The only school lunch box strategy you will ever need

School lunch boxes. Just the very thought is enough to send moms into a panic. Besides for breakfast and dinners, we now have to find things which can be packaged, stored and eaten and be ready every morning.

It’s no joke, especially if you have a few children with different likes and dislikes.

With my eldest child, Ella, set to start Grade 1 tomorrow, I can no longer rely on the lunch and snacks she used to get in nursery school. (In fact, in Grade 0, I had to send lunch every day so I have had a full year to practice).

Moms panic about school lunches because they

a. Don’t have a strategy

b. Aim for unrealistic ideas

There are amazing ideas on the internet, but a lot of them say things like “bake your own rolled-oats peanut butter bars and freeze”.

Um, not for me. The only baking I do is from a packet. So any lunch box ideas which require making anything different than what I already have in the house is useless to me.

If it can’t be found in my fridge or in my cupboard, it doesn’t work for me.

Here goes:

a. THE LUNCH BOX STRATEGY

The lunch box strategy is based on my meal-planning strategy.

Pack at least one of every food group.

Yup, that’s it. It’s helpful because you have a template of where to start, and can build on it. It’s a loose structure (some days you don’t have a vegetable and everyone survives) and helps create some order when you feel overwhelmed. If your child has a longer day, or is very active you can include a few of one food group.

It means (try) include:

  • a starch/ carb ( bread, rolls, bagels, pasta, wrap or the like works well)
  • a protein (tuna mayonnaise, cold meat, cheese, eggs, hummus or the like. This can go on the bread)
  • vegetable (cucumber slices, carrot sticks, baby tomatoes)
  • fruit (whole or cut up: apples, strawberries, peaches, mangoes, oranges, blueberries)
  • Fat (usually included in the cheese, butter, dressing)
  • Snack-type item (These are less nutrient-dense options which everyone defines differently. They sometimes are sweet, sometimes savory and are revolutionary as I used to be violently anti any and all types of junk food”. Now I include them because I want my daughter to feel normal and have no need to hanker (beg, steal, barter) after these foods because they are restricted. I advocate for balance, and if 90% of her lunch-box is nutrient-dense, then 10% of less nutritious food is no problem. There is nothing wrong with providing nutrient-dense options like wholewheat spelt muffins, as long as your child doesn’t feel deprived or “weird”.)

b. EASY IDEAS FOR THE BUSIEST MOM

Remember: if it’s not in my fridge or cupboard or leftover from supper the night before, it can’t feature in the lunch-box. I am SO over googling these fancy ideas which I will never do. 2019 is about facing reality and working three jobs and having three children means I have minimal time and energy for fancy meals.

1. BREAD/ STARCH

I am lucky that my Ella loves bread-types of food, so this an easy one. We use regularly

  • bread – rye, wholewheat, occasionally white
  • bagels
  • pita bread (love these, I freeze them and defrost in the toaster for 30 seconds)
  • french toast – my children love taking French toast to school, if I am making for breakfast I make extra. They don’t yet mind if it’s not hot.
  • toasting sandwiches is delicious, even if they are eaten later at room temperature
  • leftover pizza occasionally

Additional ideas – starch fills us up and gives energy, so I am going to send another type of starch this year too as school ends at 3pm. My ideas are boiled baby potatoes, crackers and pasta.

2. PROTEIN

Protein is super important as it adds “staying power” and slows the digestion of the bread/ carbs. Ella adores tuna, so she usually gets tuna mayonnaise + bread type food every day. Other ideas we have used are boiled eggs and tuna rissoles from the bakery. Leftover chicken schnitzel would work too, but we never have leftovers of that, it gets eaten to the last crumb.

3. VEGETABLE

I keep this really simple, and it goes down well. I am lucky that Ella loves vegetables, and if she didn’t I may include less or leave it out altogether (exposure is important but throwing away the same food day after day is silly, so you can offer veggies at home if they are uneaten every single day in the lunch box)

  • cucumber slices / sticks / baby cucumbers
  • carrot sticks
  • cherry tomatoes occasionally (they don’t seem to last well)
  • sliced peppers (These don’t seem to keep so well through the day, so I usually leave them out)
  • chopped salad if I have leftover or readymade
  • half a boiled mielie (if leftover from dinner)

My plan this year is to send along a small container the size of salad dressing you get with takeaway food with a dip for these vegetables like cream cheese, hummus, or tuna mayonaise to add some extra nutrients and staying power.

4. FRUIT

This is the easiest; as well always have some sort of fruits in the fridge. More often than not I send sliced apples (sometimes with peanut butter to dip), but when I get my act together and have the time and inclination I pack

  • orange wedges
  • whole grapes
  • strawberries (these get mushy sometimes though)
  • sliced pineapple
  • peach / nectarine

5. SNACK-TYPE FOOD

These vary from things like pretzels and popcorn to leftover birthday cake and chocolate chip cookies. When all else fails, a bag of oatees does the trick and is gobbled up. Every family has their own definition of these foods, and while some include pretzels as an everyday food, others keep it as a “restricted” food. I am not here to judge anyone’s food choices, and no one should judge what you pack in your child’s lunch box (especially the teachers).

This list does not mean these foods are not nutritious, they simply fall into this category when it comes to planning in my home. They are less nutrient-dense than the other foods provided and may have higher calories or sugar content.

  • pretzels
  • crisps
  • baked pastry
  • homemade popcorn
  • oatees / another sugary cereal
  • granola bar
  • muffin / leftover cake
  • fruit bites
  • small chocolate bar

In summary, it doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated. As long as you pack enough and a variety of food groups, you have done YOUR job.

If your child doesn’t eat, it’s not your responsibility. You may, however, want to check why. Maybe there is no time to eat, maybe his friends are pressuring him to come and play. There could be many reasons, but if all is well and your child doesn’t eat much at school, do not make an issue. They will make up for it at dinner and will eat what they need.

As your child gets older, you can encourage their feedback. What did they like? What didn’t they like? What do their friends get which they may like to eat?

So there it is – a lunch box plan which actually works. Here’s to a year of school success and happy children!

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