We are officially a couple of weeks into the new school season, and with that, all of us are re-finding our routines and putting a few systems into place that correlate with this busy season of life.
This year I have a senior in high school (!), a freshman, and a 6th grader. By now, we have done the back-to-school organizing and routine changes quite a few times, and most things continue to get easier and easier. LOVE that! And over the years, I have shared quite a few of the things we do to prep, but this year I realized I haven’t really posted about school lunches. So today is the day because they are a huge part of our daily life!
A few things I want to mention right off of the bat; lunch and food is a personal parenting decision that I never judge and hope that we can definitely keep this conversation helpful and encouraging. There have been times that I have felt bad that I wasn’t making bear shaped sandwiches for my boys, and I definitely have my kids eat school-prepared lunches as well. That shouldn’t make me feel bad and I know that now. We all do the best we can for our kids, period. I know that some people truly enjoy making art out of food, that some kids are vegetarian, have food allergies, only eat organic, or don’t do sugar. This post isn’t about that, it’s just a few really quick and simple tips for how I handle the lunch prep/making process around here. So let’s dive in.
The first thing I did this year is sit down with my boys and figure out what each of them enjoys most. My biggest problems leading into this year have been over-purchasing foods, trying to over-cater to their specific taste buds, then ending up in a hamster wheel of packing the same things on repeat with very little variety.
So, I sat with the boys and asked them what their favorite foods are, and wrote down all of the items that they could all agree on. We took some time to look for quick ideas online together to come up with 15-20 different lunch options as well as a variety of quick and tasty sides.
You know me, I couldn’t miss an opportunity to whip up a free printable for you all, and I am SO glad I did. I made it editable so that we could type in all of our lunch ideas (which are broken down into categories: main course, fruits/veggies, sides/desserts), and then print it off and keep it inside of our pantry with our shopping/meal planning items. You can also just save it filled in digitally and access it from your phone or computer.
|CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE FREE & FILLABLE SCHOOL LUNCH PLANNING PRINTABLE|
|CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE FREE & FILLABLE SCHOOL LUNCH PLANNING PRINTABLE|
Now when I am grocery shopping/meal planning for the week, I can glance at their list and be sure to stock up accordingly. This list has items they will all eat, so I can now quickly put together lunch ideas without over purchasing food while offering some variety from week to week.
Keep it simple! One of the primary goals is to be speedy about lunch making. Whether in the morning or the night before, I don’t want to have to invest much time in putting everything together. And really, the best case scenario is that I give the boys the tools they need to be able to do everything themselves.
So, that might mean giving into some pre-packaged items or creating my own quick snack packs that we can all just grab-n-go. Typically I portion off crackers, popcorn, fruits, veggies, protein bites, etc… Whenever I can, I select fruits and veggies that I know I will get the longest life from (I have found that grapes, carrots, celery, cucumbers, pea pods, oranges, peppers, melon, and apples will typically stay fresh throughout the course of the week without concern of spoiling, and are easy to portion out). This is HUGELY important and probably my biggest tip.
I will also purchase individual meat snacks, cheeses, nuts, yogurts, granola, etc… if the price is right for the time I am willing to invest. If I have more time on a given week, I might opt to purchase in bulk and create those portions myself.
OK, so basically the first step was to select the simple sides that can easily be tossed into a lunch, and next, I like to do a little prep. Again, I am putting groceries away anyway, why not just put them away in individual grab-n-go packages to make the entire week go smoother?
Aside from the fast fruits and veggies mentioned above, we all really love berries as well. So, while putting groceries away and doing my weekly meal prep I will soak/rinse them in a bowl of water and vinegar for a couple of minutes. They seem to last longest if I do a quick soak and then let them air dry before refrigerating. This is one more step, but if I multitask during other meal prep, then it isn’t too bad and I know I will prolong the freshness for a few extra days. I do this with all berries, not just strawberries.
Also fresh from the grocery store, I will cook up chicken to create grilled chicken strips that I will put in wraps, tacos, on salad, etc… And every couple of weeks I will freeze sandwiches in a few varieties in bulk.
