The new school year brings earlier mornings for some, the transition to different teachers, curriculum, or kids for most, and — the bane of many parents’ existence — packing a lunch every day.
For those of you whose child’s school cranks out edible fare — and your kid willingly eats it — good luck to you. For the rest of us, September rolls around and a collective groan can be heard across the country. One wag, 5 second rule food blogger Cheryl Sternman Rule, tweeted recently that she’d rather stick a hot poker in her eye than think about making school lunch.
Sing it sister. Do you need help figuring out what to pack for your precious offspring so he has the fuel he needs to fire on all cylinders during the school day? Looking for some fresh options to add to the old standbys? Does your child routinely trash, trade, or trek home the school lunch you spent time and money putting together?
Have no fear, help is on the way. What follows, ten tips to take the tedium out of school lunch. If you have your own tricks, do share, we can all use novel ideas to spice things up on the school food front. Here’s to a lunch beyond soggy PB&J sammies.
1. Keep it simple No need to whip yourself into a foodie frenzy first thing in the morning — or late at night. Wholegrain bread or crackers, chunks of cheddar, grapes, and celery strips make a perfectly respectable lunch. Ditto hummus, pita wedges, and carrot and cuc sticks. Sliced apples (tossed in lime juice to retain their color) and a scoop of peanut or other nut butter is another easy option, as are lettuce wraps (baby gem or romaine lettuce leaves filled with a favorite filling such as cottage cheese or guacamole). Nothing wrong with wholegrain bagels, cream cheese, and tomato wedges either. Nori (dried seaweed) squares, tofu cubes, and rice balls can also do the job.
2. Think it through Some foods, no matter how much your kid loves ’em, don’t survive until lunchtime. Few kids fancy limp salad (but keeping the dressing in a separate container can eliminate this problem). Boiled eggs may work well for some, others may be overpowered by their odor, but a slice of frittata could suffice. Cheese that starts to melt when it isn’t meant to isn’t too appetizing either. If a food is supposed to be cold, include an ice pack. If you’re sending a dish that needs to be heated, such as bean soup or a veggie stew, invest in a thermos that holds the heat.
3. Make it visually appealing Appearances do matter when it comes to food, and some kids (and adults) simply won’t eat stuff that isn’t presented in an attractive manner. The bento box is a big hit with the junior set. My child loves his Laptop Lunchbox, in part, because the food comes in neat little packages in portions that whet, rather than overwhelm, the appetite. I’m no fan of fashioning food into fun shapes or cutesy animal characters, but it can help if lunch looks easy on the eye. A fruit kebab may be more enticing than a plain, whole apple.
4. Look to leftovers Your child chowed down last night’s pesto pasta, dug into the Asian noodle salad, or slurped up lots of tomato soup. Chances are that delicious dish can do double duty for lunch the next day. Bonus points if the meal includes protein, whole grains, and veg. That’s not much of an ask: It’s simple to slip, say, some grated carrot or frozen peas into that mac & cheese.
5. Mix it up The same sandwiches every day can get old, even for the most rigid eaters. Likewise, a week’s worth of leftovers. Try something new — or a different spin on an old standard — to keep everyone interested in eating. Make breakfast for lunch every once in a while for fun. Pack separate containers with granola, yogurt, and berries and let your kid stir the trio together at lunchtime. If your child usually has cold cuts for lunch, send a thermos of soup or noodles on a chilly day for a change. Or just skip the sandwich bread and substitute a wholewheat wrap or tortilla for a twist.
6. Get your kid involved Newsflash, folks, I made my own lunch starting in kindergarten and still bear the scars — from kids laughing at my inexpertly cut sandwiches — to prove it (cue violin). Honestly, though, those of us with picky eaters in particular really need to bring ’em on board at every step of the lunch-making process, we’re talking planning, prepping, and packing. My boy and I do this and it’s a bonding experience (don’t gag), gives me insights into what he’s into eating at any given time, and helps take some of the angst out of the whole exercise. Ups your chances of the chow actually getting eaten as well. I’d have never known that quinoa salad would be such a hit at lunch if my son hadn’t suggested it one morning.
7. Choose familiar foods School lunch is not the time to introduce new foods, bring back previously rejected produce, or make the case for your kid to expand his palate. You just want him to get the nutrients he needs to succeed at school. That means some protein to keep the brain sharp, complex carbs for energy, and fruit & veg for all the health benefits vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-loaded produce offers. Maybe you’ll learn, say, that salad is more likely to get consumed if you mix some walnuts, cranberries, and mandarin segments with those greens.
8. Cut yourself some slack Let’s face it, we’ve all packed a loser lunch at one time or another. Don’t beat yourself up about it if your child brings it back or complains. Or — perhaps worse — loves that a treat filled in for some real food. No matter. As in other areas of life, there’s always tomorrow to make amends. Onward. (And, yes, yes, the occasional treat is cool but cookies every day is certainly not.)
9. Find ideas among friends Plagiarism is allowed on the playground. Ask parents what they pack for their kid. Check out what you child’s friends have in their lunchbox. Scope out snack options in popular rotation. You’re bound to uncover a few new items to add to your repertoire. I picked up popcorn from one peer, trail mix from another.
10. Search for school lunch resources There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, clip and save ideas and leave them in a handy place, when you — or your finicky foodie — need some inspiration.
Here’s a few to get you started:
- Epicurious: Back-to-school round-up includes lunch recipes, tips, and daily nutritional needs for kids
- Ann Cooper: Healthy suggestions for school eats from the Renegade Lunch Lady
- Vegan LunchBox: Inspired offerings from bento blogger Jennifer McCann
- The Tiffin Tin: Lunchtime advice with a healthy dollop of humor from Lily Hamrick
- What’s Cooking: Satisfying school lunch options from kids cooking instructor Michelle Stern
- HealthNews: Loads of practical ideas — and a recipe for granola bars — from self-described suburban soccer mom Susan Brady
Check back later this month for a contest giveaway for My Lunch Box: 50 Recipes For Kids to Take to School