Back to School! Of course this means back to packing school lunch. Over the past month, I’ve received many requests for school lunchbox ideas. What are my favorite recipes and lunchbag accessories? Any tips for making school lunches more nutritious? Here’s my answers!
8 Favorite Lunchbox Essentials
Thermos for Hot Lunches
My favorite thermos for hot lunches is the 10 oz Foogo thermos, which stays warm up to 5 hours. It’s very durable and seals well (although I never send anything too soupy). It’s the perfect size for a kid’s main dish lunch, and comes in a variety of colors. If you need a little larger thermos, I recommend this one.
Whatever thermos you choose, make sure you check how long it keeps food warm/cold.Read more about thermos prep
Stainless Steel Sporks
Thanks to my husband, we’ve adopted the spork as June’s lunch utensil. Sporks are ideal for thermos lunches, when you often need both a spoon and fork to get it all the food out.
I’ve tried the cute colorful plastic or bamboo sporks, but they haven’t lasted long—one by one they’ve snapped in half.
Stainless steel sporks solve the snapping-utensil problem. Definitely worth the extra cost up front. Sporks come in handy for picnics too!
Veggies and Dip Container
June discovered these at The Container Store, and she uses them often in her school lunch. They’re perfect for holding veggies and dip. It seals tightly so no worries about spills.
These soft flannel napkins are from Etsy, and they’re an ideal size (8″ X 7″) for the school lunchbox. You can pick from a wide variety of patterns for girl/boy/mixed/adult, and in a variety of pack sizes. I like that they are soft, absorbent, and wrinkle-resistant, unlike a lot of other cloth napkins. They are so cute, we use them for our regular napkins at home now too!
Reusable Sandwich/Snack Bags
I love reusable sandwich/snack bags, and Itzy Ritzy is my current favorite. It has a zipper rather than velcro, which means you can quietly open your snack bag and avoid velcro-fuzz buildup.
At 7″ X 7″, it’s big enough to fit most regular sized sandwiches, and it’s machine washable. (And phthalate-free!)
These 4oz containers are the perfect size for a small chopped salad. Also good for dips or dressings. Stainless steel is a healthy step up from our plastic containers. Expensive up front, but the trade-off is durability.
These have been my favorite kid water bottles for years. I prefer the Contigo Trekker bottles to others because of it’s spill-proof and easy-clean qualities. (Especially compared to straw and spout water bottles.)
They’re BPA-free and can be cleaned in the dishwasher. June will probably age out of these after this school year (turning 10), but I think they’re a durable, lightweight, easy-clean water bottle for kids aged 4-10.
Freezable Lunch Bag
For those who need to keep their kids’ lunches cold, I love freezeable lunchbags. The gel packs are built in, so no need to add more weight and take up space with ice packs. Folds flat so you can fit it in your freezer. Just don’t forget to put in the freezer the night before!
It’s a challenge to get enough vegetables over the course of the day. Veggies and dip are a simple way to get your kids’ vegetable serving at the lunch table, but we often choose a small make-ahead salad for variety and convenience. Not a lettuce salad, but a nutrient dense little serving of veggies. (Ideal for 4oz containers shown above.) You don’t want to overwhelm your child with a bowlful of crunching, but just build the habit of a variety of veggies at lunch. Here are a few of June’s favorite school salads:
With corn as the salad base, June is happy to eat anything that goes along with it. Corn with cucumbers, red peppers, black beans, and a little bit of fresh parsley or cilantro are a great combination. I make a batch ahead for the week and add the dressing each morning.
Dressing: 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tbsp.balsamic dressing with 1/4-1/2 tsp. of salt, pepper, cumin and chili powder. Ready-made Italian dressing works well too.
Sesame Green Beans
Sesame green beans are another easy make ahead vegetable dish. Steam your green beans, then chop them into 1/2″ pieces.
Dressing: 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tsp sesame oil, 2 tsp soy sauce and 2 tbsp rice vinegar. I add the dressing to the green beans at the beginning of the week and it lasts nicely for 5 days. Toasted sesame seeds are an optional garnish.
Carrot salad is so easy and a nice change-up from carrot sticks. I keep it simple with shredded carrots and chopped parsley, but sometimes add cabbage, olives and minced red onion or scallions.
Favorite Dressing: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tbsp. dijon mustard, 1 tbsp lemon, 1/4-1/2 tsp of salt and pepper. Make ahead the salad and dressing but don’t actually dress the salad until the morning you pack it for lunch. Make extra for you!
