Whatever you call the way your kids are learning this year, if they are home all day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you might be running into a problem, like many moms in our community.
What do we feed our kids for lunches at home?
When the whole family is trying to get some work done, finish virtual school, or, as my recent interview guest, Marcy Pusey said, “trying to learn online,” taking a break and preparing food is sometimes the last thing on our minds.
We have a pretty standard lunch routine at the Kimball house, which I’ll explain below. But the beauty of everyone being home all day is that you can switch things up and do something special.
Recently, I took John, my fourth-grader, to the farmer’s market with me one morning before lunch. He ran all the transactions, figured out our totals and change each farmer might owe us, and even was given extra problems by our cheese man, Mr. Jeremiah.
I told each farmer with a grin, “This is what virtual school looks like, I guess.” John loved it. Everything from the alone time with mom to challenging his brain just a little bit. I could see that it was so good for him to have these social interactions as well.
And as we always say about kids being involved with cooking, when you are making some decisions, you get to eat what you like. John requested that we buy some kale for kale chips, but I told him I wasn’t sure if they fit into my dinner meal plan for the next few days. He said, “I can make them for lunch!”
I thought this was a fabulous idea and was not about to stand in the way of his motivation. He also bargained for us to buy extra corn on the cob saying that we could have it at lunch, too.
An hour later, I was doing an interview online in my office and could smell crispy kale filling the house. He had made the kale chips completely on his own, without a lick of help. And my kids were having green leafy vegetables at lunch without me having to force anything.
Now don’t get me wrong. We also have lunches where everyone is late, and everyone is grumpy, and no one puts the food away. But we keep trying.
In my opinion, figuring out what’s for lunch on homeschool or virtual school days is all about what routine you really want to have. Let’s dig into four different families and three unique routines for you to choose from. We have a bit of a Goldilocks story for you here: a mama bear sized lunch routine, baby bear routine, and the most time-consuming papa bear routine.
The Leftovers-for-Lunch Plan
At the Kimball house my kids learned this summer that every time they asked me for lunch, I would say, “Consult the refrigerator. What are the oldest leftovers?” After a while, they stopped asking me, which is always the goal.
RELATED: You can see more about our summertime household manager routines and chore charts in this Healthy Parenting Connector episode.
So for us having a solid lunch plan means just a couple points of preparation:
- Make large portions of dinner so that we always have leftovers.
- Keep homemade yogurt and frozen fruit on hand for easy side dishes.
- Try to always have some cut vegetables and dip around.
- Have a few picnic-style lunch food options on hand for low leftover days.
- Empower the kids to be able to prepare their own lunches.
Those five steps are pretty simple and none of them take much time except for the whole training kids in the kitchen thing. That’s a little time investment, but our Kids Cook Real Food eCourse makes it a lot easier on you. And once it’s done, you get the time back in spades.
Since my three older kids and my husband all know how to heat leftovers on the stove, it’s easy for one of them to be in charge and make sure everyone has something to eat.
My middle three strategies really parallel what we do for packed lunches as well. You can see more about how we pack lunches here. But my kids pretty much have homemade yogurt every day, and raw veggies or frozen peas are the easiest way to make sure they have a vegetable at lunch. Of course, we also put leftovers in the lunchboxes as well.
Being at home all day actually makes eating leftovers a lot easier, because you don’t have to be as intentional with what you have around. For those days when we were a bit low on leftovers, or kids just wanted to be creative and have fun, they would put together a picnic-style lunch.
This might be cheese and crackers, meat sticks or bars, fresh fruit, trail mix, snack mix, frozen peas, and, every so often, egg salad. My kids think this is a real treat because it just makes lunch feel fun. And sometimes they would actually take it outside and eat in the grass. My daughter would often grab a melon to cut up at lunchtime, which is definitely a perk of homeschooling or virtual schooling life.
But not everyone can take even a half-hour for lunch, particularly if your school is doing synchronous learning. Your kids might be on the screen all day with a normal school-sized break for lunch, i.e., not long enough. By the way, my heart goes out to those of you stuck with synchronous learning. Because I can’t imagine it’s the best way for kids.
Paleovalley Meat Sticks
It can be hard to find healthy snacks that you can take with you on the go. When I want the convenience of a jerky stick, but want a healthy, protein packed snack option, I grab Paleovalley meat sticks. Paleovalley ingredients have these high standards that you can feel good about:
- 100% Grass Fed Beef & 100% Pasture Raised Turkey
- Never given antibiotics or hormones
- Gluten free, soy free, dairy free
- 0 grams of sugar*
- Contains no artificial nitrates or nitrites
- Naturally fermented and contain gut-friendly probiotics!
*With the exception of Teriyaki, which contains 2 grams of sugar from Organic Honey.
These beef sticks and turkey sticks taste delicious! My favorite is the Jalapeño but my kids love Summer Sausage.
Pack Home Day Lunches Just Like School Lunches
I’ve heard from a few colleagues and members that they are choosing to prepare and pack lunches more or less like a school day. They’ve found that their kids (or the parents) really don’t want to pull their brains out of work to think about what’s for lunch or to prepare anything.
It’s actually easier to prep the night before and just pack a lunch that can be grabbed in five seconds. Becca talked a little bit about how her family does this and why back in this post about reducing waste while packing lunches during a pandemic.
