Burger crumbles lunchHoo boy.  It’s been a while since I posted — mainly, I think, because the back-to-school season is no less hectic and stressful for me than it is for most of you.  We’re trying to finish up the summer, visit with friends and family, get P. through the transition to his new Pre-K classroom (which happened this week), get L. finished with camps and prepared for 1st grade (which happens in a couple of weeks), and continue all the usual work/home/writing/etc. commitments.  I bet the majority of you are nodding in solidarity right now.  Everybody’s nuts, schedule-wise, at this point in the summer.

So tonight, I thought I’d try to ease back in with a little roundup post of my favorite lunch-packing tips.  I’ve always said that when it comes to lowering anxiety and stress, the best way to defuse things is to have a solid plan, and keeping everyone well-fed as the new school year starts is no different. For those who have kids, I hope this makes things easier as you transition back into the school year; for those who don’t, I’m pretty sure at least some of these tips will translate just fine to your own lunch-packing endeavors.

  1. Put your pantry to work.  A solid lunch pantry is your best friend.  It’s like your wing man, on days when you just don’t know what to pack.  Keep an area of your cupboards or pantry stocked with three or four items that can become a main dish (this is where your jar of nut or seed butter and that emergency box of relatively unobjectionable, label-approved mac and cheese come into play); some single-serving unsweetened applesauce cups or organic fruit cups, dried fruits and nuts or seeds; and some whole-grain unsweetened cereals, crackers, lentil chips, brown rice cakes, or whole-grain pretzels.  With that kind of arsenal of shelf-stable backups, you can always manufacture a very reasonable lunch even on crazy mornings.  Yes, homemade and fresh are certainly better, but some days you just can’t reach the ideal.
  2. Plan double-duty dinners. At least once a week, make sure your dinner does some extra work for you.  Make something that can be turned out in large batches without lots of extra time and effort, like spaghetti sauce, chili, soups, stews, even meatloaf.  After dinner, freeze the uneaten portions in single serving containers, and you’ll have lunches waiting for you when you’re too tired to think about what to pack.
  3. Set a realistic bar.  Some people I talk to are quite stressed by the concept of having to create a “perfectly balanced” lunch.  They worry about having just the right mix of proteins, carbs, vegetables, and fruits each day.  I figured out a long time ago, though, that shooting for a perfect balance of every food group wasn’t realistic or necessary to make great lunches, because my kids are offered healthy foods three meals a day.  So for me, the bar is set at a minimum of three excellent choices.  There have to be three things in their lunchbox that I feel are really nutritionally optimal (for example: peppers, berries, chicken), and then if I don’t have anything else to throw in, or if I’ve run out of vegetables and have to serve two fruits, or if I end up rounding it out with some less-than-ideal crackers or tossing in a cookie for kicks, I don’t have to stress about it.  They can make up their own minds about what to eat, and I’ve provided them with enough solid choices to keep my mind at ease.
  4. Streamline snacks.  For me, one of the worst parts of packing lunches isn’t the lunch itself; it’s the need to add two decent snacks to it for L.’s long days.  I finally figured out that he, like most kids, is perfectly happy to be a creature of habit, so he didn’t need two DIFFERENT, fantastic snacks every day of the week.  Now I keep only three or four items in the house each week that are meant for snacktimes, and I rotate through them.  He doesn’t care if he takes popcorn for morning snack every day for a week (though I do), and he doesn’t mind if he finds a fruit leather in his backpack more than once.  Just cutting down the options has helped me to breathe easier.
  5. Let the gear be your guide.  A common mistake we’ve all probably made at some point or another is over- or under-packing.  What I’ve found is that having the right lunch gear, and letting it inform your choices, helps to keep portion sizes under control and curb the second-guessing.  At the moment, LunchBots are the perfect size for packing a very well-rounded lunch that’s the “right” amount of food for our boys.  For L., I know the contents of one LunchBot will be enough; for P., I know I usually have to drop something alongside, like a banana or an applesauce cup, to fill him up.  When I used to pack lunches in little separate containers, I’d have a hard time visualizing the whole thing together the way it would have been if I’d served the same food on a plate at home, so I’d put in far too many things, and too much of them.  Now, I can just fill the compartments, see the whole lunch laid out before me, and know that it’s okay to stop — which is the biggest advantage to bento-style lunch packing, as far as I’m concerned.  If you don’t have a bento-style container or other system that lets you see the lunch as a whole easily, try laying out the food on an appropriately sized plate before you pack it up.  You might be surprised what you find out about your portions or your variety.

Ultimately, taking the stress out of lunch-packing is really just about making sure that you stay in control.  Having a structured approach to the chore that lets you make easy, low-effort choices without resorting to lots of processed convenience foods can keep things pleasant — or at least, relatively painless — well into the school year.  Most importantly, keep your expectations realistic.  Your worst lunch, packed at home with loving intentions and a positive attitude, is more than good enough.