Monday, September 1, 2014

Feeding My Family: School Lunches

school lunches


It's September second.  While Caroline has been in school for three weeks now, I know many parts of the country don't start until this week.  And my boys start preschool this week (cue meltdown about time moving way too quickly).  So whether you are sending your kid off to their first day of school, or you've been back in the game for a few weeks now, the struggle of the school lunch is still the same.  Lunch from the school oftentimes leaves a lot to be desired, and it seems like packing a lunch is the best option.  But your kids get bored quickly with the same old pb and j or turkey and cheese.  Those get old, and fast.  Plus, with the way school is nowadays, lunch is one of the few "fun" times the kids have left.  So I want to pack something that I know Caroline will enjoy, and it has to keep her full and ready to face the rest of the school day.

I've been compiling lunch ideas for almost a full year now, and I'm ready to share.  I also have a few general rules and guidelines that I follow when I'm lacking inspiration or want to pack something fun and festive.  I've broken these lunches down into categories, but obviously some could fit under more than one.  And I don't always remember to snap a picture, so I'll also just be listing some other ideas that we've done in the past.  

So here are the general rules that I follow when packing Caroline's lunch:
  1. I only pack things that I know she'll eat.  Caroline is a very good eater, but she has her preferences just like any other kid.  She doesn't care for sharp cheddar cheese or raw onion, so I'm not going to pack that in her lunch and then be upset when she doesn't eat it.  If your child doesn't like turkey, don't pack a turkey sandwich.  If they don't like carrots, don't pack them.  Send foods that you know they will eat and enjoy.  They don't have someone standing there telling them what to eat, and you want them to get maximum nutrition and satiety from their lunch, so don't take risks here.  Save it for the dinner table.
  2. Be cognizant of allergies.  Last year, Caroline had a few classmates with nut allergies, so I avoided nut butters.  Sunflower butter is a great substitute, so we've used that a lot.  Some schools are totally nut free these days anyway, but in general it's not a bad idea to just save nut products for snacks and meals at home.  Note:  There are not allergies in Caroline's class this year, so I have been sending nut products in her lunches.
  3. Pack a good variety of foods.  I try to be sure to pack Caroline at least one source of protein, plus at least one veggie, at least one fruit, and some sort of carbohydrate or starch.  Last year she went through a phase where she only asked for "super healthy" foods, i.e. fruits and veggies, but she was coming home famished.  So I had to make a point to send in items with protein and good fats.
  4. Involve your child.  This goes back to #1, but ask them what they want in their lunch.  I usually pack at least one item that she asks for, then decide on the rest myself.  If you have a child that's more picky, rather than just asking what they want, ask "Which fruit would you like?"  Let's be honest, if I could eat anything I wanted for lunch, I'm sure it would involve Reese's pb cups and chips ;)  But letting them have a say in what healthy options you pack for them gives them a sense of control and responsibility - which is huge for young kids (and I'll touch on this again in my post about picky eaters!).
  5. Always pack a sweet treat!  It doesn't have to be a big cookie or brownie or whatever.  Just a small item for dessert to make their lunch feel special and fun.  Sometimes I just pack fruit, but lately I've been sending chocolate covered sunflower seeds, dried fruit, trail mix, or a small baked good.  We don't always have dessert at home, so it's a fun way for her to end her lunch.  I of course just assume that she saves it for last… but who knows ;)
  6. Keep a well-stocked pantry and fridge.  I always try and keep a good variety or fruits, veggies, dried fruits, snack foods, cheeses, meats, etc.  It makes it much easier to put together a healthy and filling lunch than when I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel.  
I'll share more tips along the way, but for now I'm going to share a bunch of lunches from the past year.  I've broken them down into a few categories, so next time you're feeling uninspired, just pick a category and go from there!

