"What I don’t love so much about back to school is the return of one of my least favorite morning chores: packing lunches. To further my daily efforts to put together a great lunch that satisfies my requirements – healthy, not too expensive, easy to pack – and my kids’ requirements – delicious, familiar, but not boring – I’ve come up with some guidelines to make the morning scramble a little smoother."
Ah, the beginning of the school year: I love the sight of the kids in their shiny new shoes lining up for the bus, heading off for a new year with all its possibilities. What I don’t love so much is the return of one of my least favorite morning chores: packing lunches.
It’s hard enough to get myself and my sleepy kids out of bed, dressed in clean clothes and matching socks, fed a decent breakfast and sent off to school on time. I’ve got to pack lunch for them, too? I’ve got to have all the necessary ingredients on hand, every morning of the week? I’ve got to put together an assortment of foods that are both healthful and appealing? I’ve got to find the lids for all those containers?
It’s enough to send me back to bed. But the kids need fuel to get through the day, they barely ate breakfast, and they’re leaving for the bus in five minutes. I don’t have time to mess around.
Guidelines to make the morning scramble a little smoother
To further my daily efforts to put together a great lunch that satisfies my requirements – healthy, not too expensive, easy to pack – and my kids’ requirements – delicious, familiar, but not boring – I’ve come up with some guidelines to make the morning scramble a little smoother:
• Stock up on containers. You can’t pack a good lunch if you’re fuming from having to spend 15 minutes searching for plastic tops. And your kids are far less likely to eat a sandwich if it’s squished and oozing. So invest in a surplus of lunch containers so that you never have to do that frantic search, or, worse, the last-second, they-probably-already-missed-the-bus wash of yesterday’s lunch containers. (See “Goodies & Gadgets” for some “Lunch Containers to Love.”)
• Stuck in a sandwich slump? Consider the bento. Japanese parents pack real food – like rice, meat and veggies – in small lunch containers, known as bento boxes. Leftovers of any sort can be packed along with more traditional American lunch items. Kids can see the entire lunch when they first open the box, which may encourage more eating. It also leads to packing a wider variety of items and – at least in my family – less prepackaged junk. (Check out LunchinaBox.net for some great ideas.)
• Be efficient. Make a batch of pesto pasta or mac ’n’ cheese or mini-meatballs on Sunday and split the food into a few containers, to be taken out each morning and packed for lunch. Do the same with sandwiches; stack three together, uncut, and wrap them tightly in wax paper and a plastic bag, until the morning you need them. (More than three days in the fridge may produce stale sandwiches.)
• Use food to keep food cold. Try frozen juice boxes, frozen fruit or frozen PB&J sandwiches as a natural cold pack.
• Plan your week of lunches. If you only shop once a week, plan to use perishable fruit, like grapes and strawberries, in the first few days, followed by oranges and apples, or dried fruit, the last few days. Same with sandwiches: cold-cuts at the beginning of the week; PB&J toward the end.
• Organize your lunch stores. Keep lunch materials in their own basket (and off-limits for snacks) in the cupboard and the fridge. Then, when you’re packing lunch, just pull out the basket and take stock of the materials at hand.
• Consult with your kids. Ask them what they want in their lunch, and then negotiate to find a workable list of possibilities, and make it part of your weekly shopping list. And keep those items off-limits for snacks!
Above all, remember that there may come a day when your kids are too cool to bring a lunch that Mom or Dad packed. Until then, take a deep breath, and enjoy these few years of having a say in what goes on in that noisy cafeteria!
Larissa Phillips is a cooking instructor and food writer for Parenthood.com. Email her at FeedingYourFamily@Parenthood.com. Check out Larissa’s blog Mothership Meals & Satellite Saucers and discover how to get through dinner without having a breakdown!
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