This year marks a decade of making school lunches for my kids.
Lunchboxing, if I may turn this act of parental love into a verb, has changed over time with my kids’ ages, palates and school environments. I’ve seen that what I packed for them in first grade has to be different than what I pack in fourth grade or seventh grade. By then, they’re doing a lot of the packing, too, but they still need a hand or new ideas from time to time.
Many of us used brown paper bags or metal boxes growing up, but now the choices vary not only in shape and size, but also materials used, from an old-fashioned Disney metal lunchbox to a PlanetBox (my favorite for the last six years) to Vera Bradley bags with their signature fabric patterns.
Over the years, I’ve reduced the use of plastics in our home, including zip-top plastic baggies. We now use reusable baggies, but for the most part, the lunchboxes we prefer don’t require baggies because they come with containers that you wash each night.
The PlanetBox ($39.95-$59.95) might be more expensive than a regular lunchbox, but the ones we bought years ago have lasted my kids’ entire elementary school life. The metal components are dishwasher safe and seem pretty indestructible. It’s a hinged metal case, which fits nicely into a soft shell colored case, and you can even buy little magnets to customize the lunchbox, which is fun when kids are younger.
No matter which lunchbox you use, you’ll want to use divided compartments so the food doesn’t touch, a big no-no for most elementary school kids. As kids get older, they tend not to care too much about foods touching each other.
Bento box or tiffin-style lunchboxes have added even more options for compartmentalized containers, but consider how easy it is to open the lids and latches when you’re shopping for one, especially for younger kids or kids in a school where there isn’t much help in the cafeteria.
Once you decide what box to use, the next question is what to pack inside besides sandwiches. I like to get kids involved in the planning and preparing of the meals, not just lunches. I keep a meal chart on a whiteboard hanging on a wall in my kitchen. On Sundays, we try to fill out the board for the week, including which days the girls sign up to make their own lunch. I plug in what I want to pack in their lunches two days a week, and they get to pick the other three days.
I also do this for breakfast so I can keep track of balanced meals all day long and so that a PB&J isn’t on the list more than three times a week. For example, if I’m making toast in the morning, I’ll try to avoid packing a sandwich for lunch. If I’ve given them strawberries for breakfast, I’ll aim for another type of fruit in the lunchbox. Now that my kids are older, they can browse magazines or websites, even Pinterest, for their own ideas.
Their favorite lunches right now are a hunk of gouda, some olive bread or good crackers, raw veggies and chickpeas for my vegetarian daughter, and my other daughter’s go-to lunch is either lentil soup or ham and cheese cubes and carrots. Always carrots.
Use these tips this school year to jump-start your own lunch-making habits. Don’t forget to get the kids involved. Even older elementary school children can be in charge of making their own lunch if you show them how and support their efforts.
- Time is always an issue, but using a meal chart or, at the very least, making lunches the night before will help avoid that rush of getting kids dressed, ready, fed and sent to school in the morning.
- The best way to avoid that morning crunch or 10 p.m. drudgery is to make the next day’s lunch right after you’ve finished dinner, when the kitchen is already messy and there are leftovers to be packed anyway. You might as well get a cutting board out and chop a cucumber or a bell pepper and keep it for the next day’s lunch.
- Younger kids like fun sizes, shapes and colors, so think about image when packing for a preschooler or younger elementary kid. Think about changing the shape of a food they already eat. For example, make cucumber rounds instead of sticks. You can use a mandoline and sneak them into a sandwich, or use two rounds as eyes on a food face. Instead of carrot sticks, try slicing them thinly at an angle.
- As kids get a little older, they might be open to soups or pastas in a Thermos. Boil soup in the morning for a few minutes and then pour into a thermos. It will be the perfect temperature by lunchtime. Leftovers like noodles or stir-fry make great lunches and fit well in a thermos too.
- If you’re tired of sandwiches, it can be easy to get stuck in the trail-mix-bar-and-a-cheese-stick rut, but a hearty, healthy lunch can be an assembly of nuts, cubed meats and cheeses, veggies and hummus. Think homemade Lunchables with more veggies.
- If you are making sandwiches, consider a sandwich cutter in a fun shape — my kids got a kick out of those for a year or so. Also consider those reusable baggies. The plastic ones are just too easy to throw away, where they head straight for the landfill.
- One of my favorite tips to tell parents who are struggling to find new lunch ideas is to jump on Instagram and follow a few lunchbox feeds for inspiration. I like @planetbox, @kbqsurfs, @lettucelunch, @lunchbox_diaries and @rockthelunchbox.
- Don’t sweat it if lunchboxes come home not as empty as you’d like. I worried about that for a while, then I realized that kids’ appetites are going to wane, just like adults’, and sometimes they get to talking at lunch and are slow to eat, just like us. If there is a long run of lunches coming home half-eaten, I ask my kids to eat what is salvageable and still cold (like fruit or carrots) for their afternoon snack before I offer something else.
- Send your kids through the lunch line a few times a month. It’s important that kids learn how to be flexible about food. They can’t get what they want, down to the sprinkles, at every meal. I’ve learned this the tough way, trust me. Foodie kids aren’t always as flexible as a parent would like, and Austin and other local districts have made great strides in improving the menu offerings. Hang up the school lunch menu on the fridge and circle a few days to try it out. That will give parents (and their kids, who are lending a hand) a break from having to pack lunch five days a week.