Thursday’s Dish: The Labor of Lunch

Those who know me well know that I am sort of obsessed with my kids’ lunches. I even have a Facebook photo album dedicated to photos of my son’s daily lunchbox, partly to document for myself what I have packed for him so that I don’t fall into a rut but also because I have gotten lots of feedback from other parents that they find those photos helpful and inspiring.

But even I am not immune to the rut. This summer, my son attended day camp for several weeks while I was working, and by the time the last week of camp rolled around at the end of July, I was out of lunch-packing steam. Every day it was a pb&j or a turkey sandwich, with chips (or cucumber slices, if I was feeling guilty), an applesauce pouch, some sort of crappy dessert, and a drink. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. (Not that my son complained; he is nothing if not a creature of habit.)

But, as a new school year approaches, I feel a renewed commitment to the work of packing healthful and varied lunches that will nourish my son without boring him to tears (which may sound like a first-world problem — Waaaah! I’m bored with my lunch! — but I am bound and determined to keep my son as far away as possible from the hot lunch line at school).

lunch plan

Having a plan in place helps prevent punting when it comes time to fill the lunchbox at 6am.

To that end, I’ve compiled a list of pointers both for my own benefit and the benefit of those who have also run out of lunchbox steam or are packing school lunches for the first time ever.

1. Think beyond the PB&J. My son attends school at a “nut aware” campus, which means that one or more children attending the school has a severe nut allergy. Nut products aren’t banned outright, but they are actively discouraged. Many other campuses are completely nut-free. And, while a PB&J is delicious, it can get a little dull after a while. Seek alternate proteins in the form of boiled eggs, beans, lean meats, tuna (be aggressive with your ice packs if you send fish products!), and so on. Send a deconstructed sandwich in the form of multigrain crackers along with slices of cheese and meat, or sunbutter and jelly.

2. Repurpose your leftovers. Last night’s chicken can be today’s chicken salad sandwich. Same goes for meatballs, noodles, pizza, etc.

3. Invest in a Thermos. This $10-$15 investment can help diversify lunch options immeasurably. With a thermos, you can send warm things like rice & beans, soup, chili, grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, mac & cheese, etc., without worrying about spillage.

4. Put it on a stick. If you trust your child not to make bad choices with potential mini-swords, incorporate wooden skewers or plastic food picks to make kabobs with fruit chunks or cheese cubes/rolled deli meats. If your child is an adventurous eater, try a caprese kabob, alternating small balls of mozzarella with cherry tomatoes and tiny basil leaves.

5. Use the buddy system. Think in terms of classic pairings: spaghetti & meatballs (use fun-shaped or tiny pastas), soup & salad, cheese & crackers, pancakes & bacon. You get the drift.

6. Use your muffin tins. They’re good for more than just cupcakes! I’ve made many portable meals with my muffin tins.

7. Plan ahead. Organization is the busy parent’s best friend when it comes to packing lunches. If you write a weekly meal plan for your family dinners, why not go ahead and plan out lunches, too?

8. Get your child involved. Talk to your kid about what she would like to see in her lunches. Choose a few things to make together, like granola or healthy cookies or even sushi. The greater your child’s investment in the process, the more enthusiastic her consumption of the product will be.

9. Aim for balance. Try to incorporate a protein, a grain, and a fruit or vegetable (or both! go crazy!) into each lunch. I also try to add a little something sweet in the form of a healthy cookie or a small treat, like a pudding cup (in moderation).

10. Consult the experts. There are a ton of books out there dedicated to helping parents pack nutritious lunches that kids will actually eat. A new one that’s generating lots of buzz is Best Lunch Box Ever, by Katie Sullivan Morford, a registered dietitian who blogs at Mom’s Kitchen Handbook. Weelicious fans might enjoy Weelicious Lunches, and there’s also J.M. Hirsch’s Beating the Lunch Box Blues.

11. A.B.P.: Always Be Pinning. There are approximately a squillion people on Pinterest sharing fantastic lunchbox ideas. Use them as a resource when you’re feeling bereft of ideas. Here are a few to start with:

Packing lunches for your kids doesn’t have to be drudgery. If you look at it as a super-fun project that will help you express your creativity while also making your hungry kid happy and full (but not too full!), you can find joy in it.