how to pack a wholesome lunch your kid will eat

by Whitney on October 4, 2010

lunchbox slider School has started here, and with it, the lunchbox crunch. What to pack, how to pack it, will it be eaten, will it be enough?

I missed the mark last year, and day after day I’d find the half of the lovingly prepared, wholesome lunch I’d so cleverly presented left untouched. Since Goose is an adventurous eater at home, I should have reexamined my storage methods and menu choices. If I had, I might have realized that what looked delicious at 8 a.m. was probably oozy and sweating by noon. Not appetizing.

In preschool, though, the pressure wasn’t quite as intense. The school day was short, and I knew we could have a quality meal after pickup. I acquiesced, and the lunchbox devolved. Hello, crackers and cheese.

a better hot lunch

Now that Goose is in full-day kindergarten, I need to pack her lunchbox with the good stuff, and to make it appealing enough that she will eat it. No small feat, so in my typically obsessive fashion, I made a spreadsheet. I listed main dish ideas along the top, and ingredient options down the side, highlighting protein and iron sources. (These are our challenge areas; yours might be non-dairy calcium sources, or green vegetables.)

Protein is an issue for us because Goose doesn’t go for the typical fare: nut/sun butters, hummus, and cold cuts. She enjoys home-cooked poultry and meat, but as I realized last year’s method of packing them cool wasn’t working, I decided to reformulate. To ensure that hot foods would look and taste good come lunchtime, I looked to the Thermos containers previously reserved for tailgaits and campsites. Turns out with a little reconfiguring, they’ll handily store a lot more than soup.

Although not as simple as the cold-pack routine, which allowed me to pack the night before and forget about it, my new system isn’t all that complicated.

easy morning hot pack

the night before:

  • Pack any cold/room temp foods.
  • Pre-prep (cut, portion, etc.) food that will be served hot.
  • Pour water (enough to fill insulated container) into pot, and place on cold stovetop.
  • Go to bed.

the morning of:

  • Turn on both the oven and stovetop. (I do it as soon as I walk in the kitchen.)
  • Fill insulated container with boiling water, top, and let sit for a few minutes before emptying and drying.
  • Remove the warmed food from the oven, pop it in the hot container, and close the lid.

Everything is ready to go before breakfast is cleared. Not too bad, and here’s the best part: this one shift in our routine has positively impacted our entire family in numerous areas: nutrition, time-management, behavior, communication, . . . the list goes on.

The short of it is that I realized I could simplify meal planning by creating versatile dinners that could be repackaged as attractive lunches. The key is to make the lunch about more than leftovers. Smaller portions paired with slices of fresh fruit and something snacky on the side take on new personality, especially when presented in cute containers.

We haven’t truly meal planned in years; most meals were a slapdash effort to throw together whatever we had on hand. Since we buy quality ingredients, we cooked up some pretty great dishes, but with no forethought and poor timing, mealtime was rarely the restorative experience it should be. Our last minute efforts resulted in an uncomfortably hungry bunch of overtired people who stayed up too late, overslept, and bickered in the hectic morning rush. Sad endings begetting sad beginnings, with lunch as an afterthought.

Two-meal planning allows me more time to focus on the kids when it really counts. Witching hours and mornings are notably calmer. Having less rush and uncertainty is especially beneficial to my three year old, who is so much happier when we take our time.

I’ll elaborate on spreadsheet details, storage options, and menus in future posts. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your dinner-to-lunch ideas.

Also consider the bigger picture: are there any small changes that might make big improvements in your family life?

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