Be a Lunchbox HERO

The new school year has started and just about every parent of a new Kindergartener has already hit the “what do I make now?” mark.  And those of us that have been doing this for years will come to a block every now and then.  I understand.  You want your kiddos to have happy bellies so they can maintain their happy minds at school.  We all want to provide good nutrition, variety, and do it all with as little effort as possible.  Am I right?

It is possible.  You can create wonderfully healthy and appealing lunches your kids will eat, all without losing your damn mind.  And even if you don’t have kids in school, this all can still apply to you too!  We all like lunch.  

Get ready to be a lunch box hero.

Here are some of the most common questions and complaints I hear from parents:

What do I pack?
I’m tired of sandwiches.
How do I make them healthy?
My kid won’t eat that.
I don’t have time.
How do I keep it cold/hot?

First: Breathe.

Your kid will not melt, starve, or die if you don’t get it exactly “right”.  You may have trial and error.  Remember that you’ve been feeding your kid lunch for a while now.  Don’t forget that you’ve been able to do that pretty well so far.  There will be times when lunch does not get eaten no matter what you pack.  Relax.

Let’s answer some of those logistical conundrums first.

I’m tired of making sandwiches.  
Then don’t make a sandwich.  Think outside of the typical lunch box idea.  Take your lunchable and throw it out the damn window.  Now.  Use your strategies for creating dinner plans to make lunch plans.  Think about what you would feed your kids if you were all at home.  Consider what you’d feed yourself.  Lunch does not have to look like “lunch”.

I don’t have time.  
Um, yes you do.  If this is important to you, then you absolutely have time.  You have a plethora of time.  What you lack is priorities.

How do I keep it hot or cold?
There are a few options here.  One, you don’t worry about it.  Two, If you truly need something hot, invest in a thermos.  If you truly need something cold, invest in a cooler pack thingy.  Three, make it right before they head off to school.  I pack my kids lunches in the morning right before school.  One kiddo has lunch at 10:30 and one has lunch at 12:30.  Depending on the meal, they will get an insulated container, an ice pack, or nothing.  If you make something the night before that would be best warm, take the 2 minutes to microwave it and then put it in the insulated container.  Or, by the time they eat their lunch, it could very well have reached room temperature and be fine.  Remember, these lunches are not going to sit in the hot sun for days.  They’ve got a few hours indoors and unless you’ve handed down your old school tin Care Bears lunchbox, the lunchbox is going to have an insulated liner as well.

My kid won’t eat that.  
(insert long pause and blank stare)  Ok.  So, this one bums me out.  I have to be honest.  I have several thoughts on this.  First, let’s just agree that if you really believe your kid will not eat a certain thing, then don’t bother packing it.  The end.  

If you’d like to explore this more, keep reading, otherwise skip to the next question.
Lunchboxes are not the place to introduce new foods for sure.  If there is a food that your kid hates but you make them eat it at dinner (and they will but perhaps with mild struggle), the lunchbox may not be the best place for that food either.  However, and this is where my bumming out begins, if your kiddo will not eat the food because it’s not fast food, junk food, pizza, a lunchable, or any other crap that isn’t considered actual food then I may disagree with you.  YOU provide the food.  If you don’t provide the junk, then there isn’t even the option to eat the junk.  If you provide the healthy food, then your kids will eat the healthy food.  I have no idea how you feed your kiddos on a regular basis.  But, if you normally feed them semi-nutritious food, then there is absolutely no reason to junk it up in their lunchbox just in the hopes that they eat something.  Your kid will eat.  You build your normal.  If your kiddo is exposed to a healthy lunch every day, they will expect a healthy lunch every day.  If this is not your normal, you can work towards this.  But you have to start.

How do I make it healthy?  What do I pack?
I am going to group these two together since the point of this post is to help you decide what to pack and how to make that food healthy.  These are one in the same.

One thing I’ve learned (and I’m sure I’ve said it here before) is that the term “healthy” is relative.  My 8 year old actually just told me earlier this week that his health class told him yogurt is a “healthy” choice.  Even he could tell me that this is total bullshit.  Dairy is scary and aside from that, most, if not all, yogurt is filled with added sugar.  Your kids do not need added sugar in anything.  Period.  So, there’s my healthy.

With that being said, you will have to make your own choices on what you view as “healthy”, but I will be giving you suggestions on what we do in our home.  Please also know that we all do what we can, nothing is ever perfect, and you have to be ok with that.

