Are healthy school lunches a myth – or something you can actually get done with the gazillion other things you have going on in your life?
Ah, back to school time. For some this is a sad time, for others, including me, a time of rejoicing. Not because I will miss being able to go on all of the grand adventures with my family like I did during the summer, and not because I particularly like having to have my kids to the bus stop by 7 am. But more because I am a total routine junkie and this summer totally threw me for a loop. It was my first summer as a stay-at-home mom and wow. Who knew how much not having everyone on a regular schedule could mess you up! The lack of routine even went so far as disturbing my workout and nutrition, as in, there wasn't much good in either. Turns out I, like most others, am healthier when I can stick to a routine.
My kids are now in school (my youngest even started kindergarten, ack!), and now we are just getting settled back into our wonderful, planned-ahead routines, and I can see I'm already eating better and taking better care of myself 🙂
One thing though that I know a lot of people struggle with are providing their kids with healthy school lunches – and ones that they will actually eat. Whether you just want junior not to have a sugar crash during math or because your child has a food allergy, healthy lunches can sometimes be a difficult thing to figure out. Kids are many times picky, and so trying to get your child to eat a healthy lunch that you packed when their friends are eating Lunchables is hard. Add in restrictions that the school might add, like no nuts, and sometimes this task seems downright impossible.
However, it doesn't have to be. Here are my tips on packing school lunches, and staying sane while doing it:
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- Ask your child for buy-in. Have them come to the grocery store with you (or sit with you if you shop online), and choose a few healthy items to put in their lunches and snacks.
- Look at some of the healthy school lunch blog posts that are out there for ideas and also ask your child to look with you. My favorites come from Michelle of NomNom Paleo – she has several weeks' worth of Paleo lunchbox ideas and Renee of Raising Generation Nourished, who has a printable list of items to choose from each week. There are many other posts with ideas out there, but these are good starting points and you can pick and choose items from each meal that look appetizing. (Picture below of one of NomNom Paleo's meals I made for the first day of school – prosciutto wrapped in an egg omelette, a chocolate cherry scone, and fresh berries)
- Get an ebook of healthy school lunch ideas. I love Katie Kimball's “The Healthy Lunch Box”. This is similar to looking at the blog posts above, but just with a lot more ideas for sandwich-free lunches. It's even on sale for 35% until August 31st, 2017 with code BTS2017LUNCH (making it less than $7!).
****Do not attempt to make more than 1-2 different meals from the 2 above options per week. Unless of course you are of the type that absolutely loves to do that, and would make Disney figures with food for every meal…. But most of you are most likely trying to just keep your head above water and you will get overwhelmed and burnt out if you attempt too much. You can mix up the 1-2 meals you make and maybe serve carrots with one and celery with another, etc, but don't try 5 completely different meals each week. Trust me on this one.
- Batch cook and prep during the weekend for the entire week. Or at least for half the week. If you are giving your child cut up carrots in their lunch, it's easiest to just cut up a week's worth at once and then either pack all of the lunch containers then, or if you don't have enough containers, put the cut up carrots in a plastic bag or storage container and remove what you need each day. Then it only takes seconds in the morning to create a lunch rather than valuable minutes. Do this with all of the items that you possibly can for that week. Want to try batch cooking your meals? My free 5-day Paleo meal plan lays it all out for you. 2 hours to prep most of 5 days of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners!
- Along the same lines, if you make muffins or scones or any baked goods, make a double batch and freeze half. Then you can simply remove the muffin from the freezer the morning of and it will most likely be defrosted by the time your child eats lunch. (unless your child eats lunch at 10 am like my kindergartner does). This again makes it super simple for you in the morning, but your kid gets a yummy healthy baked good. You can also freeze things like my protein crepes – if you freeze them put a layer of parchment in between each one. Then when you need it, let it thaw and then put some almond butter or sunbutter and jelly in the middle and roll up! It's a great substitute for bread. (This pic shows rollups with plantain chips and fresh strawberries)
- Utilize leftovers as much as you can. Chili made for dinner one night can then be reheated in a thermos for lunch, or added on top of a baked potato or a grass-fed hot dog. In this meal I just gave my kids the leftover steak (and pineapple, red bell pepper, onion, and zucchini) skewers we had had for dinner the night prior and then topped it with some Primal Kitchen Ranch dressing.
