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Tips for Awesome School Lunches

If one of your many duties as a parent is making lunch for the kids to take to school, then you need to check out these tips on how to prep and pack up to two weeks of school lunches.

From planning to grocery shopping to keeping all of your lunch stuff organized, we can help you fill those lunch boxes and bellies.

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7 Plan, Plan, Plan

The first thing you need to do is figure out what you’re going to make. If you have one kid, this is pretty simple. Ask them to give you ideas for what they’d like for lunch. If you have more than one kid, this could get tricky, especially if the two kids vary widely in age or preference. But get their input. Chances are, if you know what they like and can work those foods into their lunches. They’re likely to eat everything they take to school with them.

Before you head to the grocery store, check out your pantry and take stock of what you already have. Then start making your shopping list. There are lots of menu planning apps and grocery list apps that can help. With a few clicks, you can add products to your list. The apps will usually sort them for you by section or aisle, and save you from wandering back and forth around the store for something that you might have forgotten. Some store apps, like Wegman’s, will recognize the store you’re in so that the locations (aisle numbers) of products change to match the store.

When you get home, try to save space in your cabinets or in your pantry just for lunch stuff. This will, hopefully, keep sneaky snackers from taking things off the shelves that you purchased just for lunches. If you have room and can set up baskets for each type of snack or even each kid in your family, that will help. You and the kids can just grab something from each basket, toss it in a lunch box, and go!

6 Make-Ahead Cold Lunches

If you have time, make a batch of lunches all at once. You probably have a million other things going on in the morning, so this will save you from making lunches every day before school.

Are the kids sick of sandwiches? Try some fun lunch alternatives. Maybe send your kid to school with breakfast for lunch? You can easily pack a small box of cereal or microwaved oatmeal, fruits, juice, milk, and snacks.

Perhaps the kids can build a parfait at lunch. Pack some yogurt, granola, and fresh fruit that they can mix up however they like.

Maybe the older kids prefer salads, or maybe you just want your kids to eat more veggies? Make salads fun with lots of toppings: nuts, seeds, raisins, cranberries, peppers, carrots, celery, and croutons.

If you take care of the main dish, let the kids pick the sides. Have a snack bin set up in the pantry and/or fridge for the kids to choose things like veggie straws, popcorn, fruit chews, cheese sticks, and dessert items. You can even labeling them with a quantity that kids are allowed to pack, or let them choose one item per bin.

Here’s an example of Keeley McGuire’s week of make-ahead school lunches for her daughter. She has lots of great tips and advice for planning lunches in advance. You can use this menu as inspiration.

Day 1: Udi's GF Pizza Bagel (that she can reheat at school or eat at room temperature), baby carrots, and watermelon.

Day 2: Spinach salad topped with cheese, matchstick carrots, and a Mini Dipperwith dressing. She also had diced up cooked chicken breast for eating or topping on her salad, and pear slices.

Day 3: SunButter & Honey sandwich sticks on Udi's GF bread, a large carrot, grapes, and watermelon.

Day 4: Two Chocolate Chunk Pancake Muffins, a skewer of salami slices, fresh cut carrot sticks, and grapes.

Day 5: SunButter& grape jelly sandwich on Udi's GF bread, fresh cut carrot sticks, and pear slice

5 Freezer Friendly

Depending on the school cafeteria, your kids may have access to a microwave at lunchtime. If that’s the case, there are all kinds of items you can stock up on at the store and send to school. You can try Hot Pockets, burritos, soups, PB&J Uncrustables, and even macaroni and cheese. Balance those out with some fruit, snacks, and a drink and your little one is all set.

Not a fan of pre-packaged foods? You can always make your own versions. There are copycat versions of just about any meal out there. Whether it’s from the freezer section or your favorite restaurant, you can probably find a recipe on the Internet if you look hard enough.

What’s the best thing about freezer recipes? You can make big batches in advance. There are tons of recipes on Pinterest. There are some websites that claim you can make 50 freezer meals in one day. These require lots of up-front prep, but imagine spending one day getting all of your shopping, chopping, and cooking done. You’d have over a month’s worth of meals ready to go!

