I watched a morning news show today, and the hot and heavy trend is - of course - Back to School.
BTS comes in many topics. Book bags, sleep, breakfasts, getting back into the routine - but this morning's discussion centered around lunches. Specifically making a cute and attractive lunch that your kid will eat. I sat on the couch with my coffee and my cheese toast (seriously, cheese toast is a ridiculously easy and yummy breakfast that I learned about in junior high Home Ec - don't judge! - and it's been with me ever since) and watched the segment.
And it annoyed me no freakin' end.
The sandwiches were made in the shape of minions and monsters, featured cut out letters and were in no way, shape or form lunches that would survive being shoved into a lunch box, jostled around running into the building, and being slammed onto the lunch table. I could imagine what that carefully arranged monster sandwich might look like - the gingerly toothpicked on olive eyeballs dangling precariously, the cut out letters placed on the peanut butter to spell out I love you rearranged to say gibberish - all of the careful morning efforts for naught.
And who has that kind of energy at 6 a.m.? I've been making school lunches for 19 (!) years and ain't nobody got time for that effort.
The cohost said that adults aren't the only ones who eat with their eyes, but kids do as well, and she really emphasized the need for us to make lunches fun and exciting and the envy of their peers.
Why? Why do I have to worry about making lunch exciting and fun and the focus of envy?
A few years ago, I decided I didn't really want to be packing lunches for the rest of my life and I gave the task over to my kids. I help - sometimes guised in the form of "No, you may not take four BabyBel cheeses and cheese crackers!" - and we talk about the choices, but the actual packing is their responsibility. After dinner, we pull out the lunch boxes and they pack 'em up. They put the packed lunch boxes in the fridge and the next morning, they heat up the hot part, add a couple of ice packs for the rest and go.
Here's what we do. It may or may not work for you, but it's been really successful for us - read: works more than 50% of the time - and makes the kids responsible for their own meals, which is my ultimate goal.
First, I sat down with the kids and we brainstormed. Tell me five things you might like to have in your lunch besides a peanut butter (or soy butter) sandwich. After discarding some really out there things, we had a solid list of a dozen. Chicken legs or wings, meat and cheese roll ups, leftovers in a thermos, grilled cheese sticks, cereal (buy milk in the lunch line), a hot pocket, cold pizza, ramen with added veggies, baked loaded potato. Yogurt. Cheese and crackers and pepperoni.
Next we made a list of fruit and veggie choices that they liked. Of course you've got carrot sticks, bananas, grapes, etc. But one of my girls loves apples, and when we talked about them, she said it took too long to eat a whole apple, and cut apples were preferred - and dipping them in lemon juice didn't work for her because it changed the flavor (I KNOW that most people don't have this issue, but she did.) So we dip them in Sprite, or I pony up and buy the bag of already cut apples. Think outside the box as well - frozen blueberries? Strawberries? I will caution you that you should make sure the strawberries are in a container that doesn't allow them to toss around, so that they don't get smushy. Celery. Edamame. Cold long green beans. Salad, which for my shorties just means dark lettuces, as they don't like tomatoes. Cucumber rounds. Most of my kids don't like dressing, but one does, so I will often send a bit of ranch dressing for her to dip.
Now for the more "fun" part - Bars/Chips/Crackers - we made a list of favorites. I really don't like to send chips in for lunch, but I will on occasion send nachos. It fills their need for chips and is fun. Pretzels. Veggie sticks. Goldfish. Granola bars, even make your own versions.
Last, a beverage. I'm kind of funny with beverages. I like them to drink water, but I get that it's boring. We do propel packets, capri sun 100% fruit, milk boxes, fizzy juices, and iced tea.
The key to all of this, for us, is making sure we are completely prepared. I bought small squat thermos containers (the real deal, the name brand, not the knock offs) to keep their main part of lunch hot. The secret is to fill them with boiling water while the kids are eating breakfast, and then they heat up whatever the main portion of their lunch is. Dump the water out, put the hot food in, and seal it up. My kids report that their food is piping hot at lunch time. This little thing has gone a long way towards opening up new lunch avenues.
We also tried a lot of different beverage containers and found which ones worked for us - Contingo and Thermos both have great options. Again, they aren't cheap, but they keep the beverages hot or cold and don't leak. It's also cheaper to fill them with lower sugar lemonade from home or iced tea.
The other, very helpful, thing we did was buying the appropriate lunch box. Character boxes, cutesy sacks and the like are cool looking but rarely hold enough. Instead, we went to the camping section of the store and bought good size lunch boxes. (This also helps my high school students, who are away from home for 10+ hours and need to pack a couple of meals many days.They at least have access to a microwave.)
When my kids are packing, they know to choose one from each category, and they can add a second bar/chip/cracker choice for after school - and if they have a mid morning snack, I encourage them to pack another fruit or veg choice. I find that by making it their decision as to what to pack, they are more apt to eat it. After all, I don't know that I'd want to eat a lunch I didn't pack, day in and day out.
I spend about 15 minutes on Sunday night getting stuff ready for the next week - I bag pretzels and goldfish (this way I can also make sure that they don't grab five handfuls :) I portion out grapes, carrots, cut up celery sticks and shredded cheese into small containers. (I have the kids help me with this.) Basically, the more prep you can do ahead of time, the easier the packing is. At night, when I'm cleaning up dinner, we put the leftovers into individual portion sizes - so this way, anyone can grab that pasta and chicken they really enjoyed. Even me, eating at home at my desk the next day.
The result of all of this isn't a cute, fun, lunch that's the envy of all at the table. It's a lunch that my kids will eat and it doesn't make me totally crazy to pack.
The only part of packing lunch with which we struggle? REMEMBERING to BRING THE LUNCH to school.
I'm still working on that. :)