Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The No-Stress Way to Pack School Lunches (That Your Kids Will Actually Eat)

I used to get up on weekday mornings, stumble into the kitchen, and try to slap together a few semi-nutritional lunches while barking orders at the kids to get ready for school.

They were rushed, I was stressed, and if we were lucky I'd barely manage to throw their packed lunchboxes after them out the door as they ran to the bus stop. And then when they came home in the afternoons, I'd find half the food untouched and uneaten, and into the garbage it would go.

This easy method for packing school lunches will transform your weekday mornings. With a little make-ahead prep, your kids (including your picky eaters) will fill up on a healthy lunch made at home. These school lunch ideas for kids work with any age, from preschool to elementary to teen. #lunchideas #easy #healthy #pickyeaters #backtoschool #parentinghacks

I didn't think too much about this system. I hated packing school lunches, but it was what it was, and this was how everyone did it, right?

One day I was talking to a friend about a completely unrelated topic, and she mentioned "Oh, my sister and I used to do that when we were packing our school lunches in the '80s..."

I was practically blinded by the lightbulb that went off over my head.

What if my kids packed their own lunches? Not only would it be less stress for me, but it would mean that they would choose things they actually felt like eating that day! I was so excited to start right away.

Developing a School Lunch Packing System That Didn't Suck

If this was going to be a truly stress-free endeavor, though, we needed an organized system. Luckily for me, organized systems is what I do. I love creating systems.

The first order of business was to make lunch-packing a thing to do the night before, not the morning of. Then there would be no last-minute "I don't have time to make a lunch!" or "There's nothing in the fridge!" or "I can't find my lunchbox!"

The second thing was to lay ground rules on what the kids were allowed to pack in their lunches. If they packed whatever they wanted it could be a disaster, so we designated bins in the fridge and filled them with approved foods. If it was in the bin, they were welcome to take it to school.

How It Works In Our House

The details are different for everyone, but I think in general a system like this one could make most people's weekday mornings run about a bazillion times smoother.

When they come home from school, my kids have a list of things they have to do before they're allowed to play on the computer: things like homework, chores, practicing their instruments, and packing their lunches.

It's just part of their after-school routine. Usually their lunches are packed and in the fridge by dinnertime. Because screen time.

What to Pack: Stocking Up for the Week

On Saturdays or Sundays, the kids and I prep all their lunch foods for the entire coming week, except sandwiches, because those get soggy. Of course I make them help.

Other than the hour or so I spend chopping, cooking, and portioning into bags, I'm not involved with school lunches for the rest of the week. (And I could spend even less time if I sent less homemade stuff and more prepackaged convenience food.)

To make sure the kids' lunches are fairly balanced, I designated three bins in the pantry or refrigerator. The rule is that the kids have to take one thing from each of these bins:

  • Dry snacks. We like muffins (my favorite sneaky healthy recipes are these and these,) tortilla chips, crackers, pretzels, veggie sticks, granola bars (again, sneaky healthy one here,) popcorn, or banana bread.
  • Fruits and vegetables. My kids' favorites are apples, grapes, grape tomatoes, berries, cucumbers and dip, carrots and dip, or bell peppers and hummus.
  • Dairy. Sometimes we might have string cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, or pudding. If we have ham in the fridge they like to have ham and cheese cubes skewered on toothpicks. (We also stick hard-boiled eggs in there on occasion so now they think eggs are a dairy food. Oops.)
Each lunch needs to have a snack from each bin, a drink, and a sandwich. Making the sandwich is the most time-consuming part, but it still only takes a few minutes. 

Hate packing school lunches? There's a better way.  {posted @ Unremarkable Files}
The fruit and dairy bins in the fridge. This doesn't have to be fancy to work, folks.

What Age Can You Start This?

I started this system when my oldest was in elementary school. Her younger siblings have always packed their lunches from their first day of kindergarten.

If you're not sure your kid can do it, try making a picture checklist of everything that needs to be included in lunch, put it in a plastic page protector, and hang it on the wall. Ask them to go down the list, checking off each item with a dry erase marker. They might surprise you.

Do Your Kids Complain About Making Their Own Lunches?

No! Actually, they seem to like it. They've all told me at least once how their friend's mom keeps sending them something they don't like, and they're glad that never happens to them. (And I feel for the friend's mom, who has to keep throwing that thing away every day after school!)

They like the independence and being able to invent creative new sandwiches or food combinations. And because of the system we have in place, it's not an arduous task, either. It literally takes 5 or 6 minutes a night.

Once we hit on this no-stress system of school lunch packing, our mornings changed instantly and I would never go back to the old way of doing it in a million years.

The kids like choosing their own lunches, it's less work for me, and school mornings involve at least a little less yelling. Now if only we could keep their shoes and jackets from going missing overnight, things would be just about perfect.

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Ann-Marie Ulczynski said...

Always, always the night before forever and always, amen.

Chaun said...

This is seriously amazing. I'm just going to use it for myself and my husband when we head off to school! (Packing a lunch in the morning is always last priority.)

Jenny Evans said...

Yes! It works for adults, too.

Karen Dennis said...

Great tips and advice here #haplynow@_karendennis

Marler said...

This is genius. My 4 year old gets himself and the 2 year old breakfast in the morning before my wife wakes up, and this could certainly prevent them from getting desperate and breaking into the freezer for the ice cream!