The art of making the perfect school lunch is a difficult one, but with the right tips and tricks, you can make a great lunch that your kids will actually eat, and enjoy!
As my oldest starts kindergarten, I’m a little intimidated by the pressure to curate lunches that are appealing and good fuel for learning brains and bodies. A recent Food Network survey of nearly 1,700 parents found that more than half of them also struggle to figure out what to put in kids’ lunch boxes.
So I asked four kid/food experts for tips to answer the big lunch box questions: Who, what, when, where, why, and how?
Who should pack the lunch box?
Lunch box experts agree: Kids should pack their own lunches.
“Not only does this help make your prep easier, but it also ensures everything going into your children’s lunch box is something they’re interested in eating. Having them help in the process also sets the groundwork for getting them more frequently involved in the kitchen,” said Michelle Buffardi, vice-president of digital editorial at Food Network and Cooking Channel.
But don’t give kids carte blanche to raid the pantry. Start with limited options that include their favourites and items you want them to eat.
What goes in the lunch box?
Help your kids pack a good lunch by creating a menu of choices for each food category. Melanie Potock, speech language pathologist and author of Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 100 Easy Activities and Recipes, calls it a “packing map”: print a photo of your child’s lunch box or bento box and write in four options for each food group.
“For example, for protein parents might list cashews, turkey roll ups, hummus or protein bars. For grains parents can easily supply whole-grain crackers, tortilla, rolls or muffins, etc.,” Potock said.
Or try these Food Network recipes recommended by Buffardi:
When is the smartest time to prep lunches?
Not five minutes before you leave in the morning, I remind myself.
Brianne DeRosa, who blogs about family meal prep at Red, Round or Green and contributed to Cooking with Trader Joe’s: Easy Lunch Boxes, says to pack lunches the night before school, right after dinner.
“For one thing, dinner leftovers can make for great lunchbox additions,” she said. “Scoop soups, stews, pastas and casseroles into thermoses; just a quick heat-up in the morning and they’ll be good to go. Roasted vegetables, salads (without dressing to avoid the soggies), grains and sliced meats can go straight into lunch containers and get you well on the way to a balanced meal.”
Where do I organise all these lunch box fillers?
Both Potock and DeRosa advise keeping a designated stock of lunch items in the pantry, fridge, or freezer.
“The idea is just to always have a stash of stuff on hand that requires minimal preparation, and can either supplement a fresh lunch or become a perfectly great ‘emergency’ lunch option when you’re standing in front of the fridge and wondering what to pack,” DeRosa said. “I pick up a lot of my lunch pantry items online and get them delivered straight to my door: Applesauce cups, cans of tuna, nut butters, granola bars, mac and cheese, trail mixes, single-serve coconut milks.”
Why you shouldn’t stress about kids packing their lunches
Worried that kids will just pack the same four foods every day? Potock already thought of that, too.
“Cross off a food when it’s been packed two times that week. That ensures that kids don’t ‘food jag’ or always eat the same foods every day, and then, get tired of that food, refusing to eat it again. If the only option to pack is a new food, such as blueberries in the fruit section, that’s a win!” she said.
According to Molly Birnbaum, editor in chief of America’s Test Kitchen Kids, who recently published The Complete Baby and Toddler Cookbook, getting kids involved in food prep is good for everyone.
“For kids, being interested in food is a wonderful way to understand more about health and nutrition (we believe that cooking at home is the first step towards healthy eating),” Birnbaum said.
“It’s a great way to spend time together as a family, away from screens. Kids feel empowered when cooking, and immense pride in the finished dishes they create, either alone or with help. Plus, food is an excellent way of learning about the world around them — where ingredients come from, how different cultures eat, how to count and measure, how the senses work, and more.”
How to make it even easier and more fun
To increase the fun factor, Buffardi suggests making lunches interactive.
“Making lunch a little more interactive can go a long way, so keep that in mind as you’re prepping and packing,” she said.
Birnbaum agrees about encouraging kids to be creative with food.
“We’ve found at America’s Test Kitchen Kids that the more kids feel empowered in the kitchen, the more fun they have,” she said. “Let them take some creative licence with their sandwich making, experimenting with what they like best. Use a fun bento box or other type of lunchbox with lots of little compartments, so kids can give themselves a lot of lunch choices every day.”
It’s not too early to get the little kids cooking and meal planning, either.
“The key to cooking (or just prepping easy lunches) with toddlers is to have them do as much mixing, rolling, squishing, squeezing, or mashing as possible — the youngest kids really respond to the hands-on action of being in the kitchen,” Birnbaum said.