I recently switched to these wax paper bags because they are compostable and keep the sandwiches fresh in the freezer. I will make a few loaves of bread worth of sandwiches at a time (I will also use rolls/croissants with meats/cheeses, etc…) and I find they work best if I don’t use spreads other than peanut butter and jelly directly on the bread. I will put together a few sandwich varieties to select from, and just label the sandwich type on the wax paper bag.
The bulk sandwiches go into freezer zipper bags (which I just keep reusing) and into the freezer until a school morning when they are transferred directly to the lunchbox and they are ready to eat by lunch.
All of the pre-prepped snacks and sides are put together in a section of the fridge that the boy’s love to grab from.
If you have the space for it, I recommend storing all lunch related containers together. That way everything is quick and easy to pick from during the lunch making sessions.
We have a nice deep drawer in our pantry and it holds all of the lunch boxes/bags, containers, water bottles, thermos, reusable bags, etc…. It has become a pretty popular drawer!
Tip five isn’t as much of a tip as it is just some of our favorite lunch products.
We have done bento-type containers and boxes in the past, but now that the boys are bigger, they have outgrown many of those. We prefer containers that will hold a full-size sandwich or wrap without having to turn it into bite-sized finger food.
These sandwich boxes are our new favorite and I appreciate that they are dishwasher safe! They can hold the main course as well as two adequately sized side items. They are also really handy for sending snacks to school to get the boys by between classes and their extracurricular activities.
With all of the fruits/veggies/sides, and my quest to eliminate our use of plastic sandwich bags, I invested in some reusable options and so far I have been really happy with them.
I went with both the snack and sandwich sizes and they are great for keeping a variety of snacks ready to go and fresh in the fridge, and the rest stay on hand for the dry goods. They can be washed in the dishwasher, but I usually just wash them out with this dish brush in an attempt to prolong their number of uses even more.
Above you can also see the containers I am smitten with for dressings and condiments. They are typically used for baby food storage, but they are completely leak proof and durable and reusable so we give them major thumbs up for lunch boxes.
An insulated food jar is also high on our list because it allows us to really expand on what we send to school. We can quickly heat up items in the morning, pop them in the insulated Thermos and everything stays nice and warm until lunchtime (think leftovers, rice, pasta, soup, etc…).
An insulated Thermos can also keep items cold, but we don’t find ourselves using it for that purpose as often (but love that we can if we would like to). We do have these ice packs on constant rotation to help with keeping items fresh and cool for the few hours they are packed up.
As you can see in the lunch drawer above, we also have a few airtight snap containers that work well for bulkier items and salads (similar). In general, I looked for containers and products that can be reused, are durable, and are dishwasher safe, all of which keep our day-to-day process running quickly and smoothly.
If you are looking for a couple of easy peasy ideas, here are the lunches we currently have on our list that all of our boys are willing to eat and are pretty simple to assemble or prep at the beginning of the week:
M A I N C O U R S E S
Grilled Chicken, Ham & Cheese Croissant, Hard Boiled Eggs, Turkey Apple Sausage, Pepperoni/Cheese/Tomatoes, Soup & Crackers, Lunch Meat Wrap, Pasta Salad, Quesadilla, Peanut Butter & Jelly, Chicken Taco, Spaghetti/Pasta, Sub Sandwich, Salad, BLT Pita Pocket, Bagel Sandwich, Rice Cake w/Peanut Butter
F R U I T S / V E G G I E S
Pickles, Clementines, Grapes, Peppers, Applesauce, Melon, Peaches, Pears, Apple Slices, Strawberries, Raspberries/Blackberries, Carrots, Pea Pods, Celery, Cucumbers, Bananas, Side Salad
S I D E S
Almonds/Nuts, Cheese Sticks, Pretzels, Peanut/Almond Butters, Crackers, Yogurt, Rice, Taco Chips w/Salsa or Guacamole, Pita Chips, Veggie Straws, Granola, Cottage Cheese, Fruit Strips/Snacks, Popcorn, Cookies, Trail Mix, Beef Sticks
And because you all educate me just as much as I try to share what is working for us, I would love to hear more lunch ideas that are a hit in your households. It could be a quick meal, a quick tip, a favorite product, a helpful website/app, anything! Please take a moment to chime in below!