As if packing lunch for your kid wasn’t hard enough. Then life comes along to throw a monkey wrench into everything. Whether you’re crazy busy and exhausted and don’t have a spare minute to cook, or you’re losing it trying to negotiate with an extremely picky eater, it sometimes feels like you’ll never get a handle on making your kid’s lunch.
Here are a few of the most common issues that parents have when it comes to packing lunch and came up with a few strategies that can save you time (and your sanity). You’ll find plenty of tips and lunch ideas to keep you going strong until the end of the school year.
Excuse: “There’s no time to cook.”
Solution: The freezer is your friend.
We get it, the school week is insane. But if you put aside some time on the weekend to batch-prep a few meals and freeze them in individual portions, it will save you so much heartache. And you’d be surprised to hear what’s freezable.
To start: sandwiches! Yes, sandwiches! You can do ham and cheese on Hawaiian rolls or whatever deli meat or bread your kid likes. You may want to skip any vegetables like lettuce or tomato which will freeze funky, but condiments are totally cool to add. Just put them between the meat and cheese so as not to get the bread soggy. Same goes for PB&J. Spread nut or seed butter on both halves of the bread and layer the jelly in between the slices to avoid mushiness. Simply place each sandwich in its own baggy, and then stash several in a larger zippered freezer bag, making sure to squeeze out as much air as possible.
You’ll also want to bust out the muffin tin to make your freezer lunches. You can turn just about darn-near anything into an adorable, perfectly portioned, portable muffin. Think: mac and cheese, frittatas, baked oatmeal, mini meatloaves, or even tortilla cups stuffed with taco meat, salsa, and cheese. And if you’re really strategic about it, you can plan for extra lunches while you’re making dinner. For instance, if you’re cooking spaghetti and sauce for dinner, make some spaghetti nests (try these from Recipe Tin Eats) on the side for lunch too. Once cooked, let the muffins cool completely. Place servings in individual baggies, and place those within a larger freezer bag and freeze.
The key is making sure to remember to pull it out of the freezer the night before and moving it to the fridge so that it has time to defrost. It will be properly room temperature for eating at lunchtime the next day. One more thing: Don’t forget to label and date all those pre-made lunches so you can keep on top of your inventory. Your freezer meals will stay fresh for up to three months.
Excuse: “Oops, I forgot to pack lunch.”
Solution: Embrace the snack-y lunch.
Some people call it a charcuterie for kids, you know like a less fancy cheese board without any wine. But, honestly, this will revolutionize how you think about lunch, especially if you’re trying to whip up a last-minute one. If you’ve got a bento box with lots of compartments (or at least a few silicone cupcake cups to DIY your own dividers within a reusable container), it’ll be easy to fill them with bits and bobs from around the kitchen.
Heather Staller of Happy Kids Kitchen abides by what she refers to as a “fridge forage formula: protein + fruit + veggie + dip + crunchy food + something sweet,” which in her case added up to cheese + grapes and a peeled clementine + sugar snap peas and cucumber slices + hummus + crackers + a handful of mini marshmallows. Not only does this take the need out of having to plan what’s for lunch, but kids will actually dig the variety and surprise factor. So if you’ve got one random chicken nugget leftover from dinner and a couple of baby carrots left in the bag, go ahead and toss them in! No need to overthink it!
Excuse: “I need to make lunch for my kid and myself.”
Solution: Rely on crossover meals.
Pasta salads generally have universal appeal for adults and kids alike. Whether you start with penne, orzo, or tortellini, you can easily mix up the veggies, protein, and cheese for variety or preferences. If your kid’s not a fan of olives, for instance, you can just add them to your own and skip theirs. Another way to go is a chicken stir-fry with veggies and mandarin orange segments, which makes it an easier sell for kids, like with this recipe from Healthy Family Project.