Keep it Simple with a Sandwich

School Lunches - Sandwiches

You don't have to reinvent the wheel every day.  Sandwiches are a lunch staple, and they are always a safe bet.  But just because you're packing a sandwich, it doesn't make it boring.  There are lots of ways you can mix them up, from cutting them into fun shapes (cookie cutters are great for this!), skewering the ingredients (more on this later), going global, or making sandwich "sushi," the sky's the limit here.

Clockwise from top left:
  • PB and J on wheat, cut into strips, orange slices, carrots, apple chips, and a granola truffle.
  • turkey, cheese, and pretzel bread skewers, bell peppers and carrots, zucchini tots, fresh berries, and yogurt-covered raisins
  • turkey and hummus "sushi," (flatten a piece of bread, spread with hummus, top with a few slices of turkey, then roll it up and slice with a sharp knife), cantaloupe, cherry tomatoes, bell pepper strips, and a granola truffle
  • mini croissant sandwiches with ham, brie, and raspberry jam, berries, bell peppers, cucumbers, and an applesauce pouch.
Other ideas:  tortillas with bananas and peanut butter, folded into a quesadilla and cut into wedges, bagel sandwiches, cream cheese and veggies on wheat bread, cream cheese + fruit on wheat bread, bean and cheese panini, apple butter + ham

Reinvent Leftovers.  

School Lunches - Leftovers

A lot of leftovers are perfectly suited to be eaten at room temperature, so I use dinner as inspiration for the next day's lunch.  

  • mini pizza with broccoli pesto, cheese, and tomatoes (I just tore off a small piece of pizza dough before I rolled out the big one for dinner, then used the same toppings for a baby pizza for Caroline the next day)
  • cheese and pineapple quesadilla, corn wheels (simply corn on the cut cut into smaller pieces).  This was inspired by our dinner of fish tacos with grilled pineapple salsa.  I don't typically send fish with Caroline, so I just used the pineapple salsa and some cheese to make a quesailla on a homemade corn tortilla.  I always grill a few extra ears of corn to use for lunches and salads, so this was a really easy lunch to put together.  
  • spinach-artichoke stuffed mushrooms.  These were leftover from our Frozen dinner party, and Caroline loved eating "troll" mushrooms the next day.  
Other ideas:  make a salad with leftover rice, quinoa, couscous, or pasta.  Many pastas can be eaten chilled or at room temperature.  One of our favorites is to make a quick pasta salad. I just save a bit of the pasta when I cook it at dinner, then toss with with a little salad dressing, some cheese, maybe some meat, and whatever veggies I have on hand.  Super easy, healthy, and quick.

Go Seasonal

School Lunches - Go Seasonal

This is kind of an overarching theme for all of my cooking and meals, but when you're lacking inspiration, it's a good place to start.  What's in season?  Look to the farmer's market, a CSA, or just see what's on sale at your grocery store.  Fill up your lunchbox with fresh, seasonal produce, and you'll have a happy, healthy kid.
  • Avocado, Mozzarella, and Tomato Stacks.  I just layered everything, seasoned with some salt and pepper, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil.  Also featured:  fresh berries, bell peppers, pita chips, and chocolate-covered sunflower seeds.
  • Cantaloupe wrapped with ham (a play on proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe), cucumber spears, strawberries, and crackers
  • butterbean hummus (any hummus or bean dip would work well here) with lots of goodies for dipping:  pita, turkey rolls, carrots, bell peppers, and some dried apricots for dessert
  • Turkey and bell pepper roll-ups, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, cantaloupe, apple chips, and sunflower seeds.
More ideas:  caprese skewers. grilled veggies… really just anything in season, supplemented with protein and healthy fats!

Skewer it!
School Lunches - Skewer It
It's a proven fact that food is more fun when eaten off a stick.  So when in doubt, just skewer it!  I use regular bamboo skewers from the grocery store, then snip off the sharp points and cut the sticks down to size using my kitchen shears.   Easy peasy.
  • ham, turkey, and cheddar skewers, zucchini tots, peppers, carrorts, and yogurt-covered raisins
  • tropical fruit skewers (mango, pinapple, kiwi), turkey rolls, carrots, cucumbers, and a homemade trail mix with coconut cashews and roasted coconut chips
Other ideas:  caprese skewers, chicken satay, grilled veggie skewers, and really anything you'd normally eat on a sandwich or in a salad.  Just layer it on a skewer.

