Ahhh. The beginning of the school year. The time of year I am equal parts ready for the boys to get back to school and some semblance of a schedule, yet also dread losing the somewhat more relaxed schedule (particularly with sports), and beginning the onslaught of paper, homework and general craziness that arrives along with the school year. I call this feeling “Dready.” That craziness includes the omnipresent, ever hovering, school lunch. I know, most of you would rather be tied to an ant hill and slathered in jam than resign yourselves to packing lunches every day. I get it. Here are some ‘lunch lessons’ to revisit along with some links to many people far more creative than myself to help us along! Do you hear Will Smith singing “Getting Dready With It?” C’mon! Put your hands together and let’s get cracking on those lunches!
The basics: Keep in mind that each child is an individual; some kids can happily eat PB&J for lunch every day, some need variety and others are just plain overwhelmed by too many choices. Overall, we want our kids to feel nourished, strong and energized throughout their day. Not ready to eat their arm off by noon. Here’s what’s going to help them:
Lean sources of protein: like beans, edamame, eggs, lean meats, yogurt, quinoa. Since protein takes longer to digest, it keeps us feeling fuller, longer, which means having a source of protein in your lunch box is a good idea. Protein is the ‘it’ girl right now. What? You haven’t seen the new protein-infused M&M’s? Kidding. There’s no such thing yet but don’t buy into all of the ‘protein’ hype. Your kids do not need a lot. Use natural sources of protein like those listed above.
Healthy fats: like 100% natural nut-butters (also a good source of protein), avocado, unsalted nuts & seeds (pistachios, almonds, cashews, pecans, chia, flax, sunflower seeds) and salmon (though this may be tough in an enclosed lunch box!). We need these fats for brain power and to help regulate hormones. They also help us absorb vitamins like A, D, E, K. Small amounts of healthy fats keep us feeling full and satisfied. Sounds like a lunch-box winner!
Good sources of fiber and complex carbohydrates including a variety of fruits, vegetables, & whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa (also a good source of protein) & farro or breads made with 100% whole grains like wheat, oats, rye. Including these will help keep your kids full and satisfied as well as provide sustained energy throughout a busy school day. Plus, fiber helps things keep moving (just make sure to include water in that lunch box!).
How to do it:
1.) Deconstruct. Deconstructed lunches are perfect for kids who do not care for sandwiches, find themselves with ‘soggy’ sandwiches or who just like some variety. Some examples include:
•Un-sandwiches: Rolled-up turkey on toothpicks (nitrates/nitrites-free) and pita triangles. Pita triangles with a side of hummus. Include sides they can build on or eat alone like avocado, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, pickles, carrots, apple or cheese slices. Inside-out sandwiches like turkey wrapped around a whole-grain breadstick.
•Un-Salad: Start with a base of greens and include sides like leftover roasted chicken, beans, tuna, chickpeas, dried or fresh fruit, cut-up vegetables, nuts, seeds, hard-boiled egg.
•Un-Tacos: Pack beans (with or without cheese) or leftover ground turkey or your favorite ‘hot filling’ in an 8-10 ounce insulated Thermos. Make it into a salad with some Romaine lettuce or include a Garden of Eatin’ taco shell, whole grain tortilla or tortilla chips and some of your favorite sides (avacado, tomatoes, greens, cilantro, salsa, Greek yogurt, olives).
•Un-Pizza: Whole-wheat pita bread, tomato sauce, grated cheese, toppings (peppers, olives, mushrooms). Keep in mind that the “pizza-style” Lunchable has over 100 ingredients!
•Un-Parfait: Plain Greek yogurt (add fresh fruit, vanilla, lemon zest), granola like Bear Naked ‘Fit’, cereal (high fiber, low sugar) roasted nuts/dried or fresh fruit. You can even add some honey or maple syrup–chances are you are not going to add as much sugar as some of the fruit-filled on-the-shelf brands (can contain up to 30g of sugar for 1 cup!)
•Lunch Kebabs– fruit, cheese, leftover grilled chicken, raw or roasted vegetables, if you can name it, kebab-it!
2.) Include Old Favorites
•Quesadillas (black bean, corn & cilantro; cheese & spinach; avocado& cilantro) add side of salsa, tomatoes, corn, etc.
•Peanut or other 100% natural nut butter with bananas & honey, apples, mashed berries or no-added-sugar jam.
•Pizza “roll-ups”- Whole grain or sprouted grain tortilla with tomato sauce, cheese, vegetables.
3.) Try New Twists
Apple peanut-butter sandwiches with carrots, popcorn and apple spice muffins (baked ahead of time and frozen)
•Apple & Peanut butter sandwiches with all kinds of ‘fixin’s’ (dried fruit, seeds, oats, brown rice crispies, ).
•Make PB&J ‘sushi’ by smearing the ingredients (and any add-ons listed above) into a whole-wheat wrap. Roll, cut and pack into ‘sushi’ size bites (my son loved this).
