up leftover soup in the morning, and they’ll be just the right temperature by lunchtime (don’t forget a spoon!). Just add some crackers or a great slice of buttered bread for a hot, nourishing meal.
Salads: These are a favorite for my son, and he often puts together his own with nuts and fruit on top. Creativity has no limit. Use what your kids like.
You Gotta Pack the Night Before
Unless you are a supermom (or have paid help), waiting until the morning to pack lunches is ineffective and inefficient. Sure, there have been nights when the last thing I wanted to do was put thought into what they would eat tomorrow, but I’ve always been rewarded in the morning when all I had to do was put it all in the bag.
With the exception of soups, stews or chilis that you really have to reheat in the morning (while your coffee is brewing), it should take only five to 10 minutes to pull together a good meal if you have your ducks in a row (see planning above). And it’s not out of the question to have your kids help you. This engages them in the process, and you’ll learn a huge amount about what they like and don’t, what they’d like to try or what they’d like you to buy. At some point, you can turn the whole process over to them (a day I look forward to!).
What About the Food?
There are now a ton of resources for great tasting, creative lunchbox meals out there, so it’s time to take advantage of them. I’m passing on here some of my go-to books and websites. These always inspire me, especially when I get in a rut, and they take into account a parent’s busy lifestyle without sacrificing taste or nutritional value.
Chef Ann Cooper, aka The Renegade Lunch Lady, is one of the standard bearers in transforming school food, and her website offers great lunchbox ideas, as does her book "Lunch Lessons". I’m particularly fond of the Asian Chicken Salad, Fish Tacos and Vegetable Lo Mein here. They're not complicated if you make them for dinner the night before.
Although the lunchboxes from Laptop Lunches are pricey, there are endless recipes on this site you can adapt to your own system. I love the focus on different international cuisines to create a theme but mostly the plethora of ideas for rounding out an entrée with sides and snacks. I find tremendous inspiration here. They also have a book which I found worth having to browse for ideas.
Chef Mom is a site I found recently that includes some easy recipes (again, that you could make ahead for dinner). Sometimes I get so caught up in being creative that I forget I don’t have to be overly gourmet. Chef Mom brings me back to center with quesadillas and turkey rollups.
School Lunch Ideas (.net) is a great resource for kids with food allergies, and School Lunch Ideas (.com) offers articles and recipes that turn the ordinary to extraordinary, as well as a peanut-free section. You can also sign up for a newsletter here which has delivered a few great ideas to my inbox.
Safeway’s Lunchbox Winners doesn’t offer tons of recipes, and some are on the cutesy side, but there are a few great ideas here, plus a nice emphasis on smoothies, which are a great snack or lunch supplement so long as your cold pack is up to the challenge. Again, you can blend these the night before and remind your kid to shake-shake-shake before they drink.
A few other books worth checking out are: "Kid’s Healthy Lunchbox" by Cara Hobday, "The Top 100 Recipes for a Healthy Lunchbox" by Nicola Graimes,"Brown Bag Success" by Sandra Nissenberg and Barbara Pearl and "Lunch Boxes and Snacks" by Annabel Karmel.
Remember that balance is key to a good packed lunch – that optimum mix of proteins, complex carbohydrates and fats. Many of these resources offer suggestions to meet that mix and you’ll get the hang of it after a bit. Keep seeking inspiration – and get you kids involved in the process.
I’d love to know what you’re planning for back to school!
Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org