Packing school lunches is really a microcosm of parenting - you could go straight down the path of least resistance, and fill the lunchbox up with pre-packaged foods that require no preparation whatsoever, yet also deliver an unhealthy dose of salt, sugar, and other gunk. Or, you could go straight into Mary Poppins/Martha Stewart mode and lovingly prepare mini-gourmet meals in a hand-sewn lunch bag adorned with embroidered flowers.
Just like with parenthood itself, what works best for you and your family probably lies somewhere in the middle of the possible extremes: healthy food that's not too expensive to buy or taxing to prepare. Sound too good to be true? It's not. Here are some guidelines to inspire you:
1. Pack Produce
The great thing about fruits and vegetables is that they deliver a ton of nutrients and they don't require cooking. They also boost hydration and typically taste great without any added ingredients. Stick with what's in season, and you won't have to pay extra for fruit that's been flown in from Chile.
"Keep raw vegetables washed and cut in the fridge so all you have to do is pack them in the morning," suggests Christina Le Beau, blogger at Spoonfed.
Cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, red peppers, cucumber slices, sugar snap peas, shelled edamame, berries, clementines, apples, pears, and grapes are all perfect on their own and travel well.
2. Keep it Cool, Skip the Sugar
Instead of juice boxes, include a small bottle of frozen water, suggests Kristy Bernardo of The Wicked Noodle. "The ice will keep the rest of the lunch cool, and will melt enough by lunchtime to be drinkable."
3. Think Muffins
Muffins taste great, can be eaten without utensils, and can be customized to fit in small hands (by varying the size of the muffin tin you use). "Best of all, muffins can be cooked in a big batch on Sunday afternoon, then cooled and frozen," says Charity Curley, blogger at Foodlets. When it's time to pack lunch, reach in, grab one, and put it in the lunchbox.
Here are a few easy and delicious recipes to try:
- Blueberry Oatmeal Muffins and Baked Oatmeal Cups
These mildly sweet muffins - one from Two Blue Lemons, the other from Wicked Noodle - offer lasting fullness thanks to the fiber-rich oatmeal
- Italian-Style Pasta and Cheese Cups and Broccoli and Cheese Pasta Cups
Two variations on a savory theme from Foodlets, and what a great theme it is: mac-n-cheese made healthy (using whole wheat pasta, eggs, and pureed beans for more protein and fiber) and they're portable.
4. Plan for Leftovers
Any dinner that doesn't require reheating or cooling can do double-duty as lunch via the miracle of leftovers. "Pack some extra dinner into lunch containers while you're doing the dishes," suggests Sarah Waldman, an integrative nutritionist and blogger at TwoBlueLemons. Cook once, feed twice - what's not to love?
Here are some lunchbox-ready dinners:
- Whole Wheat Penne Pasta with Pesto & Beans
- Roasted Butternut Squash Quesadillas
- Chickpea Salad (sub whatever veggies your kids will eat if peppers don't fly)
5. Try a Waffle-wich.
Another lunch staple you can cook in bulk, freeze, then use on an as-needed basis are waffles. "Every time I make waffles, I do a double batch, then lay the extras on a cookie sheet, slide it in to the freezer, then transfer them to a Ziploc bag once frozen. Then, when I'm packing lunch for my 8-year-old, I toast a waffle or two and spread with almond butter and banana slices," Le Beau says. When the waffles are whole-grain, it's a great way to get some fiber in to your kid's diet, and beat sandwich boredom.
6. Embrace Snacks
This is for all the mothers of grazers out there - it's OK if your kid will only eat snacks, Waldman says. Just follow the USDA guidelines and include tennis-ball sized portions of vegetables and whole grains, golf-ball sized portions of fruit and lean protein, and a ping pong ball of low-fat dairy. Choose from an assortment of their favorite snacks: a few cubes of cheese, dried mango, whole-grain crackers, cut up veggies with humus, and homemade popcorn or granola bar would fit the bill. "It feels better to pack a lunch that I know my son will actually eat, even if it looks more like a combination of snacks than a full meal."
7. Go Reusable While you could load your child's lunchbox up with pre-wrapped individual servings or lots of plastic baggies, there's a greener way. Use reusable containers, flatware, and even napkins, says Alexandra Zissu, author of The Conscious Kitchen and blogger at AlexandraZissu.com. We try for zero waste lunches whenever we can and it's actually pretty easy to succeed." Zissu's favorite lunch container is a tiffin, a stainless steel, stackable container that allows you to store a few different foods separately, while Le Beau likes bento-style lunchboxes, particularly LunchBots and PlanetBox. "My daughter typically goes to school with a cream cheese and jelly sandwich in one tiffin and cut up seasonal produce in another. If she's in a yogurt or applesauce phase, I pour it into a baby food jar with a lid," Zissu says.
Other vessels worth investing in, Zissu notes, is a Thermos and a stainless steel water bottle. "The Thermos keeps pasta or soup warm, and a water bottle helps you avoid spending money on buying juice boxes and your children avoid consuming too much sugar." Yes, you'll have to invest a little money up front in the supplies, but think of all the baggies, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil you'll never have to buy again, and all the packaged foods you won't have to pay a premium for.
As an added bonus, when you pack in reusable containers, you get to see what actually got eaten when you empty them out at the end of the day.
Author Kate Hanley is the owner of MsMindbody.com, focusing on providing wisdom to know what body, mind and soul need to be healthy, and the dedication and the generosity to do those things.