•Use a large, leafy green lettuce as your “wrap”. Romaine, bibb lettuce, collard greens and swiss chard work well! Stuff with hummus & mixed vegetables, savory vegetable quinoa, white bean dip and veggies or other fillings you enjoy!
•Spread nut butter, honey, & fresh fruit between two whole-wheat waffles.
4.) Include Hot Lunches. This is a great way to utilize leftovers! I have one kid who will not eat anything at room temperature and one who will be ‘that kid’ in college who eats “anything for a dollar!” Invest in a good insulated 8-10 ounce thermos. My ‘hot-meal’ kid maintains that all of his lunches have remained, at the very least, warm.
Soup hits the spot on a cool fall day
•Leftover rice & Chicken/Stir Fry/Pasta & Sauce
•Pork/Chicken BBQ & Brown rice
•Quinoa patties out of leftover quinoa (or quinoa & veggies)
•Roasted sweet potatoes with cinnamon and maple syrup or roasted vegetables with lentils & savory spices.
•Baked potato with favorite toppings
•Bean/chicken/turkey chili & corn bread
This oatmeal bake!
5.) Create A ‘Snacking Box‘:
•The European: whole-grain crackers, cheese, fruit, nuts, a square of dark chocolate
•The Bento Box: vegetable sushi, steamed edamame, rice crackers, fruit, nuts
6.) Salads! Grain salads like bulgur, quinoa (ok, it’s technically a seed), freekeh, wheat berries and farro can go in any flavor direction you like! Green salads, bean, salads, vegetable salads, oh, my! Use animal protein like chicken (or don’t)! So many directions to take this (for you and your kids)! *Kids cannot have glass in the cafeteria, however.
7.) Add a theme. I have talked about this with meal planning, the same goes for lunch. Themes are fun! Themes help you plan! Encourage your kids to create a theme/come up with a name! Some could be:
Breakfast for lunch: “Wacky Wednesday” or “Freaky Friday”-Pre-make and freeze whole grain waffles, pancakes or french toast (you can cut these into ‘sticks’) and pack sides like Greek yogurt, Bare Naked Fit granola, homemade trail mix, or applesauce. Pack oatmeal in an insulated container with roasted walnuts, blueberries, 100% maple syrup and banana. Pack leftover frittata (great for cleaning out the fridge of wayward vegetables and perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner) as seen in the first photo on this page.
Taco Tuesday: see Un-Taco listed above
Mambo Monday: Whole wheat/brown rice pasta salad with cucumber, beans, carrot, olives, tomatoes. Dress with olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt/ground pepper and your favorite spices.
Waste-Free Wednesday: Try to pack a lunch without any trash. Include a reusable napkin, a reusable water bottle reusable containers like these and silverware from home, if needed.
Finally, here are some general tips–some you may remember from Meal Planning 101–that may help:
Utilize a system.
We use various Lunchbots containers in our house. I like these containers because they are a visual reminder of what we need to pack. Even if you don’t like the system, there are some great lunchbox ideas on their website. There are many other systems (also with great lunch ideas on their websites) including: Laptop Lunches, Ziploc (BPA-free) Divided Containers, Goodbyns, Lunchsense, PlanetBox and Packit. A good insulated food thermos is also key. They usually run @ $20 (I have yet to find one that is not made in China, however).
Have a plan. Make lunches the night before (heck, one of my friends makes three days’ worth of lunches!), utilize a crock-pot, have go-to recipes to utilize ‘left-overs’, freeze sandwiches–they will defrost by lunchtime, freeze home-made smoothies or applesauce in containers like these (I got this idea a few years back from www.100daysofrealfood.com), or have a recipe swap for new ideas.
Get the kids involved!
Griffin makes grilled cheese sandwiches and freezes them to pop into his lunch box.
You have heard this before. Involving your kids means they’re invested. Create a list or menu and post it. Allow your child to plan the menu one day/week (they will be more likely to eat it!) Grow, shop, cook with your child. Last but not least, have older kids (gasp) make their own lunches! Not only are you giving them a life-skill, but including them in the process also means they are more likely to eat what they have helped make and plan!
Look for creative resources. Here are a bunch of sites I have used for inspiration but remember that whole foods themselves are beautiful enough. If you are really interested in making your lunches stand out without much work, you can include silicone liners as dividers (the heart shaped liners in my pictures are from Target) or use some cookie cutters to make sandwiches more interesting. If spending the time punching out shapes of fruits and vegetables or taking a cookie cutter to your kids’ sandwich is going to put you over the edge, here’s some advice:DON’T DO IT! Yes, there are some beautiful and creative lunches out there, but if creating them is not an enjoyable experience for you? Bag it. Yes, you may have to make lunch, but you do not need to create more stress for yourself!
Making lunches is something we have to do at some point. It can be arduous and it may never be ‘fun’ but we can make it easier on ourselves by getting creative, planning, getting our kids involved, and coming together to use our most valuable resource: each other!
After all, as quoted by Ron Atchison (okay, from a card I found at Trader Joe’s, but who cares?) “What are we here for, if not to help one another?” Let’s hear about some of the lunch ideas and strategies that work for your family!