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The first day of school brings excitement, nervousness, new outfits, new haircuts, stuffed backpacks and lunchboxes. UGH! 10 months of lunch making loom ahead.

Lucky for me, my children’s elementary school does not offer hot lunches. So for more than seven years now, I’ve whipped up school lunch in my kitchen. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

First, get yourself some great reusable lunch containers – it really beats a bunch of plastic bags, is better for the environment, and saves you bundles of money when you buy your snacks in bulk instead of individually wrapped items. We personally like Colorful Klip-It® Lunch Cubes and Lunchskins®. A thermos is a must have as well.

Second, get yourself some fun tools – our favorites are an apple corer, unique reusable toothpicks, spears, Popsicle sticks, a mandolin, and shape cutters. These tools not only help you mix up the style of the same items, they allow you to cut up items into small bite-size pieces. No matter how long lunchtime is, “It’s not enough time to eat,” claims one child of mine. I think it’s because its the one time of the day they are allowed to talk and be sociable. So the smaller the items, the better chance they have of being popped into their mouths!

Third, come up with maybe 10 staple lunches. Lunch is no time to have your child try a food for the first time, or to try and stuff their lunch full of vegetables, if they don’t like them. No matter how hungry they are, they just won’t eat what they don’t like. If kids don’t eat they spend the rest of their day hungry, tired, and unfocused. Which brings me to another point—have them bring home the leftovers (except liquids). This will help you gauge what they’re really eating or not eating. Plus you’ll figure out if you’re sending in too much food. Most elementary children have a snack and lunch. Honestly, a great deal of lunch food goes into the trash. As a lunchroom mom, I’ve seen this firsthand.

Need some inspiration for what to pack? There’s a plethora of inspiration online – search ‘bento box’ lunch ideas (try http://bit.ly/mnml1r and http://bit.ly/OZKT6H) and there will be thousands of lunches you can imitate, as well as absolutely adorable toothpicks, forks, and containers for packing up your bento lunch.

Lunchbox Basics--When I pack a lunch I try to include carbs, fruits and veggies, protein, dairy, the occasional dip, and sometimes a treat. Check out My 10 Staple Lunch Favoritesbelow. And consider these additional possibilities too - tuna salad, egg salad, scrambled eggs in a thermos, vegetarian sushi, quiche, toasted waffles (just be sure to cool completely before packing or they get sweaty).

Lastly, I only send in water for snack and lunch. My favorite drink container is Rubbermaid® Litterless™ Juice Box. It’s small enough to fit in the lunchbox and I can fill it with ice. By lunchtime, the water is really cold and in the meantime, the container doubles as an icepack. I know my children don’t drink enough water as it is; this is one time they will consume it if they are thirsty.

On the dessert front, I send in one piece of candy or special treat every few weeks. I know it probably gets eaten first, that’s why it’s small and included infrequently. At lunch they are not leisurely enjoying their food, they are gobbling it down due to hunger and/or the need to get to recess.

All that being said, I am not above a juice box, bag of goldfish, or occasional cupcake. We’re all doing the best we can. Some mornings, filling the lunchbox with good healthy food seems like just another chore.

If you have a chance the night before, set out ALL the lunch items necessary: water bottles and lids, lunchboxes, silverware, etc., and even fill up your newfound fun containers with dry snacks – this shaves many minutes off the often rushed morning routine.

Hopefully, you’re off to a good start. Best of luck for a great year!

My 10 Staple Lunch Favorites

  1. mini-bagel with cream cheese, cheese stick or yogurt, pretzels and grapes
  2. tortellini pasta, roll or crackers, apple slices and baby tomatoes
  3. veggies with hummus cup, Cheeze-its, tube yogurt and Z Bar (or granola bar)
  4. rice with grilled chicken in thermos, mini-salad, roll or slice of bread
  5. mini-sandwich with salami, turkey, and cheese, pretzels, edamame
  6. pasta with mini-turkey meatballs, roll, melon slices, applesauce
  7. deli meat and cheese cubes on a skewer (or popsicle stick), veggies, crackers, hard-boiled egg
  8. mac-n-cheese and hot dog, plum, veggies with ranch dip
  9. smashed potatoes, fruit, yogurt raisins, sweet peppers
  10. udon noodles with grated carrots, finely sliced snap peas or fresh baby spinach rice cake and blueberries

Feel free to share your best ‘bento box’ menu or school lunch ideas, as well as thermos suggestions in the comments below. After all, best practices should be shared amongst us!


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Jennifer Pine lives in New Jersey and is a "household manager to her husband of 15 years and two kids" – i.e., stay-at-home mom. She is passionate about teaching kids of any age to do good for others and uses the Community Service Committee at the schools as a primary forum. Jennifer tries more to be her children’s parent than their BFF, enabling them to become independent so they will be successful adults.

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