Think of how you can make one main thing, but then easily customize it for a kid and an adult. Chicken salad is a great example. Add a scoop into a pita pocket for your kid, and then a scoop that goes on top of a bed of spinach for yourself. Or you can shred a bunch of rotisserie chicken. Mix it with barbecue sauce and put it in your kid’s thermos and pack with a bun for a pulled chicken sandwich that they put together at lunch. Meanwhile, your portion can top a grain bowl with roasted vegetables and balsamic vinaigrette.
Excuse: “A cold lunch is yucky.”
Solution: Bust out the thermos.
One we like for kids is the 10 oz. Stainless Steel Jar from Funtainer. It’s built to take all sorts of abuse from kids. To make sure the thermos stays warm until noon, pour hot water inside and let it sit for 10 minutes before draining and filling it with food. Cover the lid quickly; the heat from the water will help the thermos retain heat throughout the day.
Aside from your dinner leftovers and the plethora of soups, stews, and chili, consider packing dishes like ravioli with butter, mac and cheese, ramen noodles, oatmeal, or fried rice. One fun idea from Lunchbox Mafia: DIY nachos. Pack heated taco meat in a thermos along with all the fixings and tortilla chips in a regular container and they can build their own nachos.
For those hot foods you’d like to stay crispy, whether that’s chicken nuggets, fried dumplings, or grilled cheese sticks, it’s important to place a paper towel in the bottom of the thermos to absorb any condensation. So after you dump out the hot water, quickly wipe down the interior with a paper towel (careful: it will be hot), then add a new paper towel.
Excuse: “My kid’s lunch period is super early.”
Solution: Serve breakfast for lunch!
Bagels and cream cheese are a classic choice, as are frittatas, quiches, or any type of egg-based muffins. If your kid likes hard-boiled eggs, send two to school along with some flavorful crunchies to dip them into, like everything bagel seasoning or crushed chips.
Waffles, French toast, and pancakes are also good to go, so long as you cut them into strips and pack a little maple syrup (make sure it’s in a secure container with a tight-fitting lid) for dunking. You can freeze ones you made from scratch over the weekend to save time in the morning, or pick up pre-made ones in the freezer aisle.
You can really have fun with them too. Cut them up into cubes and put them on kebabs with fruit or serve your waffles with a side of chicken nuggets (chicken and waffles, anyone?). LaLaLunchbox packs up silver dollar-sized pancakes stuffed with fresh fruit—voila—pancake tacos! These mini taco holders will help hold them upright in the container.
Excuse: “The same sandwich. Every. Single. Day.”
Solution: It’s all about tiny tweaks.
If you’ve got a kid who is the opposite of adventurous and isn’t super-willing to try new things, it can make packing lunch frustrating. The first tactic to try: Switch up the bread, which is usually considered a safe food for kids. Swap same-old whole-wheat for potato bread, sourdough, ciabatta, or focaccia. There’s also rolls, pitas, bagels, English muffins, or croissants to play around with. Experiment with something sweet like waffles or cinnamon raisin bread (which works really well with a PB&J). Even toasting the bread can change up the texture (just make sure it’s completely cool before packing so it doesn’t steam up the container and get soggy).
You can also deconstruct the sandwich like Corey of Fresh Family Meals. She cuts the bread into squares and then slides all her BLT ingredients onto skewers. This kebob trick works well for all types of sandwiches, everything from turkey club to salami and cheese and even sliders.
If your kid is anti-any kind of vegetable, your best bet is putting a little bit of lettuce or one or two cucumbers on the side (not in the sandwich). Even if they don’t touch it, it will still count as exposure and may put them on the path to acceptance. Research shows that it often takes eight to 15 exposures to a new food before a kid even thinks about putting it in their mouth. Stay patient and persistent, but don’t pressure them too much either. After all, they can’t live on sandwiches alone forever.
Yolanda Wikiel is a writer and editor based in New Jersey, where she lives with her son, husband, and cat. She has covered everything from home, food, and life skills to fashion, travel, and consumer goods for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Parents, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Oprah, and Woman’s Day.