Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

5 Easy Tips to Help you Pack Super Successful Real Food Lunches this School Year

August 14th, 2014 · 9 Comments · Kids in the Kitchen, Tips

5 Easy Lunch Packing Tips (1)

Even if you’re good at something, that doesn’t mean you like it.

I have a gazillion tips for packing a healthy school lunch, but I don’t always follow them all myself, and I’ve certainly enjoyed having the summer off from the constant routine.

As much as I don’t like to admit it, it’s definitely time to start gearing up, getting into the mindset and yes, maybe even getting a little excited for the new school year.

I’ve been thinking about some of my best strategies for making a real food, homemade, packed lunch every day for another 180 days x 2 children…and then I block it all out and go sit in the sun to watch my kids play in the sandbox.

That’s not very helpful to you, however, so I pulled myself together and forced ye olde brain to cough up the best, most helpful real-food-lunch-packing success tips for you, which are generously brought to you by Plan to Eat today.

Although part of my success is that I’m determined not to succumb to allowing my kids to purchase the "hot lunch" at school, I’ll admit that on some mornings, the only reason I don’t give in is that I haven’t figured out how the system works yet (on purpose). It would take as long to determine where to pay for their school lunch as it would to make my own, so I continue to handicap myself in that way.

That’s not really the first tip, folks – but if it applies to you, keep up the good work of keeping yourself in the dark! Winking smile 


Tip #1: Make Lists Now to Fill the Squares

Grain-free Real Food Lunchable

Before you’re rushing around in the morning, wondering what to pack for lunch, take 5-10 minutes and think ahead:

What are some healthy, whole foods that you can easily pack in a lunch? Even better yet if you always or often (or could regularly) have them on hand in the house…

Make a list now that might look something like this:

  • Fresh fruits: cut melon, grapes, apples, bananas, kiwi (cut in half or peeled and sliced), berries of all kinds, oranges in season (peeled, or your child will spend half their lunch trying to get into the orange, or just skip it), peaches or nectarines, sliced, whole plums, etc. – whatever you might occasionally have on  hand
    • OR just write "fresh fruit" and then make it a point to consider good lunchtime fruits when you’re grocery shopping.
  • Raw cut veggies with a great dip: cucumbers, carrots, cherry tomatoes, tomato wedges if in season, pea pods, cauliflower, broccoli if they’ll eat it, red peppers, kohlrabi, etc.

Healthy lunch - chicken peas mashed potatoes

If you keep this list on your fridge, you can save on brain power for lunch packing and also have some ideas of what you might want to keep on hand, either purchased or homemade.

You could also tag all your favorite lunchtime and packable recipes with "school lunch" or just "lunch" in your Plan to Eat dashboard to make them simple to sort when you’re thinking lunches. Grab a free 30-day trial and test it out for yourself…

Plenty more ideas and recipes in my eBook, on sale through September 7 (our first day of school) for 35% off. Use the code NOSTRESSLUNCH at checkout.

The Healthy Lunch Box: Sandwich-free Secrets to Packing a Real Food Lunch is loaded with strategies to streamline your packing process, stock your pantry with emergency backups for your backups, and send healthy, delicious food in the lunch box, no matter how old your eater is. Read more and start packing healthier, processed-free lunches today.

 

Tip #2: Plan Ahead by Stocking the Freezer

Easy Healthy Gluten-free Pumpkin Muffins (3) (475x317)

Whether you take half a Saturday every month or just make double batches whenever you can or whenever you run out of something, having certain lunch foods in the freezer will help your packing efforts immensely.

Here are a few key items I try to always keep stocked in the freezer throughout the school year:

  • Muffins: either the pumpkin muffins or these grain-free coconut muffins — both come out of the freezer super moist and will thaw in a few hours.
  • Soups: I make big batches of soup anyway, and I’ve learned that my kids don’t go through more than 1/2-1 cup in a lunch. There’s just too little time, too much to look at and talk about. In August and September, then, I’ll take out little portions of soup in small jars, one per serving. Then I can grab two the night before and thaw a bit on the counter and also in the fridge.
  • Homemade chicken nuggets: last September I made five pounds in one night, froze most of them, and would only tap into my "emergency stash" when I seriously had no food to send with my kids. Chicken nuggets days were their favorite, and my 5 pounds lasted almost exactly to the end of the school year. Smile 
  • Granola bars: just another easy, grabble snack or official lunch item.
  • Green smoothies: If there’s ever a bit of smoothie left, I freeze it in a plastic container, Squooshi, or silicone ice pop mold (found on Amazon). They are great "convenience foods" to grab quickly and thaw to "icy yummy" by lunchtime.
  • Frozen peas: Your kids eat these cold, right? My kids treat them like candy! One of my favorite simple, ready-to-eat real foods for lunch…

