It’s been one full week since my kids started school and oh.my.goodness.
No amount of training or mental preparation could prepare me for the mother of all wrenches in your real food plans – a.k.a. packing school lunch.
I mean, I THOUGHT I was prepared. I knew it would take work, some planning and a few cursory talks with the kids to make sure we were all on the same page… but in all seriousness, reading copious amounts of blog posts could NEVER have prepared me for what this past week entailed.
I think this is the case for most parents though as they go through their freshman week of packing school lunch. I’ve heard the rumors and whispers about school lunch being evil, about it being so hard and the parents’ tried-and-true short cuts for making it easier.
But really, it’s a lot like having kids in the first place.
No amount of baby sitting for the neighbors or watching your cute nieces or nephews can really prepare you for having your own kids. You know how a mom says brushing her teeth before dinner is a luxury? Or that she’s pretty sure she’ll never go to the bathroom alone ever again?
She’s totally serious.
Packing school lunch or “lunches” are a lot like that. When a mom says she doesn’t know if her kids will actually eat what she packed, struggles to find time to pack lunches in the first place and is unsure if other kids will label her kids as “weird” because they’re eating raw vegetables…
Well, she’s totally serious.
So here’s my consolation to all you fellow parents who are deep in the trenches of packing school lunch: I’m right there with you.
I don’t know everything there is to know about packing a school lunch, but this past week has been a crash course for me that I would have never learned if I hadn’t experienced it first hand.
Despite this – and the fact that like having kids, you won’t fully understand the spectrum until you’ve done it yourself – I’ve compiled my lessons here for you so you can at least make a feeble attempt to bypass the unnecessary hardship that comes your way.
Because you gotta admit, you’re going to try to prepare yourself anyway. I don’t blame you – I know I would!
So then let’s do just that – let’s get you ready as you’ll ever be to pack school lunches with these 18 hacks that I’ve learned.
Oh yeah, buckle up and hold on tight, it’s a bumpy ride!
18 Fast Breakfast Ideas (hacks) for Packing School Lunch
(1) Pack school lunches as you clean up after dinner.
You’re packing up leftovers anyway, right? Right. No sense in doing it in the morning… while making breakfast AND brushing teeth AND getting them dressed AND finding shoes… catch my drift?
(2) Offer the kids a menu to choose from.
My kids are learning to pack their own school lunches this year, but having a menu limits the million “What about this?” questions they tend to ask. Write it out on Sunday and stick it on the fridge where they can see it.
(3) Make “homemade lunchables” an option on the menu.
Homemade lunchables is the fancy way to say “whatever we happen to have in the kitchen.” This post is a great tutorial plus has ideas for what to pack.
(4) Always have something in the freezer.
You know, just in case you suddenly have no leftovers, no bread and no creativity. (Speaking of, there’s Minestrone Soup and Spaghetti O’s in my freezer.)
(5) Pre-portion before freezing.
Freezing soup in a gallon bag does you no good for a school lunch. Use silicone muffin liners to freeze smaller portions and once the meal is frozen, remove them to a freezer-safe bag so it’s easy to pull out just what you need.
(6) Bake en masse.
Dedicate one hour each week to prepping school lunches if you can (this plan and guide is a great tool!), otherwise always make extras of whatever you’re cooking for lunches. This is the best way to have plenty of options for lunch and not be left empty-handed.
(7) Everything comes home.
EVERYTHING, including the trash. This lets you see what the kids are (or aren’t) eating, lets you gauge how much to serve/pack and reduces the likelihood of them throwing away their storage containers… which means you can use REAL silverware instead of plastic.
(8) Preheat the thermos.
Keep lunches hot by preheating the thermos (this 10 oz thermos is on my wish list). Fill an empty thermos with boiling water, close it up and let it sit while you warm the meal. Empty the thermos (into the plants!) and then fill the thermos with the meal. Seal it and it’ll still be warm come lunchtime!
(9) Get hot meals HOT!
When you’re warming meals to pack, don’t get it warm – get it HOT! Remember that the kids will be eating it 4-5 hours later, plenty of time for it to cool off. Super hot lunch + preheated thermos = delicious hot lunch.
