Your glorious summer hiatus from packing your kids’ lunches is now sadly over. But have no fear, back to school excitement doesn’t have to mean back to lunch-packing dread. I’m sharing with you my tips for packing lunch boxes that are fuss-free, kid-approved, and healthy to boot!
Starting with WHAT to put in that lunch, the key is variety. Each day, think in terms of whole grains, protein, fruit, vegetables, and an optional, very small sweet. Here are some examples:
• Lunchbox basics: whole wheat or whole grain bread, English muffins, wraps, and crackers
• Don’t forget! Brown rice, barley, quinoa, and whole wheat pasta are all great too! Cooked grains like rice can be stored in the freezer – just scoop into the lunchbox in the morning, and by lunch time they are defrosted and ready to eat.
Whole wheat pasta with olive oil and cheese, mini meatballs, carrots with ranch dressing, grapes, clementine, and a mini cookie
• Lunchbox basics: cheese, nut/seed butters (depending on your school’s allergy policy), and deli meats (please get all natural, nitrate free varieties and avoid serving these every day due to high sodium and heavy processing)
• Don’t forget! Leftover cooked chicken, meatballs, eggs (hardboiled, frittatas, fried rice), canned salmon or tuna, yogurt, cottage cheese, hummus, edamame, and nuts or seeds (if allowed).
• Lunchbox basics: fresh fruit such as grapes, melon, berries, pineapple, and apples or pears (tossed with a little lemon juice to prevent browning if you pre-cut)
• Don’t forget! More exotic fruits such as mango, kiwi, and pomegranate seeds. Also consider apple sauce, frozen fruit, (which will thaw by the time lunch rolls around – my daughter loves blueberries this way!), and dried fruit like raisins, freeze dried mango and pineapple, dried apples, or banana chips (just check to make sure that dried fruit has 1 ingredient only!)
• Lunchbox basics: cut up raw veggies (carrots, cucumbers, celery, peppers, grape tomatoes), packed with a dip if that helps!
• Don’t forget! Leftovers like cooked veggies, slaws, or veggies that are mixed in with other pre-cooked meals (soup, stews, etc.)
Chicken quesadilla (on a whole wheat wrap), kiwi, watermelon, asparagus, and a mini cookie
• This is purely optional; I choose to include a very small sweet because most of the kids in my daughter’s class have some kind of dessert, and I want her to have something to look forward to as well. The key is making it small enough that even if they eat it first, they will still be hungry enough to eat lunch! Our favorites are mini-chocolate chip cookies, a few chocolate chips, or a small square from a dark chocolate bar.
Now that you know what to pack, it’s time to think about what to put it in. Finding a lunch box that has multiple compartments reminds you to pack a variety of items, reduces the need for disposable packaging, and makes it easier for kids to eat. I am totally in love with my PlanetBox, but other good options are Laptop Lunches and LunchBots. These systems have enough compartments for everything and make it easy to see all choices all at once. Plus, they are eco-friendly and eliminate the need to buy single-serve items, which are expensive and wasteful.
Baked ziti (with whole wheat pasta), watermelon, carrot sticks, freeze-dried bananas, raisins, and a mini cookie
A few more things to keep in mind…
• Leftovers are your friend! If you cook at all, you are already one step ahead in packing a lunch box – just make a little extra for the next day! I am lucky that my daughter is happy to eat pretty much all foods cold – chicken, meatballs, pasta, rice, eggs, matzo ball soup – you name it! If your kid is more particular about certain foods being warm, you can also look into thermos options.
• A well-stocked freezer is a lifesaver! We keep things like homemade chicken nuggets, mini-frittatas, whole grain muffins, frozen fruit, and cookies on hand.
• Always have a back-up! Despite your best intentions, there will always be days when you have two seconds to pack a lunch and you haven’t gone food shopping in a week. Make sure you have a plan! For us there’s always cheese and crackers with some dried fruit and carrot sticks. Is this the healthiest meal I can come up with? No, but it’s easy, balanced, and I pretty much always have the ingredients on hand. Come up with something that will work for you and your kids – maybe it’s a nut/seed-butter sandwich, or cottage cheese, or hardboiled eggs? Whatever it is, try to save your easy meal for the days when you really need the help!
Check out Alissa’s food blog, The Simply Wholesome Kitchen about “eating clean and living green”.