I love packing lunches for my kids. Really. It helps that I’m obsessed with food and our 9-year-old son, Jude, and 6-year-old daughter, Simone, have adventurous tastes. On many school days, I like to get up early and put together yummy morsels to stuff into their cool bento-style lunchboxes. Some homemade chicken fingers here, some fresh cukes there. Often, I’ll fry up a nice filet of fresh salmon or make a quick batch of soba noodles with a yummy peanut sauce. The last touch is an iPhone snap of the finished product. Yes, I’m that parent — the kind who Instagrams his kid’s lunches.
But let’s get real here. For most parents, packing lunch is about as fun doing your taxes — while you’re at the dentist. So I’ve rounded up a few experts to dish up their best tricks for making this morning ritual as painless as possible. These handy tips apply whether your kids are learning remotely and eating at home or taking lunches to school.
Think outside the (lunch) box: Who decided that a proper lunch needed to be a sandwich, a fruit, a veggie, and a cookie? Nobody, that’s who. Give yourself the freedom to toss out the traditional definition of a “meal,” says J.M. Hirsch, the editorial director at Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Kitchen and author of Beating the Lunchbox Blues, a cookbook about packing lunch for his young son, Parker, now a teenager.
“Children don’t have preconceived ideas of what constitutes a lunch,” Hirsch says. “Kids don’t care, not even a little bit. Think in terms of bits and pieces. Got two pieces of sushi and leftover garlic bread? Throw it in the bag. Even though it may be the wackiest assortment of things, kids just want food that they enjoy eating. They don’t need it assembled into a complete meal. We beat ourselves up about this and we really shouldn’t.”
Leverage your leftovers: The easiest thing to send (or make) for lunch is simply what your family had for dinner. It’s already made, and you get rid of food that might otherwise start collecting green fuzz in the back of the fridge. Hirsch says he intentionally makes “too much” for dinner so there are always extra portions for lunch.
“Having those leftovers is huge and it makes a big difference in the morning routine,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s lasagna, tacos, chili, steak, chicken, or peanut noodles. It does not matter. I will use those leftovers somehow in my son’s lunch.”
Sending kids to school this year? If so, Tracy Saunders, a mother of seven and a high school English teacher in Savannah, Georgia, suggests finding out if their school cafeteria has a microwave that students can use. It was a game changer for her kids when they discovered they could have hot leftovers for lunch. If not, try an insulated Thermos-style food container for soup, stews, and other warm comfort food.
Bring on the bento: The bento may be the best thing the Japanese have invented since sushi. Some Japanese parents get super elaborate with their bentos, styling them up to look like anime characters, animals, monuments, flowers, or plants. But you don’t have to do that. Keep it simple.
“The bento-style lunchbox frees you up to put whatever you want into those five or six compartments,” Hirsch says. “There’s a lot of freedom in not having a main course.”
There are many options for bento-style lunchboxes out there. Ours comes from Planet Box, which offers an eco-friendly, sturdy stainless steel tray with an attached lid for around $40 (when they’re on sale). Japanese dollar stores have loads of low-cost options. You could also look online for plastic bento boxes that are more affordable, or try an Indian-style steel tiffin box. You could even just throw several small plastic containers into a lunch pack and call it a DIY bento.
Don’t make too many rules: I try to pack at least one protein (usually hard-boiled eggs, a piece of fish, some leftover steak, or a chicken drumstick) in the kids’ lunches every day. But I’m here to tell you that the fewer rules you have for packing lunch, the better. You’re already crazed enough in the morning without having to make every single meal completely balanced. Consider whether you’re putting together a “balanced diet” over weeks and months, not every day.
If you’re sending kids to school with lunch, Hirsch has just two rules: As long as it doesn’t contain any choking hazards or anything that could provoke an allergic reaction, lunch should be good to go. Just make sure it doesn’t break any school or camp rules about nuts or candy or the like.
Focus on quality: Eliza Kingsford, a mother and licensed psychotherapist who is also a weight management coach and the author of Brain Powered Weight Loss, says it’s more important to make sure that the ingredients are healthy than to say no to any particular type of food. For example, if you pack a hot dog, use a nitrate-free dog with no-sugar-added ketchup. Think whole grain instead of white bread. Instead of store-bought ranch dressing, use Greek yogurt with added spices.
“Focus on nutrient-dense whole foods with minimal processing,” Kingsford says. “What’s more important than the components of the meal is to focus on providing healthy ingredients. I encourage parents to stay away from those 100-calorie convenience packages. What makes them convenient are a bunch of additives that make them last longer.”
Let them decide: For many older kids, bringing a Mom-packed lunch bag is so not-cool-for-school. The challenge is convincing them to not only bring their own lunch, but to actually eat what they brought. Saunders, the high school English teacher, says kids will almost certainly trade or give away anything they don’t like. She’s seen it happen in her classes.
She suggests getting them involved in making their own lunches as much as possible so they’re invested in the final product. This might mean asking them to make a list of the snacks and lunch foods they’d like you to purchase at the store, or have delivered. Or, if lunch is being served at their school, you could give them the option of buying — with their own money.
“When my older children were in high school, we gave them a large enough allowance that they could either buy school lunch, or pack a lunch from home,” Saunders said. Out of that allowance they had to pay for their own entertainment and any kind of snacks or meals that they ate out.
Middle and high school kids need a lot of fuel for their growing bodies. Crunchy veggies are good with a filling dip like hummus or peanut butter. Cheese and yogurt are portable and pack a lot of energy. A smoothie with banana and nut butters can be a delicious protein-filled treat. Grilled chicken with brown rice should sustain any teenager for a while.
Quick tips for lunch-packing parents:
- Your kids won’t eat veggies? Then double down on nutrient-rich fruits.
- Cutting up whole fruits and vegetables can make them less intimidating for kids to eat.
- Keep dried fruit on hand for snacks. They have a sweet, intense flavor and the fiber keeps kids feeling full.
- Nuts and seeds are little powerhouses. Kids can eat them straight up, or in nut butters, sauces, or salads.
- Pita bread is an easy blank slate. Try whole wheat pitas packed with chicken strips for good protein.
- Tortillas can be your best friend. Make easy-peasy wraps with leftover dinner meat, or quick quesadillas with any cheese on hand.
- Learn how to make cold soba noodles with a variety of interesting sauces. It’s fantastically easy and delicious.
- If your kid eats green salad, give kale salad a go. It’s filling and super nutritious. Hey, it’s worth trying!
- Avocado or tomato sandwiches drizzled with good olive oil and sea salt are amazing and easy.
- Two words: premade pesto. Spread it on sandwiches, mix with cold pasta, or use as a dip for vegetables.
- Also: Pair hummus with anything. Carrots, pita, crackers, you name it. It’s super nutritious, too.
- Think potluck picnic: pasta salads, cold casseroles, fried chicken, and fresh corn.
- A couple of hard-boiled eggs with salt and pepper will keep kids filled up nicely. You can also chop them up for a quick egg salad sandwich with pickles or capers.
- In a pinch, nothing will delight your kid more than a slice of cold pizza. Seriously.
Phat X. Chiem is a writer and the founder of StoryCraft, a brand storytelling agency based in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Phat X. Chiem.
Originally published September 2016. Updated September 2020.