Fruit.  We always pack fruit.  Nature’s candy.
Quinoa with black beans, green beans, chickpeas, kiwi.  Applesauce for snack.
Veggies.  Yes, veggies.  We pack them raw, steamed, microwaved from frozen.  Some suggestions:
  • Frozen broccoli, green beans, peas, edamame, etc.
  • Raw carrots (throw in some hummus, nut butter, etc.)
  • Raw bell peppers
  • Jicama (I’m still working on this one, my kids hate it)
Lentils and rice, broccoli, and oranges.  Crunchy peas for snack.
Leftovers.  YES!  This is huge win and such a wonderful time saver.  Don’t be afraid to send dinner for lunch.  These can easily be varied as well.  Throw stews on top of grains or baked potatoes or wrap fillings up in tortillas.
Bean quesadilla, crunchy pea chips, oranges.  Rice roller and fruit leather for snack.

Tofu.  I add this to rice and veggies or use pre-marinated cubes alone.  This can be served hot or cold.
Leftover veggie pot pie, strawberries, and a black bean brownie.  Vegan cheddar squares for snack.

Beans.  Beans, beans, the magical fruit...Add any variety to rice or any other grain.  Mix with veggies or serve plain.  You can also smush and put these inside a tortilla or other whole grain wrap.  Heat it up a little in a pan or put it in the oven for a few minutes to seal those bad boys and they will stay together beautifully.  This is where things can get sneaky too.  Mince up some spinach, other veggies, nutritional yeast, avocado, etc. and they’ll never know.
Tomato soup, potato, and keenwah puffs.  Oranges for snack.

The old stand-by.  Peanut buttah jelly time.  Or, in my daughter’s case, almond buttah jelly time.  Don’t feel like you are throwing in the towel with this classic.  My kids love it and a sammy once a week is ok.  If your school is nut-free, try sun butters or other seed butters. Or even hummus.
Edamame noodles with cashew sauce and greens, crackers, and oranges.  Apples and chickpeas for snack.

Veggie Burgers.  These are easy as most are frozen.  Just heat up and serve with or without a bun.  I usually add a small side of ketchup in a tiny sealed cup for them to dip it in.  And sometimes I don’t.  We like a variety of burgers.  Just check the label for tons of oil or other additives you don’t want.  You can easily make your own and freeze.
PBJ, berries and grapes, pistachios and crackers, and an oatmeal cookie.  Apples and animal crackers for snack.

Pasta and Sauce.  We use whole grain pasta or edamame noodles.  Marinara, pesto, or cashew sauce.  Throw in some white beans or any veggie.
Pasta with mixed veggies and tofu, animal crackers, mango and kiwi.  Crackers and banana for snack.

Soups and stews.  This one is hit or miss for my kiddos.  Sometimes they love it and other times they don’t.  I still pack it.
Rice and Lentils with cauliflower, broccoli and carrots, chickpeas, and pineapple.  Dried bananas for snack.

Falafel.  Dress this up with pita bread, hummus, tomatoes, potatoes, whatever your kid will eat.
Homemade veggie burger with ketchup, pears, peas, and a Newman's O.  Grapes for snack.

Seitan.  I like to make my own, but store bought works.  If this is new to you, feel free to contact me for a recipe.  This is a great mock meat that is not too processed and an easy and fast make ahead.  It works well in all forms - slices, cut up, grilled, cold, in stuff, or alone.
Veggie burger, pears, and raw carrots, mini chocolate chip cookies.  World Peas and freeze dried apples for snack.
Trail Mix. Make your own, or read the labels. You don't need oil and you don't need salt. Mix together raw nuts with dried fruit (no added sugar!), coconut meat or shreds, cocoa nibs, seeds, etc.
Vegan junky pizza, broccoli, and "big raisins".  Crackers and an apple for snack.

Junk.  Yes, we do the occasional junk.  It’s no big deal.  You’ll do it too and all of us will live.  Find your favorites and keep it in rotation occasionally.  

There are a few other things I’ve learned over the years of lunchboxing.  Some of my own golden nuggets taken from here, there, and my own experience.  Take the time to notice what works for you too.

Golden Nuggets:

  • Frozen veggies, grains, and anything are wonderful time savers.
  • Don’t be afraid of leftovers.
  • Always have a plethora of fruit.
  • Seasonings can be helpful.  My kids love Taco Tuesday from FlavorGod.  A good alternative to salt.
  • Keep a well stocked snack bin of items you feel good about.
  • Not hitting all the nutritional marks all the time is ok. Variety is key.
  • Use those apples, bananas, and avocados to teach your kids about oxidation (hint: it’s OK).
  • Prep food ahead and freeze it in individual portions.
  • Your kid is getting plenty of protein.  Promise.*

Finally, you are the parent.  You are in charge of the nutrition you provide for your kiddos’ growing bodies.  Make the best choices you can, when you can.  You’ve got this in the bag.

*Stay tuned for a follow up post on protein and why you think it’s so important.

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