What I loved most about her system is that it really allowed her first grader to take a real break and sit outside in the sunshine while she was eating. This isn’t always practical if you’re heating up soup or a casserole for a leftovers lunch.
Julie is a member of our Kids Cook Real Food community and she sent a pretty awesome detailed explanation of a new homeschool routine they’re trying this year. She’s always homeschooled, but streamlining lunch was a big goal for her.
She runs the system a little like Becca, with planning ahead and some prep, but she has some additional charts and organization. I’ll let Julie explain it:
I made charts with different food groups and options for each group. The kids fill in their charts/choose their lunches for the week, then with my approval of their chart, they will put them together ahead of time as much as possible so we can grab as needed during the week. I love this because we’re already working hard enough at school, I don’t like unnecessary lunch-time decisions.
I have 2 kids, 8 & 10, and I am having each take one day a week to plan and help make both breakfast and dinner. I am working with them ahead to make sure we have the necessary ingredients and prepare some breakfast items the night before, and/or pre-measure/mix/chop/etc. any dinner items ahead as needed. I like to try to have us make enough for left-overs so that more than one breakfast/dinner is taken care of for the week with one set of plans/work. This is helping with buy-in on eating when they both have a choice, get involved in cooking, and cuts down on my own decision making and frustration when kids don’t prefer what is made.
Now you’ve heard the medium-sized, mama bear leftovers strategy. The tiny amount of time, baby bear, pack-it-like-a-school-lunch strategy.
And now, how about the king-sized, papa bear routine? One of our Kids Cook Real Food eCourse members described their king, prince, pauper homeschool day routine. Let’s dig in.
Take the Time to Make a Hot Lunch at Home
I’ve been saying since March that it’s really important to look for the silver linings in all the changes that have happened because of this global pandemic. Being at home with our kids can be stressful, but it can also offer immense opportunity.
We had some chats in our eCourse VIP Facebook group about this very topic. And I was fascinated by the king, prince, pauper idea. It’s quite European, and goes like this:
- Breakfast is huge, hearty, and home-cooked. Feast like a king.
- Lunch is slightly lighter, but still where the family cooks meals with actual recipes. Eat like a prince.
- Dinner is more snacky cold food, a bit like our picnic lunches above. You guessed it, this is the smallest meal, that of a pauper.
This means that the family is incorporating lunch prep as part of their school day.
The children are learning executive-function skills, like planning ahead, working together, and making decisions. The kids ages 6 to 11 take turns making lunch on homeschool days, which really spreads the responsibility throughout the family and allows kids to feel a leadership role as well.
In order to relieve decision fatigue on busy homeschooling days, the family does much of the planning and prepping on Sunday afternoon or evening. I love how this family really takes advantage of the flexibility of a homeschool day. And you better believe those kids are learning math, reading, culture, and more while they are cooking.
Here’s a quick list of some of their favorite kid-friendly meal rotations that their kids can mostly handle on their own because they’ve gone through our course.
- Bean burritos and Mexican rice
- Pasta and salad
- Toast Party and smoothie
- Sandwiches and raw veggies
- Pancakes/Waffles, eggs, and fruit
- Quesadillas, beans, and veggies
- Burgers or Hot Dogs on the grill
- Grilled veggie and tofu kabobs
- Roasted tofu and veggies
Best Foods to Have on Hand for Homeschool Lunch Days
Sometimes your chosen routine will be your best friend. Other times, stocking the fridge and pantry correctly and teaching kids to choose from a list each day might be all you need.
Here are our members’ best home-day lunch ideas:
Hot (but Fast!) Lunch Ideas
- Quesadillas or grilled cheese
- Jars or cans of soup
- Breakfast for lunch: french toast, pancakes, scrambled eggs
- Mexican Chicken Soup in the Instant Pot
- Reheated leftovers
Cold Picnic Style Lunch Ideas
- Sandwichs or wraps with fruit and veggies
- Crackers and veggies with hummus
- Canned fish with crackers and raw veggies
- Taco salad
- Smoothies: Pre-mix smoothie packs in bags and freeze so all you have to do is pull from the freezer, add to the blender, and add water or almond milk, then blend.
- Popcorn, apples, and cheese
- Charcuterie board
Foods to Grab for Quick Snacks or Sides
- Yogurt and fruit
- Cheese sticks
- Salsa and chips
- Bean dip (refried beans, salsa, and cheese warmed up and mixed together)
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Pre-cut veggies with dip
- Here are some more healthy snack ideas
Bottom line, we can do this lunch-at-home thing, busy families.
Whether you’ve been homeschooling for years, or you’re thrown into virtual school, against your wishes, I challenge you to see lunch at home with your kids as an opportunity to increase their nutrition, because, for the first time in history, we are pretty much 100% in charge of what they eat if we want to be.
I challenge you to see the silver lining of some extra moments with your kids because these childhoods really do go fast. And I challenge you to see this as an opportunity to create a routine that can really empower your kids to take some responsibility.
Whether you are packing ahead, having them grab from a list on the fly, working together to reheat leftovers, or assigning a child each day to make a hot lunch for the family, your routine has to work for you. For your personality, your family’s schedule, and what your kids can handle.
There’s no shame in trying one for a week or two and then switching to something else because it didn’t work. The most important thing is just to try.
With some intentional grocery shopping and just a little bit of planning, you really can make lunches at home not only work but be an opportunity for growth. No matter how much time you have to put into your system, your lunch can be “just right.”