IT’S OFFICIAL. We have a kindergartener in our house now, and that long school day (seriously, 8am to 3:15?) means one big change around here: she now gets to bring a school lunch. I say “gets to” because you’ll never see someone so psyched about carrying a lunchbox as a brand new kindergartener. Of course that means another big change: I have to make school lunches ahead of time. Every day. Even though they haven’t been to-go, I’ve been making healthy, diverse and colorful lunches for these rascals for a while now and here are the techniques that make it all much easier.
Buy a bento Box. Whether it’s a fancy Planet Box, an EasyLunchbox or a regular little Ziplock four-compartment box (available at every grocery store), this sets you up for easy packing. Just put something in each compartment. The variety will give your child more chances to find something he or she likes, plus eating a diverse diet is the best you can do anyway.
Fill every section with something different. Try to vary the colors and textures if you can. Here’s what you want to include:
Protein: Don’t limit yourself to sandwiches. Think hardboiled eggs, cottage cheese, cheese & crackers, trail mix, edamame, hummus with pita bread, turkey and cheese roll-ups…
Veggies: Sliced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes (technically fruit but who’s counting), small bell peppers with seeds removed…
Fruit: Grapes, strawberries, blueberries, fresh pineapple wedges, melon, banana chips, prunes, dried apricots…
Grains: Mini pretzels, homemade muffins, whole-wheat crackers, mini bagels with jam..
Rotate each day. Use the same ingredients in different ways a couple times in the week. There’s less waste and more variety. For example: Use salami in a mini bagel sandwich on Monday, on a rollie-pollie Wednesday and in a sandwich on a stick for Friday. Do hardboiled eggs on Tuesday and egg salad on Thursday.
The secret to being able to do this is having a pretty easy game plan for shopping and baking ahead of time.
SHOPPING: There are a few things I always pick up to have on hand for lunches. If I don’t use them right away, I can always freeze to use later on.
- Whole-wheat rolls. These make perfect sandwiches for kids. They’re soft and just the right size. (You could make your own as well. This is our favorite recipe for homemade bread machine rolls.)
- Whole-wheat mini bagels. Ditto.
- Whole-wheat tortillas. Rolled up sandwiches, room temperature quesadillas and of course, burritos.
- Long toothpicks, regular toothpicks or wooden skewers. Any time you put fruit, veggies or even the makings of a sub sandwich on a stick it’s immediately more fun.
- Dried fruit. Raisins, low-sugar cranberries, prunes, apricots. I use these alone or as the makings for other stuff (see below).
- Turkey, salami and ham. I like nitrate-free but you could use any brand or variety your kids enjoy. I use these for regular sandwiches but also for rollie-pollies, sandwiches on a stick (cut up the rolls you bought earlier for these) and turkey and cheese roll-ups.
- Cheese. I buy a big block plus a few sliced varieties. The block works great for cutting into shapes or cubed and onto a skewer. The slices work for rollie-pollies, cheese and crackers and regular sandwiches.
- Nuts. Unsalted peanuts, almonds and trail mix are perfect ways to round out a meal if your school allows nuts.
- Baby dill pickles. Crunchy = yummy. (We even make our own occasionally but so far haven’t found a winning recipe. If you have one, please send it to me immediately!)
- Eggs. We do hard boiled eggs with little bunny faces and egg salad on whole wheat rolls.
- Mini veggies. Mini cucumbers, mini bell peppers and cherry tomatoes (red, yellow or orange) are all easy to serve alone, together, on a toothpick, along with cheese…
- Whole-grain crackers. When I’m really in a pinch I do cheese and crackers plus sliced salami. Even mini pretzels or those organic crackers would be great too.
- Granola bars. Another excellent filler or snack, just be sure it’s the kind without tons of sugar and ingredients you can actually read.
BAKING: I like to have a couple of easy homemade items each week that I can rotate through during the week. These might be a couple of the following:
- Muffins. You can’t go wrong with a fruit (or veggie) filled baked good from home, especially when it’s in miniature form because it’s less of a meal and more of a little treat but either size works and these muffins all freeze beautifully. Right now we’re loving pumpkin muffins, banana muffins (with coconut oil) and zucchini spice muffins.
- No-bake fruit & nut balls. Again, if your school allows nuts, you can make these kinds of balls in any variety you can think of. Our favorites are chocolate fruit & nuts, and oatmeal chocolate chip.
- Fruit leather. A project kids can help with during the weekend which means they’re sure to actually eat it at school.
- Quick breads. Similar to muffins but even easier to make–and just as full of good-for-you ingredients. Our favorite is apple spice quick bread.
- Oat and jam bars. I love making a batch of strawberry jam bars on the weekend to serve as breakfast or to round out lunch. Our whole-wheat jam tarts work beautifully too.
This is hardly the end of the list so I’d love to hear what works for you too. What are your go-to lunch ingredients, tips and tricks?