8 expert tips for simplifying your school lunch-packing routine
Take it from these foodies: Do some work in advance, have the kids do some of the work (yes!) and — this might surprise you — don't strive for perfection.
Aren't those smiley faces just darling? But who has time to make a lunch like that? No one we know!
The challenge comes every weekday, before the coffee has had a chance to sink in: Come up with a healthy lunch, easy to prepare, that will stand up to the rigors of school heating systems and squished backpacks and that your quirky child will eat in the eight or so minutes available to her.
It demands a combination of nutritional know-how, food preparation, packing skills and mind-reading. And parents take it on every day.
In order to help, we asked the advice of three folks who spend a lot of time thinking about kids and food.
Lisa Taylor is a freelance garden educator and the author of two books on gardening: "Your Farm in the City" and the second edition of Seattle Tilth's "Maritime Northwest Garden Guide. " She runs gardening camps for kids and classes in schools. She has a teenage son. Laura Vida, the owner of Froglegs Culinary Academy, where she goes by Mrs. Froglegs, is a professional cook turned cooking teacher. Among the courses at FrogLegs is one in how to make packed lunches. Vida has three teenage children. Hannah Roosevelt is a clinical dietitian from Seattle Children's hospital. Among her duties is counseling families about what to feed kids.
She says lunch boxes are a particular challenge for a lot of families she talks to: "I spend a lot of time talking about lunches."
Here are some pointers on how to make your lunch-packing routine easier. (Related: How to pack a nutritional lunch that can be eaten quickly.)
Involve the kids
This is the most powerful way to make lunch-making easier.
"The more you can get kids involved in their food and food choices, the better you’re going to be," Vida says.
Taylor says kids should be taking over lunch-packing duties by second or third grade, or whatever is appropriate to the child.
"As soon as they can make their own lunch they should be making their lunch," she said.
Even if the kids are packing their own lunches in the morning, parents still have to shop and anticipate what kids are going to pack, so it's important to consult with kids. Taking them to the grocery store is a good idea, but if that doesn't work for your family, you can use Amazon Fresh or some other online ordering service together, or you can look for lunch ideas from Pinterest boards or from YouTube.
Sometimes you can find ideas for things to make in advance, for example, making a batch of pizza dough for calzones to pack in lunches.
Roosevelt says making lunch is an opportunity to teach kids about healthy eating, perhaps referring the Choose MyPlate diagram – today's successor to the "food pyramid" adults remember.
Streamline your routine
If lunch-packing is going to go smoothly in the morning, you need to work through the day ahead to make sure that not only are the groceries there, but the lunch boxes and containers are clean and ready to go. For Vida, this means insisting her kids follow a particular after-school routine.
"The minute the kids walk in from the door they take their lunch boxes and set it on the counter and clear it out themselves," she says. She does not want to have to track down any stray items in the morning. "That really derails me," she says.
Not that things go perfectly. She's never quite been able to make cooler packs a consistent part of her kids' lunch boxes. "I start out really strong and the cooler packs go by the wayside midyear," she says.
Vida decides what she is making for the week when she shops on the weekend.
"There are certain things I’ll do consistently; one week is turkey and ham, one week is roast beef and peanut butter," she says. There is always some kind of fruit, and the most-perishable stuff gets consumed at the beginning of the week.
Not everybody plans that far out. Taylor says her planning is on the level of keeping a basic range of supplies in the house.
"There was a time when we wrote down a menu and stuff, for that it was too onerous," she says. "It's just a matter of making sure there are supplies available."
Keep it simple
Vida takes an interest in the packed lunches kids bring to camp. The biggest mistake parents make?
"Parents overcomplicate the process," she says. "People try to fill their lunch boxes with too many things."
Vida recommends three components: the main dish (say, a sandwich or a salad), some fruit or vegetables, and some finger foods. This way kids aren't overwhelmed with options, and it's easier to present invitingly.
Taylor says kids should know exactly what is in in their lunchbox before they open it. "They won’t necessarily explore their lunch as if it’s a great treasure box," she says.
And if you are including some kind of packaged food, make sure your child can open it easily. Both Vida and Taylor say that kids regularly ask them to open troublesome items.
"I can't tell you how many Go-Gurt containers have been handed to me," Taylor says.
Roosevelt says that there is no reason kid food has to be different from adult food — so don't think you have to prepare a kid-specific meal.
"We get kid of siloed into thinking that they eat differently, but they don’t have to," she says.
It doesn't have to be perfectly balanced
Roosevelt counsels parents to pack some protein, some fat and some carbohydrates into every lunch, but not to worry about taking care of all their kids' nutritional needs in one meal. They have plenty of easier times to strive for the right balance of foods.
"Try to think about the balance not in that meal, but in your day or your week," she says.
Also, it's fine to have a few unhealthy foods there, particularly if they induce kids to eat more healthy food. If having caramel means kids will eat more apple slices, pack caramel. If having ranch dressing will induce kids to eat more carrot sticks, get that ranch dressing in there.
Lunch is not the most important part of a kid's lunchtime
To understand why it's important to keep lunch straightforward, consider the typical elementary-school lunch time, with kids crowded elbow-to-elbow in the lunch room, wolfing down their lunches in order to get to the most interesting part of the lunchtime period: playing with their friends. It is one of the only parts of the school day where they are encouraged to socialize. Lunch is not foremost on their minds, says Taylor.
"During lunch it's very competitive with time."
Roosevelt says it's important to keep in mind how much time kids have for lunch and how much competition there is for their time and attention."If we have lunch with friends it takes us three times longer, but we don’t want to take kids away from their friends," she says.
She suggests people pack for speed. "Having fast things to eat with high nutrition, full-fat typ e milk and cheese and yogurt, those are going to give you a lot of energy and you don’t have to have as much volume," she says.
Also, if you pack something your kid likes, but it comes back uneaten, ask them why. The reasons could have more to do with the social scene than your kid's appetite. And social scenes always change. After waiting a few weeks, it could be fine to bring back lunch as it was.
Be generous with snack
One thing Taylor has observed in many a classroom is that kids will eat a lot during morning snack time — if their classroom has it. "Your kid is hungry at 10 o'clock. They are not handful-of-goldfish hungry at 10 o'clock, they are eat-their-whole-lunch hungry at 10 o'clock."
If you are packing morning snack, make it generous, say "half-a-sandwich big," she says.
Don't fear repetition
Don't worry too much about varying the menu, Vida says. "Kids like consistency. At the end of the day they have their favorite things they look forward to."
Taylor says her son tended to go with a small repertoire of proven favorites such as sandwiches, dried fruit and Ziploc bags of chips. "There were a few things we knew he would always eat. The variety wasn’t great, but it seemed to work."
Just because you're bored of packing a particular lunch doesn't mean your kid is tired of eating it, Roosevelt says. "Talk to your kids and see what they want."
Give yourself breaks
For a time, Taylor's son got the school's hot lunch once a week.
"That gave everyone a break from the relentlessness of the school-lunch packing," Taylor says.
Once in a while Vida packs prepackaged salads from Trader Joes, or sandwiches made at QFC. It gives everyone a break in routine.
The rules of the game will change
Kids food preferences change. There will be days when they decide they despise what had been beloved favorites, but they don't tell you until 10 minutes before it's time to get out the door to catch the bus. They might develop a food sensitivity or become a vegan. You have to be ready to roll with it. It's not easy, Taylor says.
"Power on, all you parents who pack lunches. Power on!" Taylor says.