Sunday Lunch Prep—Keeping One Step Ahead
Maximum nutrition, minimum fuss. That’s my focus when I think about June’s school lunch. Hot lunches have been our staple for school lunch since June started Kindergarten 4 years ago. Each Sunday, Jake or I make a hot lunch that June will bring daily for a week. June often helps and offers ideas. These aren’t leftovers from dinner, but a specific meal just for lunches. (Extra for the adults too!)
Maximum nutriton? A hot lunch gives me more options than sandwiches. I can include a greater range of nutritious whole grains and other flavors and ingredients. Especially since June pretty much eats the same basic breakfast, changing up her lunches each week provides more nutrition through diversity. I also like how her hot school lunch builds the habit of a hearty midday meal. (We do have fun with different types of sandwiches on weekends!)
Minimum fuss? How can making an extra meal for the week be minimum fuss? Parents tell me they’d like to pack more hot lunches, but aren’t sure what to pack if it’s not leftovers. When friends ask me for help with hot lunches, here’s what I advise:
1. Pick Your Grain
The number one key to making our lunch system work smoothly is to not start with a “recipe”. Searching for a particular recipe can be a roadblock to fitting in extra meal preparation. Instead of starting with a recipe, start with a grain. Whole wheat couscous, quinoa, farro, whole wheat pasta, barley, brown rice are typically part of our grain rotation. Cook up a big batch sometime over the weekend before you put together the lunch dish. We usually do this Sunday morning at the same time we’re making breakfast.
2. Pick Your Protein
Once your grain is cooked, pick your protein. Ground turkey, diced chicken breast, diced cooked tofu, egg, beans, and fish are in our protein pool. You can cook it ahead or wait until you put the whole lunch dish together. If I’m using diced chicken breast or tofu, I’ll cook ahead of time, otherwise, I wait.
3. Choose Your Sauce
Once you’ve picked a grain and protein, choose your flavors and sauces: soy/ginger, mustard/olive oil, curry different types of vinaigrette, tomato sauce, spinach sauce, chicken or veggie broth based sauce.
4. Add Veggies
Pick whatever your kids will eat and what goes with the flavors/cuisine you selected. We frequently use shredded carrots, cabbage, spinach, and frozen peas. Although I don’t want it to be too smelly, starting the dish with a little oil, garlic, and a bit of onion gives a delicious flavor base. Don’t forget fresh herbs like parsely, cilantro, dill, or basil for flavor interest.
5. Now Look Up a Recipe
If you need some guidelines on the proportions of ingredients to use in your dish, now is the time to look up a recipe that uses your chosen sauce, grain, and/or protein.
Stir-fry your veggies and protein, add your chosen grain, and then add your sauce. Don’t be afraid to try without a recipe! It’s a very liberating feeling to cook without a recipe, and it lowers the barriers to just getting it done.
7. Add Pizzazz
Adding toppings like olives, chopped pickles, capers, corn, or eggs to an appropriate dish can transform an ordinary dish into a fun food. Or pick your own pizzazz!
Here’s some examples of our hot lunches: barley chicken pilaf, quinoa with artichokes and capers (adding a protein to the recipe), chicken fried rice, spinach chicken pasta (using a chunky pasta instead of a long pasta). Pasta with tomato sauce is one of the easiest hot lunches. For a change-up try pasta sauce with a different grain, such as barley and add some diced chicken and a bit of fresh parsley.Read more for Lunch Prep Example
Sunday afternoon I needed a little inspiration for the sauce, so I did an internet search for couscous and ground turkey and decided on a broth & tomato sauce with chickpeas, cilantro, and capers. I combined it all together within minutes in the afternoon! Making lunch prep an add-on step to other meals makes it feel like a lot less effort.
I’ve been noticing healthier sandwiches out there in the lunchroom, especially over the past year. Hummus and veggie sandwiches are a common sight. (Instead of hummus you can substitute white or black bean dip for a tasty variation.)
Egg salad sandwiches are delicious, but make it easier on yourself and use sliced boiled egg sandwiches with whatever garnishes you desire. June even likes scrambled egg sandwiches! Don’t forget chicken and salmon salad sandwiches. They’re safe with ice packs or a freezeable lunch bag.
Please share any healthy lunch ideas that you and your kids love!