It’s that time again. The daily push to assemble, send out, and then clean out your child’s lunchbox. If this feel like an onerous task, perhaps is one you are dreading, here are a few tips for simplifying school lunches.
Select A Carrying Container
Everybody has to carry their lunch along in some sort of container. Selecting one might be a fun process for children who have an affinity for a special character or design. Other children won’t care at all, so this is one of those “know what is important to your child” moments. Many bags today are insulated, which is very helpful if you are sending items that you would like to remain cold. They are also easy to clean.
When selecting a lunchbox, keep the big picture in mind. Does your child also carry a backpack? Would he/she like something that tucks inside the backpack, or would the child rather have it clip onto the outside? Some manufacturers offer backpacks with a built-in lunch box, like this one from Bentgo.
Older children may want something that looks more like a purse or tote than a lunchbox. They might also need one that is a bit bigger, especially if they are packing food for a longer day (e.g, breakfast, lunch, after school snacks, etc.). There are many options such as this one from YiQ RiC.
Of course, there are many children who prefer a simple brown bag that can be tossed into the recycle bin once they are finished.
One more note: it is always a good idea to make sure the lunch box/bag is labeled. This can be accomplished with something as simple a sharpie, or as fancy as custom label stickers. A great source for these is Mabel’s Labels.
Establish a “Home” For Lunchboxes
Whichever bags you choose, now is a good time to decide where they will live in your home. Because these objects get moved around, it is helpful to think through where they should be placed at each stage of the process.
- In the morning, once they are packed and ready to go, lunch bags should be placed in your child’s staging area.
- When children come home, lunchboxes should be “reset.” This includes throwing away trash, wiping out the bag (an anti-bacterial wipe works well), and placing dirty containers near the sink for cleaning. Getting the bags out and dealt with right away avoids rotting food and/or lunch remnants from attracting bugs. Cleaning out the lunchbox can be done by even young children, and it is a good habit for children to form. At the same time, if your child has a habit of not eating his/her lunch, you may want to supervise so that you can be aware of what has (or has not) been consumed.
- Once the bag has been wiped out, it will need a place to rest until it is packed for the next day. This can be a handy moment to put in a fresh napkin, as well as any non-perishable food items that will be wanted for the next day.
- Lastly, on weekends, emptied lunchboxes should be placed in a longer-term storage area. Since they are relatively large items for kitchen cabinets, you might need to get creative. They can be hung on hooks, tucked in closets, placed in cubbies, dropped into bins or baskets, or put just about anywhere that you can reliably find them when the next week rolls around.
Once you have selected lunch containers, and have decided where the containers will be stored, it is time to think about what to pack inside. I am keenly aware that children have very specific tastes, so the first thing I want to say is pack food that your children will eat. I remember that one of my daughters would only eat a peanut butter sandwich (which is no longer allowed in most schools), or a bagel with cream cheese. Of course, on any given day, food may or may not get eaten. The World Wildlife Fund estimates food waste alone in U.S. schools is nearing 530,000 tons annually, and food that isn’t eaten doesn’t help anybody.
Knowing what your child will actually eat may take a bit of trial and error. The internet is literally flooded with ideas for what to pack in school lunches. If you enjoy the process, and/or you have a picky eater, you might want to look for some inspiration. I suggest parents talk with children in a non-emotional moment about what they would like to have for lunch and come up with some ideas that are mutually acceptable. Revisit this conversation a couple of weeks into school in case they have seen some new ideas they would like to try.
If food continues to go uneaten, there may be other factors interfering with eating, such as a short lunch period or social pressure. Avoid nagging or criticizing as you work toward solutions. Additionally, don’t succumb to pressure to make lunches look a certain way; cutting sandwiches into the shape of animals may be a hobby for some, but it isn’t necessary to be a good parent. At the end of the day, the goal is to give your child fuel for the day, period.
Bear in mind that your child may also wish to buy lunch some days. Having a calendar with upcoming selections in an easy-to-see location is a good idea. Once a week, perhaps at the family meeting, ask your children to decide which days they will buy vs. bring a lunch. It is also a good idea to discuss in advance any family policy regarding the purchase of food items at school. Deciding in advance makes grocery shopping easier and helps minimize last minute scrambling and arguments.
Select Containers For Inside the Lunchbox
Once you have some ideas on what you will send, you can select containers to hold the various items.
Some foods come in single-use containers, such as fruit cups, yogurt pouches, and juice boxes. Others may be packed fresh each day. If you want to be environmentally friendly, there are many re-usable containers for lunch products on the market, such as these snack bags, these sandwich bags, and these bento boxes. Small plastic containers with lids also work well for sauces, condiments, hummus, etc.
Remember to include a drink, such as a juice box and/or a water bottle.
If you want to keep the contents of the lunchbox cool, there are a couple of choices:
- Include a frozen juice box or small bottle of frozen water
- Add in a small icepack. There are some cute, slim ones that fit nicely into a lunchbox.
If your child prefers a hot lunch, such as pasta or soup, consider a thermos. I often sent one of my daughters leftovers from the previous night’s dinner in one with a built-in folding spoon. I would fill it with boiling water, then simply heat the food and drop it in. This was honestly a quick and easy lunch option.
As with the lunchboxes themselves, remember to label all elements that you want to get back!
Simplify Meal Preparation
Preparing and packing lunches can take time. Unfortunately, on busy mornings, time is often in short supply. To ease this burden, do what you can to make the process as easy as possible:
- Put “grab and go” items into bins. (e.g., granola bars, squeeze applesauce, etc.)
- Pre-cut fruit and veggies, portion out snacks on the weekend, and put them in a designated “for lunch” location.
- Use fridge bins to hold like items such as yogurt and cheese sticks.
- Pack what you can the night before (e.g., insert a napkin, add shelf-stable items, fill the water bottle and put it in the fridge, write a note, etc.)
- Assign packing tasks to children who are old enough.
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As with most tasks, mindfully designing a system will make the whole year a bit easier. Tweak as you go along, with the goal of making both parent and child content.
Do you pack school lunches? Did you in the past? What worked well for you?