4 Have the Kids Help

Older kids might be able to (should be able to) make their own lunches, so assign it to them as one of their responsibilities. If possible, make them pack their lunch the night before (and stash it in the fridge, if necessary) so all they have to do in the morning is grab it and go.

As mentioned above, if you have space somewhere in your kitchen, kids can grab their own lunch stuff and snacks. You can use a small plastic chest or metal craft cart, some baskets or tubs, and labels. Pre-portion your foods, snacks, and utensils, and the kids should be good to go. Check out this mom’s ideas for a DIY lunch stations in both the fridge and pantry.

Make sure the kids get something from all of the food groups. Here are some ideas for go-to foods that are easy to prep, pack, and enjoy.

Proteins: lean meats, cheese, yogurt, hardboiled eggs

Fruits: apple slices, oranges or clementines, grapes, berries

Vegetables: baby carrots, celery, pepper strips

Drink: bottled water or juice box

Add a treat or dessert. Don’t forget utensils, napkins, and wipes.

3 Picky Eaters? Let Them Choose

Lunchables were the go-to snack for kids in the 80s and 90s but nowadays, parents question their health. There’s a new spin on snack-sized lunches: the bento box. Bento boxes are a fun way to pack lunch, and they’re easy to prep in advance.

You can buy both metal and plastic varieties, some of which may be microwave and dishwasher-safe. Some bento boxes come with separate individual containers with lids; others are just open compartments. (The open-compartment variety might be a smart choice for smaller kiddos as they won’t have to struggle to open multiple containers.) They usually have a large compartment for the main dish, smaller spaces for sides and accompaniments, and sometimes sections for utensils or drinks.

A benefit of using the bento box is that you’re not constantly using plastic baggies to pack up your snacks. And, you’re not using a brown paper bag to carry everything. Since many bento boxes are leak-proof and can be tossed in the dishwasher, you don’t have to worry about anything leaking and ruining a vinyl, canvas, or plastic lunch bag, or a backpack.

2 Leftovers

When planning your dinners for the week, make an extra serving or two so that you have some leftovers for the kids to take to school. There are some great recipes out there for making multiple large meals for the week with a few key ingredients. Here are some links to browse for ideas:

If the kids are going to reheat foods for lunch, make sure that you’re using a recipe you know will taste just as good the next day. It also helps to make sure you’re packing something that’s easy to reheat and clean up. 

To ensure the kids don’t get bored with the same meal two days in a row, try switching it up a little bit. Use leftover chicken to make chicken salad wraps or to top leafy green salads. There are many simple ways to transform your leftovers.

1 What About Weekends?

When the weekend rolls around, you may still be on lunch duty. Instead of diving into bowls of cereal, make weekend brunch an event. This is the time to serve up and savor dishes you don’t normally make for breakfast. Brunch is the best of both worlds, so there should be a little something to satisfy everybody. You can have your eggs and bacon, but have salads and sandwiches, too.

Food and Wine Magazine has a great spread online for kid-friendly brunch ideas. Check out this recipe for Food and Wine’s ham and potato chip tortilla (Spanish omelet.) The kids will not resist eating potato chips for breakfast!

Ingredients:

A dozen eggs

¼ cup virgin olive oil

½ pound ham steak, cut into small cubes

3 large scallions, diced

one 5-ounce bag of jalapeno potato chips, lightly crushed

Directions:

1. Preheat the broiler and position a rack 8 inches from the heat. In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add the potato chips and mash to break them up.

2. In a large ovenproof nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the diced ham and sliced scallions. Cook over high heat for 1 minute. Add the eggs and cook until set on the bottom and side, about 3 minutes. Broil the tortilla for about 2 minutes until the top is lightly browned and the eggs are set. Slide the tortilla onto a plate, cut into wedges, and serve.

You can also let the kids return the favor and make lunch for you. Whether you make lunch together, simply supervise, or give the kids full permission to create their own lunch menu, it’s nice to get in the kitchen together. 

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