- Make recreations of favorite foods. This one sometimes takes more effort, but you can make pretty much anything these days into a healthier version. I love Jennifer Robbin's Paleo Kid's Cookbook since it has so many great kid-friendly items (see my review of this book) . Dairy-free, gluten-free, and grain-free items abound in this book like pizza, mac & cheese, and goldfish. Is giving your kid a dairy-free pizza better than a bunch of veggies? No, most certainly not, BUT – if your kid is picky and will actually eat the pizza and yet just throw out the veggies, at least you know they are getting some real food into their growing bodies. This might also help with a kid transitioning into a more real food or Paleo-style diet to understand they don't have to go straight from favorite foods to a pile of veggies.
- Utilize dips and sauces as much as possible. I'm 40 and I am not a fan of plain raw veggies. So I can't imagine what a 7-year-old with an undeveloped palate is thinking when they come across plain raw veggies. However, add a container of sauce and we are golden. Some sauces/dips we use: guacamole, ranch sauce, green goddess sauce, mayo, honey mustard (we just make our own – 1:1 honey and mustard and sometimes add a little mayo), ketchup, other salad dressings, etc. Primal Kitchen has a good selection of dressings that have worked well for sauces, and they are nice because they are premade and keep in the fridge for a long time so it's just one less thing for you to have to do. (Pic below is an egg and potato salad with mayo over arugula, turkey lunchmeat slices, sliced cucumber, guacamole for dipping, and fresh berries. I used Costco's organic pre-peeled hard boiled eggs for this for convenience)
- Have your kids MAKE their own lunch. Now if this seems impossible, it might not be. While the youngest family members may not be able to do this, once your kids are in elementary school it really isn't that difficult. My own kids (5 & 7) are going through Kitchen Stewardship's Kids Cook Real Food eCourse so they are learning how to spread things like sunbutter and jelly on gluten-free bread, peel and cut up veggies and fruits, make snacks like Ants on a Log, and soon they will learn to bake and cook. It's been a lot of fun to work on this with them and they love eating what they've created. It makes them proud and confident in the kitchen and I've definitely noticed a difference in the way they've approached food lately. (Want to see the videos of what they've done so far? There is only a few as we had to take a break at the end of summer with all the camping we did.) Even if you aren't ready to have them cook, you can still have them help assemble lunches. Remember those carrots you pre-cut over the weekend? Have your kids take them from the storage container and put them in their lunch container.
- Keep it simple. Kids don't need some elaborate gourmet meal. Oftentimes they don't even have enough time to eat what they get much less eat something complicated or fussy. A mixture of a few finger foods work perfectly, especially for younger kids. Try to avoid the need for a fork until they are a bit older, and if a utensil is needed, aim to give them a spoon since that makes fast eating easier. And also avoid things like pork ribs or chicken legs on the bone – cut the meat off for them so they can quickly pick it up.
- Utilize convenience foods. Now this isn't saying processed foods. This is more like using precut apples, pre-peeled hardboiled eggs, pre-made coconut or cashew milk yogurt (get unsweetened and put fresh fruit or homemade jam in it), precut carrots, etc. Yes, this option does cost a bit more, but if it's going to save you 30 minutes of prep that you just don't have, and you'll actually use it, it's worth it. No one said that eating healthy requires you to make 100% of your food from scratch, though sometimes it's easy to fall into that way of thinking.
- Be easy on yourself. Even if you can only make 1 healthy lunch a week, it's still better than none. My kids get gluten-free sunbutter and jelly sandwiches a few times a month (we use Glutino white bread since it's the closest thing to actual gluten-bread we've found. You can typically get that in the freezer aisle in the natural foods section) and sometimes they get gluten-free chicken nuggets from the freezer aisle. Sometimes I just don't have the time to make something else. Just breathe – they will turn out ok. 🙂
There are a number of ways to package homemade meals for your kids, but our favorite are LunchBots. I like them because they come in a various number of configurations – like only 1 section and even up to 5 sections, so depending on what you are serving they will hold the food well (I personally use the 1 and 3 section ones the most). They also have thermoses that work well for things like soups, stews, and chilis, and I even use them when I am going to be out and about. They are also stainless steel so you don't have to worry about any weird plastics leaching into your kid's food. (Pic below of the 1 section LunchBot and leftover roast chicken made into chicken salad with Jilz Paleo crackers. The chicken salad was chicken, dried cranberries, pecans, parsley, salt, pepper, and mayo)
I hope these tips help you to realize that making your kid a healthy school lunch is not super hard and can actually be done. Do you have any tips for what works for you? I'd love to hear about them below!