It doesn’t take dozens of items to be prepared for lunch, as long as you have some staples on hand. If you store your recipes in Plan to Eat, an online meal planning service that allows you to plan 100% of your own meals and even coordinates with your online calendars, you’ll always be able to find them quickly and add them to your to-do list for the week without any hassle.  (Have you seen the new "prep notes" feature? I’m loving it! Help me brainstorm how that one might apply to lunch packing in the comments…)

Tip #3: Choose Strategic Packing Times

Real Food Lunch!

Let’s just start by agreeing that in the morning during the breakfast rush is a bad time to pack lunches. Whenever I don’t follow my own advice and leave lunch packing until morning, I always regret it! That’s when I’m more likely to dip into my "Uh oh" stash of chicken nuggets in the freezer, but I can’t do that every day.

When I am wise and strategic, I pack lunches throughout the day before.

I might spread some peanut butter on leftover pancakes in the morning after the bus leaves and put them directly into lunchboxes for the next day’s lunch (check out my favorite lunch containers here).

When the  yogurt is out for my own lunch, if I’m smart, I’ll dole out a few more yogurts with frozen fruit for those school lunches.

And at dinner, when we’re cleaning up the table, I’ll grab some of the cut veggies we always offer and a dollop of ranch dressing while the spoon is already in the jar, add it to the pancake sandwiches, and voila! I only have to find one or two more items and the lunches are 100% packed, without my even having to get out anything that wasn’t already out.

Trust me, you’ll love yourself and real food lunches will feel so doable if you can get in some of these habits!

Tip #4: Involve the Kids

Kids in the kitchen

I’m a big believer in kids having responsibility and helping out around the house, both inside the kitchen and out.

With each year that passes, each child receives a bit more of his or her own "unpacking the lunch" responsibility, starting with just getting the lunchbox to the kitchen counter in kindergarten.

By second or third grade, they should be unpacking the lunch completely: ice pack in the freezer, dishes in the dishwasher or sink, leftover food checked with mom and pitched or refrigerated, and any trash (we usually don’t have any) in the garbage.

The lunchbox must be put away before they can play.

It’s my goal this year to get my kids more involved on the packing end of the process, but I’ll admit that with my scattered packing system, intermittent food availability and the fact that it seems the kids are hardly home after school as it is, I haven’t included them much as of yet. Still brainstorming on how to incorporate them a bit more…

Tip #5: Double Duty Prep

Homemade Meat and Cheese Lunchable

This is another easy "just have to think about it" tip like number three.

When you’re packing something, do it twice.

This means that if I’m going to portion out yogurts with frozen fruit for Monday, I might as well do four of them and have Monday and Tuesday knocked out.

It also means that I might pack a "double lunch" like this:

  1. Child comes home from school with empty lunchbox.
  2. Mom grabs box immediately. If it’s still a bit cold, Mom packs the exact same lunch, in the exact same squares (for the same kid) for the next day.
  3. Put it into the fridge and you’re done for the following day!

Food safety wise, you should only use this tip on two consecutive days, no more, but if you would allow your child (or yourself) to put an unfinished dinner plate or yogurt cup into the fridge and eat it the following day, how is this any different?

It cuts down on brain power needed because you don’t have to think about what you pack on day two, and, my favorite, cuts down on dishes because you use everything twice. You do need to use a few ice packs or a Pack-It lunchbox (part of our $100 lunch packing giveaway tomorrow!!) to keep things nice and cold.

 

When it comes to snacks, I’ll put a granola bar or muffin into a reusable bag 3-5 times in a row, depending on the item and condition of the bag when it comes home.