Be Festive and Celebrate Holidays!

School Lunches - Holidays

Like most kids, Caroline absolutely loves any and all holidays.  So I use that as inspiration for her lunches.  Pack festive foods, use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches, cheese, and fruit into fun shapes, or like I did above, you can even use Easter eggs for the lunch itself!  
  • Cinco de Mayo:  cheese quesadilla, black beans, tomatoes, watermelon, guacamole, and chips.  
  • Easter:  Easter eggs filled with fruit, crackers, cheese cubes, etc.
Other ideas:  Turkey and cranberry sandwich for Thanksgiving, snack-o-lantern fruit cups for Halloween, spinach wraps on St. Patrick's Day, an all-red and pink lunch for Valentine's Day, etc.

More Ideas:

Breakfast for lunch:  french toast skewers, yogurt + fruit and granola, or a biscuit + sausage and fruit
Deconstructed Pizza:  pepperoni, crackers, cheese, and bell pepper strips, with a small cup of marinara for dipping.  Caroline really loves this lunch
Antipasta:  salami or proscuitto, red bell peppers, marinated tomatoes, mozzarella, crackers, and grapes
Bento Box:  vegetrain sushi (like a California roll), edamame, sliced cucumbers, rice crackers, and fruit
Homemade Lunchables:  crackers, cheese slices, turkey or ham slices, and fruit

Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments, and I'll update this section!

So as you may have noticed in the pictures above, some of the lunches are packed in a stainless steel bento-style lunchbox.  In the past, I've packed Caroline's lunch in reusable containers with a few ziploc bags mixed in.  But washing all those containers became quite cumbersome.  We always manage to lose the lid or the cup, so I acquired quite a collection of mismatched containers. I'd been eyeing the bento style lunchbox from Pottery Barn Kids for over a year, and finally pulled the trigger last month.  And while it is pricey, I feel like it's already paid for itself.  

To be honest, I find it much easier to pack lunches using this.  I just fill the compartments!  No need to stress about having the right size container, or losing parts, etc.  Just simply fill it up.  And in Caroline's words, "it's so fun to open my lunchbox and see my whole lunch, right there!" Planet Box also has a similar lunch box, but I had points to use at Pottery Barn Kids, so the decision was an easy one.  Bonus points:  the PB Kids lunch box is now on sale!

Ahem.  And if you're considering buying one, then maybe wait a few days?  And maybe check back here tomorrow?  It will be worth your while, I promise.

And finally, when all else fails, look around the web for inspiration.  These are some of my favorite resources for getting new ideas:
Annie's Eat's instagram feed (#anniesschoolunches)

I hope this was helpful for some of you, and I hope you enjoyed getting a peak into Caroline's school lunches. What's your favorite thing to pack for your kids?


Josie said...

These are awesome. I don't have kids and I totally want to copy these ideas for my own lunches!

Josie said...

This is awesome! You have to share the granola truffle recipe - my little ones would love it!

Josie said...

As a teacher, I take my lunch pretty much every day. Thanks for some fun ideas!

Josie said...

This may be a silly question, but it is something I've been wondering since I've seen these PBK lunch boxes pop up. Where do you put a drink? I want to get one next year for my daughter, when she starts kindergarten, but I keep wondering about the drink. Does she just carry it separately? Does she ever forget it? Thanks!

Josie said...

Hey Julie, yep she just carries it separately. She's never forgotten it that I'm aware of! They also have the option to just buy a drink at school, so sometimes she'll just get a milk or water.

Josie said...

Did you enter to win the lunchbox? Your kids would think you're the coolest teacher ever!

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