(10) If it’s served cold, consider freezing it.
Think water, yogurt and smoothies. It’ll thaw by lunch and double as an ice pack!
Tip: If you don’t have a reusable pouch for smoothies, freeze smoothies in an ice cube tray. Pull out 3-4 and place in a stainless steel (leak-proof!) container and pack a spoon for a creamy slushy for dessert. Another option is to freeze yogurt in these re-sealable popsicle molds!
(11) Pack an after school snack bin.
So it’s not quite school lunch, but close enough. After school snacks are vital, but you don’t want to ruin dinner. Fill a bin with healthy after school snacks and let the kids pick freely from it when they get home.
(12) Pre-cut as much as you can.
School lunches are short and kids eat slow. Help them out by peeling oranges and dividing the segments, slicing apples and cutting sandwiches in half. Basically, make the food easy to eat fast so they spend as much time as they can eating, not getting ready to eat.
(13) Have the right equipment.
If at all possible, have enough containers to cover two day’s worth of lunches, per kid. You don’t have to do this necessarily for water bottles, but for small snack containers, leak-proof containers for meals, re-usable snack baggies and thermos’s – it’s best (and WAY easier) to have enough for two lunches worth. That way you don’t have to wait on the kids to bring home the only containers you have… that is, if they bring them home and don’t accidentally throw them away (see tip #7 above).
Plus it means you can pack ahead of time too. If you’re packing one lunch, might as well pack 3!
Tip: Make sure the containers fit in the lunch box BEFORE you start filling them up!
(14) Use a contact lens case, or mini-make up cases, for condiments.
We get contact lens cases with our solution, so those are free, but consider these cute cases for single serve condiments (since you bought a bunch for homemade tinted moisturizer anyway, right?). Because every kid likes to dip.
(15) Store all the “lunch stuff” together, and in the same place.
Keeping it all together means seeing what’s available, and what’s not. That way you’re not putting the small snack stuff in the big containers, and then running out of big containers for the big stuff.
(16) Create a routine to empty out the lunch boxes.
Whether it’s after dinner just before packing tomorrow’s lunch (see tip #1) or as soon as the kids get home from school, come up with a system that works consistently and use it.
(17) Make real food versions of processed favorites.
Other kids might pack canned spaghetti o’s, so you pack homemade spaghetti o’s. You don’t have to pack junk, but at least their lunches won’t look too abnormal. Here’s some of our favorite re-makes:
(18) Do something with the leftovers!
I unpack the lunchboxes as the kids are getting out their homework. This allows me to a) evaluate what they ate/didn’t eat/liked/didn’t like and b) offer them whatever is left as a snack.
No matter if your routine is different, the goal is the same – come up with something to do with what’s leftover so you’re not wasting food. That’s VITAL to saving up to 40% on groceries, and school lunches are no different. Produce goes into a smoothie, dried nuts/fruit become a trail mix later in the week… you catch my drift.
Get more frugal, affordable and awesome back to school ideas or check out “The Healthy Lunchbox” – it’s one of the best eBooks I’ve read on healthy lunches, including back to school!
These hacks are great but…
…I need more help!
Here is a FREE two week school lunch menu! Use the hacks to spend your time wisely and use this menu to know what to pack. It feeds two kids real food for two weeks. And it’s budget friendly!
Do you use standard or jumbo silicon muffin liners? The standard seem so small to me! I wonder if the jumbo would be good for egg muffins…
I only have standard ones, and those worked well when my kids were little. They’re in 4th and 6th grade now, so we’ve out grown them. I bet jumbo would work!
How exactly do you freeze portions in those silicone cups? Usually when I freeze something, I use a container with a lid. Do you just freeze and then lay flat until frozen but without covering them up? Doesn’t the food get freezer-burnt?
I’m so grateful for this post: my older boy starts kindergarten in a few weeks, and I’m a huge fan of PlanetBox also (I bought the Launch for my husband, and that’s what’s going to kindergarten), but the thought of having to think about what lunch to pack every day is overwhelming. I’ve made up a sort of “cheat sheet” with the days of the week, and a different “theme” for each day. So Monday is pasta/noodles, and the table has typical examples (spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, pasta soup, etc.), but I also have an “include every day” section with things like “cut fruit/berries” (e.g., blueberries, grapes, etc.) and “yogurt”… it’s more a table of ideas than an actual meal plan, but I’m hoping that it’ll help me get going when I’m standing there, staring at the empty lunch box, trying to figure out what to put in!
