For the kids:
This year I have decided to get the kids involved with making their own lunches. The first time went great. The second time I realized it works better to get them going two at a time rather than four at once. However, it is way more enjoyable for me to get them in the kitchen helping than be stuck by myself until 9 at night making lunches for four kids. Plus, they are learning responsibility and taking ownership of what they eat.
I created a table which gives the four of them six options for lunches over the course of a week and placed it inside a plastic sheet protector so that we can cross of when they've taken a particular item for lunch.
Tuna or Chicken Sandwich
PB & Jelly or Honey Sandwich
Cheese & Crackers or Tortilla Roll Up
Soup or Beans
w/ Bread or rice
w/ Granola Bar or Trail Mix
They also get to take a fruit or veggies and a "treat" such as homemade cookies or snack crackers.
Choosing after the first day was difficult for a couple of them, "Why can't I just take (fill-in-the-blank) again?" I decided to provide them a menu of main items that they check off to prevent one kid from taking the same thing every day and using it all up. Plus, it is easy for me to plan ahead to make sure I have enough food on hand for their lunches. There is enough flexibility built in to where they can each have their individual preferences. (By the way, we pack lunches the night before. Mornings are WAY too crazy.)
School lunches have improved at my school this year. They are serving whole wheat bread, and the sides options are fruits and vegetables, including a fruit and veggie bar. Even before they made changes, we decided to allow the kids to buy school lunch one day if they choose for two reasons. One, we aren't purists. We still eat out and eat whatever we're served out of the house. Two, I don't want school lunches (or certain other foods) to become the "forbidden fruit" and turn my kids off to the way we normally eat as they grow up.
On a side note, we don't buy juice boxes. The kids all have water bottles to take. Also, we bought small thermoses for hot/cold items and sandwich wrappers and snack bags off of etsy. And no, I'm not worried about them losing them. We told them it's their responsibility to buy any replacement items.
For the older crowd:
Pop quiz, if you're over 10, packing a lunch is still cool because
A. It's healthier.
B. It's more economical.
C. It's less wasteful. (If you use reusable containers.)
D. All of the above.
Yes, it's D. How did you know??? Here are some tricks of the trade (drumroll, please)...
Plan ahead. Unless you are crazy like my husband and jump out of bed ready to start the day and sometimes even EARLY (gasp), pack your lunch the night before. The easiest way to pack your lunch is leftovers from dinner. Add a salad and a water bottle, and WALLA, instant lunch. I also take a piece of fruit and some nuts or the like for a snack.
Tip: If it's a family favorite or your family will continue to eat until there is no more food on the table, you may want to set some aside for your lunch before you serve them.
Cook ahead. We do this with items like bread, yogurt, beans, hummus, cookies, and brown rice. Two weeks ago we made hummus to eat on pita bread with veggies for a quick no-reheating-required lunch. When we make a pot of beans or lentils, we also make extra rice and store it together in the freezer in individual portions for "frozen meals." Soup can be stored this way as well. Cookie dough can be store in the freezer in batches to be baked up for the week. Once a month or so I make a large batch of dough which yields four loaves of bread, cinnamon rolls, and pizza crust. The extra loaves go into the freezer for lunches in future weeks. (No I don't make all of these foods in one weekend.)
Cut ahead. Some of our fruits that we get in the co-op can end up just sitting unused because we don't feel like cutting them up during the week. We have started precutting fruit like mangos and cantaloupe when we get them. Sometimes we freeze part of the fruit we get for smoothies or to add to yogurt. Lettuce keeps longer if you wash it and store it with paper towels. Other veggies can also be precut to add to a salad or sandwich. It is totally worth it to take a little time on the weekend to prep your fresh fruits and veggies to make it more convenient to make a quick lunch or snack during the work week. And you can give yourself a pat on the back for not paying the grocery store the ridiculous upcharge buy it cut up for you!
Have a back-up plan. Give yourself some grace. As I mentioned above, the start of the schoolyear is crazy for me. I try to plan ahead and freeze items, but it never goes as well in real life as it does in my head. If you're going through a busy time, buy a few healthier frozen meals to keep in the freezer for lunches. If you're going to grab something out, try to think of where you can go and get something relatively healthy that won't weigh you down. Some grocery stores have salad bars and soup. The other day I picked up pineapples and mandarin oranges packed in fruit juice, ginger snaps, and healthier crackers to keep in my classroom for afterschool snacks. It's not organic or fresh or homemade or raw, but it's a better option than junk food or cranky me and cranky kids.
If you're looking for me, I'll be the one with the retro Hello Kitty lunchbox. *sigh* I wish.