Come to think of it, this would be a great way to give the kids some more responsibility, since the choices are already made and they can just fill in the blanks. Thanks for helping me think that one through! Winking smile   

The secret to holding onto those reusable bags and boxes, by the way, is a policy I instituted when I was a third grade teacher and have trained my kids to do. I haven’t lost so much as a spoon to the garbage can in over 800 packed lunches! Check out that tip right HERE.

What’s the hardest part about school lunch (or lunch at home) for you right now?

Be sure to come back tomorrow morning for your chance to win $100 of my very favorite lunch packing supplies!

More Lunch Packing Thoughts from KS:

Other posts that may interest you as you head Back to School:

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Kitchen Stewardship is dedicated to balancing God’s gifts of time, health, earth and money.  If you feel called to such a mission, read more at Mission, Method, and Mary and Martha Moments.

Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon, Mabel’s Labels and Lunchbots from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. The post is sponsored by Plan to Eat. See my full disclosure statement here.


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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Alexis

    Thanks for the tips. I’m new to packing school lunch as my little just started all day kindergarten — at a school with no lunch room. I have no hot lunch back up plan so I have to pack a lunch everyday…

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Serene in Singapore

    I love this post! I am so going to slowly pore over the links you provided on past posts on the topic.

    We homeschool but these are great ideas for when I have to pack lunches when we go out. We are currently battling allergies and we try to avoid eating outside food. And I also need more lunch ideas for after church fellowship.

    Will look into your lunchbox special. Thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Deniseinbeijing

    I have been a homeschooler FOREVER, and my son will be a senior in high school this year and will be at a formal school. So many lunch ideas are geared for elementary school kids. My son has a big appetite. Any suggestions

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Denise,
    You are not alone in this question! In fact, I just discussed it on Facebook today, starting with the fact that I’m slightly terrified of how much my 3 boys are going to eat when they’re teenagers (thankfully it won’t be all at once)!

    Here’s my best guess:
    My husband packs a lunch and usually takes a 2-cup thermos with dinner leftovers, a 1-cup yogurt and then an extra piece of fruit, salad, etc. So for a very hungry teenager, I might not use the divided containers, OR do a ton of those chicken nuggets in the large section, veggies, yogurt in the 2 smaller ones and then a few additional items, like homemade granola bars in a separate bag and a piece of whole fruit.

    Does that sound like it would feed a teenage boy? :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

    Denise Reply:

    Thanks for your response. My son and I have been talking about his lunch and he suggested a toss salad everyday, then a protein and fruit. I think soup now and then or leftovers is a good idea.
    I will be sewing up a “larger” than normal lunch bag that is for sure.
    Thanks though for helping think outside the sandwich box.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Jen

    I love all of these tips! I do allow my daughter to buy hot lunch one day a week and the rest of the week we pack a healthy lunch. I am always looking for great ideas like these – thank you for sharing! Pinning to my “lunch box” board!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Pam

    The hardest part of making lunches for school is the cost!! I pay 40 cents (reduced price lunch program) for a school lunch that includes milk, a non starch veggie and fresh fruit. We actually SAVE over $100 a month in food costs by having the 3 kids eat school lunches instead of homemade packed lunches. If they don’t like the entrée then they can get yogurt, fruit and crackers as an alternate. I just can’t pack a lunch for less than 40 cents! A piece of fruit is about 30 to 75 cents, yogurt 50 cents… you get the idea.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Mandy

    Here are a few of my faves:
    1. Quinoa pizza bites with homemade or natural marinara
    http://missbefit.tv/quinoa-pizza-bites-recipe
    You can also change the recipe to make southwestern bites by substituting black beans and corn for the pepperoni, cilantro for the basil, and taco seasoning (sans MSG) for the italian spices. Serve with salsa and sour cream (strained yogurt).
    2. Leftover bean and cheese quesadillas made with corn tortillas.
    3. “Breakfast” for lunch with nitrate free bacon or sausage, hardboiled egg, g.f. pancake or muffin, and fruit. I send a tiny bit of maple syrup as well with pancakes.
    By the way, these are great g.f. muffins. They’re especially yummy with cream cheese or yogurt cheese.
    http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/gluten-free-pumpkin-muffins-recipe

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kelly

    Fabulous ideas! Thanks very much!

    [Reply to this comment]

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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