By Karen Hendricks
One of my top priorities as a mom is to play the role of “Nutrition Nazi.” I try my best to infuse nutrients into our meals and ban empty calories. Equally important as the nutritional value of meals: The family value of gathering everyone together for meals. That gets extremely difficult through the middle and high school years, I’m finding, but it’s a priority we try to maintain. Now that I am “off the merry-go-round” and working from home, I feel like I have a better handle on meal time routines, although most moms with growing families will agree that it’s a constant struggle to keep enough food in the house!
One of the biggest challenges is packing school day lunches. Although lunches provided in school cafeterias are becoming healthier, my kids prefer to pack because waiting in lines takes too much time and they don’t always like the selections. This is fine with me!
I like to think of every lunch box as an extension of our family meal times, upholding those same nutritional values and reminding my children that their family loves them. (Please note: I would never embarrass my middle or high schoolers with “love notes” in their lunch boxes, although I was known to add a few random notes and jokes through their elementary years!)
I think the challenges include:
- Finding the time to pack lunches.
- Making sure they’re nutritious.
- Not succumbing to easy, but expensive and empty-calorie, pre-packaged lunch items found at the grocery store.
- Ensuring that lunches can be devoured quickly, since schools are constantly cutting the amount of time allotted for lunch periods.
- Making sure that everything fits within your child’s lunchbox!
Our entire family helps with the packing of lunches in some way. Here are some tips that have helped us streamline the process, and I hope they help you as well:
Prepare a Lunch Menu. When my kids were learning keyboarding (4th-5th grades), I set up a simple spreadsheet on our home computer which we still use today. The rows going down list food groups (Meats/Sandwiches/Grains, Fruit/Veg, Dairy, Snacks, Drinks) with rows under each heading for the kids to customize each week’s menu with our grocery shopping (for example, ham or tuna salad sandwiches, yogurts or string cheese). The columns are set up per the days of the week, with a column for each child to check off their selections. It’s great typing practice for the kids, plus they learn organizational skills and the menu is a great help to the chief lunch packer (my wonderful husband). When my children were younger, they could also see how a nutritious lunch was built using the various food groups. Now it’s second-nature for them to include at least one item from each food group. One of the kids typically prepares the lunch menu on Sunday, printing it out and stationing it on our countertop (you could also post it on a bulletin board or refrigerator). Every night before bedtime or during evening snack time, all the kids make their “picks” for the next day’s lunch.
Invest in Reusable Containers. There are some great products made specifically for lunch boxes today! Plastic sandwich containers not only keep sandwiches from being squished, but they also negate the need for plastic bags which are costly and not environmentally-friendly. Our family also uses stainless steel water bottles (found inexpensively at Target and other stores) and small plastic containers with lids for fruits and other snacks (grapes, pretzels, etc.). Sometimes it’s a challenge to fit all the containers within a lunchbox—it can be like a puzzle—but you develop a knack for it.
Pre-Package Lunch “Staples.” My kids all pitch in around the house with tasks like dishwashing, unpacking grocery bags, etc. So when the stainless steel water bottles get washed, they also get refilled with cold water and stashed in the fridge, so they’re chilled and ready to be popped into lunchboxes. When groceries are being unpacked and there’s an item like grapes, one of the kids washes the grapes right then and there, and prepares 7-8 small plastic containers full of grapes, so they’re ready for school mornings. This is a great time-saver!
Include a Touch of Home. If you have a leftover, homemade biscuit, why not use it for a chicken salad sandwich? Have a leftover cup of homemade soup? It takes some effort, but pack it in a microwaveable container or warm it the next morning to pack into a thermos. The same idea applies to leftover fajitas, a bowl of chili or homemade pizza. Be creative and think outside the sandwich box. Sometimes, these are the most popular, sought-after lunch items in our house! Of course, fighting over them is a subject for another blog… Hey, at least they are eating well!