I love packing my kid’s lunch. Really. It helps that I’m obsessed with food and our 4-year-old son, Jude, has adventurous taste. Every school day, I’m up early, coming up with tasty morsels to put into his cool bento-style lunchbox. Some homemade chicken fingers here, some cut-up cukes there. Often I’ll cook up some salmon or soba noodles with a 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 lunch.
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 tips and techniques for making this morning ritual as painless as possible.
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, food editor for the Associated Press and author of Beating the Lunchbox Blues, a cookbook based on his blog about packing lunch for his son, Parker, now 10.
“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 for lunch is 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 to send off.
“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.”
On the day we spoke, Hirsch had packed Parker some food from a family dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant — straight from doggy bag to lunch bag.
Tracy Saunders, a mother of seven and a high school English teacher in Savannah, Georgia, suggests finding out if your 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. Don’t do that. Keep it simple.
“If you have the time to make your kid’s cheese into mouse shapes and your radishes into roses, then I wish you luck with your therapy bills,” Hirsch says. “That’s insanity. Life is too short to do that.”
But back to the bento. “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, stainless steel tray with an attached lid starting at $34.95. Japanese dollar stores have loads of low-cost options, or you can try an Indian-style steel tiffin box. You can also just throw a bunch of small plastic containers into a lunch pack and call it a DIY bento.
Don’t make too many rules: My wife is adamant that I pack at least one protein (usually hard-boiled eggs, fish, or meat) in Jude’s lunch 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 trying to get out the door without having to make every single meal completely balanced.
Hirsch has just two rules: As long as it’s not a choking hazard and it won’t provoke an allergic reaction, out the door with your lunch. 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 the executive director of Wellspring Camps, which runs health and wellness camps for children and teens nationwide, 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 wheat instead of white bread. Instead of store-bought ranch dressing, use Greek yogurt with 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 just 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 sees it happen every day 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 taking them to the grocery store to buy their own snacks and lunch foods. Or you could give them the option of buying lunch — 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 and long days, especially if they’re playing sports. Crunchy veggies are good with a filling dip like hummus or peanut sauce. 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 awhile.
Quick tips for lunch-packing parents:
- Your kids won’t eat veggies? Then double down on fruits, which are nutritionally equivalent.
- 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 the kids feeling full.
- Nuts and seeds are little powerhouses, straight up or in nut butters, sauces, or salads.
- Pita bread is an easy blank slate. Try whole wheat pitas and pack 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: hummus and anything. Carrots, pita, crackers, you name it. 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 them 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.