There are moms who pack works of art in their kids lunch boxes every day.
And then there’s me. The fanciest I get is scribbling an “I love you” or “I’m proud of you” note, in permanent marker, on my daughters’ paper napkins.
My girls actually like the lunches served in the school cafeteria, and they’re not terribly expensive. They’re not as nutritious as I’d like, though. While they do tend to feature whole grains, there’s a lot of processed meats and fruit. School also offers free breakfast to all children, which helps all the kids by keeping their classmates from being hungry and unfocused during the day. The breakfasts are terribly sugar-laden, so I prefer to balance them with a more nutritious meal from home.
I allow the girls to choose to eat school lunch once or twice a week. The rest of the time, I pack lunches for them. Every lunch consists of some basic components.
The whole grain in J and M’s lunch forms the basis of the calories to fuel them through the afternoon. They’re pretty easy to feed on this front, and I have a lot of options:
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole wheat bagel
- Brown rice
- Whole grain crackers (Goldfish, Triscuit, etc.)
It’s tempting to leave the protein out of a child’s meal, especially when it’s hot out, but kids need protein for growth and cell repair. Just make sure you keep it either hot or cold for food safety.
- Cheese (sticks, cubes, or in a sandwich)
- Hot dogs
Fruit or vegetable
We’re unusual, I know, but vegetables and fruits are the easiest things for me to find for the kids. J is partial to jarred mandarin oranges and M can’t stand them. M likes applesauce, and it makes J gag. The kids don’t have to have identical lunches. My girls are now old enough to appreciate my efforts to personalize their meals, so if I pack oranges or grapes for J, M gets apples or spinach. Apart from applesauce and corn, my kids refuse cooked vegetables, so I don’t try.
- Chopped cabbage
- Apple slices
Hot or cold solution
When school starts up in the summer, we’re still dealing with 100 degree temperatures here in Texas. Food safety is paramount. I generally stick with cold lunches and use ice packs or frozen juice boxes to keep food at a safe temperature until it’s ready to eat. It’s easier to keep food cold if it starts cold, so packing lunch the night before and storing it in the refrigerator overnight makes the morning that much easier. J has also recently developed a taste for ice cold water, so we put her water bottle in the freezer at night so she can sip it throughout the day. It melts fast.
The alternative is to pack hot foods, like soup or pasta. I like to keep the girls’ macaroni and cheese warm. We have some nice Thermos containers. I fill the containers with boiling water for a minute or so before tipping it out and refilling the container with warm lunch. My girls especially love tomato soup or spaghetti and meatballs. (Insulated containers work equally well to keep your kids’ food cold. Just store them in the refrigerator.)
Very rarely, I’ll include a sweet treat in my daughters’ lunch. My favourite Texas grocery chain, HEB, makes a delicious store brand digestive biscuit with 3g sugar per cookie. Target’s Archer Farms brand has fruit strips made of fruit, without any added sugar. Every so often, I’ll drop in a small piece of chocolate, but only when it’s cool outside.
There are a number of options for combining a whole grain, protein and fruit or veggie into a meal.
- Cook up some protein with vegetables and rice, pasta or barley in an unsalted broth for a hearty soup.
- Wrap refried beans and shredded cheese in a tortilla for a simple burrito.
- Mix up leftovers to make a fine fried rice.
- That old standard, the sandwich.
- My kids call them “homemade lunchables” when I pack up Ritz crackers with sliced meat and cheese for them to make their own minisandwiches.
I wish my kids liked more adventurous meals. Apart from the soups and burritos, I’m not a big fan of the meals I pack for my daughters to take to school. They like them, though. I admit that I’ve been looking forward to the day or two I’ll get off packing lunches after a full summer of packing their food for camp every day.
Do you pack your kids’ lunches? What do they like?