I love to cook, but I take my sweet time in the kitchen. I follow recipes assiduously and require at least an hour or two to churn out a meal. Eli also loves to cook, but he’s like an over-caffeinated Rachel Ray. He can make an entire dinner in 30 minutes – including the trip to the grocery store.
When it comes to packing school lunches, his speed trumps my attention to detail and so he wakes early every morning and makes lunch (and also breakfast). He does the lion’s share of the work, but we’ve both learned a lot in five years — and counting — of brown-bagging. Here are our combined best tips for parents about to embark on the journey.
1.The ultimate objective is to pack things your kids will eat. They really need those calories to get through the school day. Always keep that in mind.
2. A healthy lunch has lots of colors. Kids naturally gravitate towards white foods like bread, cheese, pasta, potatoes and rice but make it a goal to have some greens (edamame!), reds (strawberries!), and oranges (carrots!) in the lunchbox every day.
3. Plan in advance. Sit down over the weekend and plan out the next week’s lunches, do your shopping and maybe even start some cooking or baking for the week. That head start will make all the difference.
4. Watch what comes back uneaten. That’s a signal to try something different next time.
5. Go beyond sandwiches. Insulated food containers, like the Foogo Leakproof Food Jar, can open up a whole new world of hot soups, stews, pasta dishes and more.
6. Solicit feedback from your kids – what did they especially like or dislike? What are their friends bringing for lunch? Would they like to try anything new? Bring them shopping every now and then. A little investment on their part will go a long way.
7. Don’t try completely new foods in the lunchbox without sending some extra snacks, just in case.
8. Cutting sandwiches into fun shapes is an easy way to add some whimsy to a meal, but it won’t necessarily convince your kid to eat something he doesn’t like. See #7.
9. Some schools provide napkins and utensils and some don’t. Either way, a wet-wipe and some hand-sanitizer in the lunchbox is always a good idea.
10. Pre-portioning saves time, whether you do it yourself or you buy it that way. Invest in lots of small, reusable containers.
11. A lot of people will tell you to freeze juice boxes and use them as ice packs. This is a great idea, but I have found, in an insulated lunch box, they sometimes don’t defrost in time for lunch. Oops.
12. There are no prizes for the most beautiful school lunch. Don’t drive yourself nuts. If you have the time and the ambition to be really creative, I salute you. Just don’t look askance at my kid’s foil-wrapped grilled-cheese sandwich.