Summer’s not even officially over, but for us it’s back to school, along with the dreaded morning wake-up call … time to make the lunches! And the same questions every year … What to pack? What will they actually eat? How early do I have to wake up to get it all done? I figure if I (and you) have a quick school lunch go-to list that will make the mornings a little less chaotic, and lunches just a bit easier, healthier and generally yummier — then yay for all of us!
If you’re looking for some creative lunch recipes with cute presentation and fun packaging … this is not it. It’s all about simple, fresh, healthy foods that appeal to your kids, and that you can make on the go.
I'm a last-minute lunch packer, so I generally stick with pretty basic, easy-to-assemble items that can be put together ten minutes before the kids are out the door. Packing my idea of a healthy lunch that stands up to what my kids think "everyone else is eating" is not always so easy, but with a lot of trial and error, I've learned a thing or two. First, a little pre-planning can take some of the dread (and fat and sugar) out of the whole lunch ordeal …
Get the kid(s) involved. Now that my kids are a little older, I'm giving them some of the lunch-packing responsibility. Even if your child can’t pack a lunch herself, you can let her in on the selection. Martha Stewart has a cool little magnetic lunch chart that you can customize for your kids to map out meals for the week (don’t worry, you Martha haters, it's super easy!). This helps cut down on the morning haggling about what to pack, and gets your little one more excited about eating when she’s “chosen” it herself.
Post your own school lunch go-to list. With as many lunches as I've packed, it's amazing how I always seem to come up short of ideas by mid-year. So now I keep a list. The idea is to take the lunch list below, add what you like/delete what you will, and post it to the fridge or upload it to your phone for planning and shopping. (I use the Our Groceries app, which is awesome, if you haven’t tried it. You can itemize favorite recipes, share your shopping list with others in the family so they can add to it when you run out of something, and easily delete items on your list as you shop — no more fumbling pencil and paper!)
With this go-to lunch list, you can rotate items when things start to get stale and you need to find some new foods that won’t actually come back home — warm, soggy and sad — in the lunch box.
School Lunch Ideas
1. It’s a wrap. So much you can do in a wrap (preferably a whole-wheat one), which helps when the sandwich thing gets old. My kids like to assemble stuff, so I usually pack the items individually, and let them do the work. This also keeps the wrap from getting soggy by the time lunch rolls around.
Here are the myriad of options:
– turkey and cheese
– cream cheese and black olives (one of my kids’ favorites)
– black beans, lettuce, shredded cheese and/or salsa
– hummus with cucumber slices, tomato, lettuce and/or black olives
– chicken Caesar – grilled chicken strips, lettuce, Caesar dressing and grated parmesan
– tuna fish, plain or with tomato and lettuce
– egg salad
– just a plain wrap with salsa for dipping
2. It’s a lettuce wrap. What’s healthier than wrapping things up in a whole-wheat tortilla? Wrapping them up in a vegetable! Pack a nice big leaf of romaine alongside any of the above options.
3. Meat & cheese roll-ups. We use faux turkey with Havarti or Muenster in our house, but you can layer your kid’s favorite cheese on his or her favorite meat and roll it on up. Stick a toothpick in, and you’ve got the easiest sandwich you ever made (and they can eat it right off the stick!).
4. All about the snacks. My kids are definitely all about the snacks, so I pack what looks like just a bunch of snacks or sides (i.e. no “main course”), but is really a pretty well-rounded meal.
– Black olives
– Chickpeas w/ olive oil and salt
– Plain lettuce with favorite dressing (packed in separate containers)
– Frozen raspberries (or any frozen fruit) with a little raw sugar sprinkled on top. (The berries melt into a nice sweet-n-sour slush by lunchtime.)
– Greek yogurt with honey and granola or berries
– hummus with a tortilla, tortilla chips, pretzels or carrot sticks for dipping
– celery, carrots or cucumbers with ranch dressing (try mixing greek yogurt, a little mayo and ranch seasoning — delish!)
– hard boiled egg
– string cheese or other cheese sticks with whole-wheat crackers
– favorite fruit or dried fruit
– granola or Z-Bars
5. Double-up soup. When the weather gets cooler, we make a lot of soups, and I usually double the recipe so we have plenty left over for lunches. If you want to wait several days or weeks before serving it again, freeze some in individual containers, and you can thaw overnight for school the next day. Try our favorite minestrone soup (add a piece of bread or crackers, and you’re done).
6. Past-a plenty. Pasta leftovers always make things easy, too. Like the soup, you can put it in a good insulated food container to keep warm. I’ll make a big pot of whole wheat pasta on Sunday night and use it for a couple days worth of lunch. My kids like it with tomato sauce, olive oil and Parmesan, or Ginger dressing.
7. The added treat. We're always trying to cut back on sugar in our house (with little success), so I now just throw in some dark chocolate or other small sweet every so often. My kids don't expect it (every day) anymore, so it pretty much makes their day when they open the lunch box and see a big (little) surprise!