Hi Meghna! I freeze in the cups, then transfer the portions (w/o the cups themselves) into a large gallon ziploc bag. When they’re in the process of flash freezing, they don’t get freezer-burned. It’s only 45 min to an hour. The biggest concern w/freezer burn is long-term exposure to air when something is frozen improperly. Be sure to suck out all the air from the bag!
I like the ideas you have for your table!! It’s similar to mine, although I pack the same thing every day until we run out OR until the kids ask for something else, LOL!!
Thanks so much for such a quick response, Tiffany! Okay, away I send for silicone muffin cups!
LuAnn M Kern
Preheating the thermos is critical. We’ve been using the same 2 thermoses for the past 4 years and will likely use them until my 7th and 8th grade girls graduate. Works like magic and saves $$$$.
I’d love ideas for 12 and 14 year old active boys. They are athletes too and I can’t seem to fill them up! 🙂 They’d laugh and call a circle uncrustable a tiny snack. I’m always looking for healthy alternatives, we do a lot of nut packs, fruit, Greek yogurt, and hearty sandwiches. Any other ideas?
For filling bellies, think protein + whole grain carbs. Baked oatmeal cups, whole grain muffins, hummus… those are good ones that are portable!
In the above article…what is the dish pictured? It looks like some sort of Goulash?
That is leftover spaghetti sauce with small alphabet noodles. 🙂
Color coding. My four girls are pretty good at bringing their re-usables home but in the beginning whenever I asked about a lost item that didn’t make it home they all denied responsibility. So now everyone gets their own color. Now I know who’s responsible when things don’t make it back home. Funny thing is since I put this system in place I get everything back every time.
BRILLIANT idea Leigh! Public accountability and they don’t even know it! 😉
This year, we are trying “prep once, eat twice” by packing 2 days worth of lunches at a time. It’s only the 2nd day of school, so we’ll see how it goes! My older kids are in 2nd & 4th grade, so they pack their own with mom’s supervision/help as needed.
We like to make homemade uncrustables. Just make a sandwich and use a (very large) cup to cut it into a circle… We’ve done the cute cutouts before but for some reason they love the circle 🙂
Well if they love the circle, no need to buck the horse with a cutout!
I love these! My kiddo just started going to pre-school (today actually) where I have the option of purchasing the lunches they offer or sending him with a packed lunch. I plan to do a combination of both as my little one is a picky eater (working on reversing that!). I like the ideas of keeping food hot even though his school will re-heat things for them. But this is great prep for when he starts kindergarten next year (insert tears here). Thanks for the tips and I will certainly be using them for lunch and those evenings where we are out during dinner time for church small group and bible study. Thanks for sharing; I’ve really been enjoying your site these last few days. 🙂
You’re most welcome!! I’m glad they’re helpful!! 🙂
Fortunately my little ones are still young enough that they’re not too aware of what everyone is eating… My daughter is in preschool this year and packs a snack. She’s actually not a breakfast kid though so her snack is usually more like brunch!! I’ve found that she’s more of an eater in social settings but that she likes small amounts of a variety of things. The container throw away issue is a good point and I like your idea of starting out with the cheaper containers and then graduating to stainless or whatever after a trial period (those stainless containers are expensive!!) one bit of advice that I could add is to make sure whichever containers you’re using are easily opened by the kids…if they can’t open it it won’t get eaten (not that I would know that from firsthand experiences or anything…ha). All in all, it’s another part of parenting that’s just plain tricky. It sounds like you’re on track for success:)
Amy, what if you bought cheap disposables (like Ziploc) and taught her responsibility with those before investing in other containers. That way if she tosses them, it’s not a huge loss. Maybe even give an incentive that if she makes it to Halloween, SHE can pick out her own reusables?
As for the milk, put it in a stainless steel drinking container with a spout instead of the original packaging. If we tell the kids everything, then we have to make the environment leftover-friendly, lol.