Turkey rollup lunch v.4It’s back-to-school season! I know some people around the country already have kids back in school; others are starting this week; and others, like my boys, will be going back in a couple of weeks’ time (major jealousy, by the way, for those lucky enough to wait for a post-Labor-Day start). Whether you’re in full-on organizing mode right now, just getting started (maybe, ahem, with the help of my handy back to school guide?), or already in the swing of things and hoping you can keep it up, the task of staying on top of school lunches and snacks probably looks something like this for most people:

Step One: Get your game face on. This year, snacks and lunches are going to be AWESOME. And effortless. You laugh in the face of lunch ruts.
Step Two: Stock up on some stuff. Plan for amazing first-day (or first-week) lunches. Buy or make all the kids’ favorites for snacktime. Congratulate self on being so darned organized.
Step Three: Complete first few days of packing. Rest on laurels. Feel smugly “together.”
Step Four: Life happens. Kids complain. Coffee goes cold while you scramble for sanity in the mornings. Evenings fill up with activities and homework. Somebody eats all the granola. The turkey goes bad. Your inspiration sags. Lunch packing becomes a drag.
Step Five: Pray for summer. Only 162 days to go.

I’m kidding, sort of. But I know as well as anyone that no matter how well-organized you get for back-to-school, there’s a certain amount of MAINTAINING that organization that needs to happen in order to ward off a total lunch-packing slump. Here are some of my favorite easy tips to keep the ball rolling after that first-day triumph:

  1. Be a snack squirrel.  Whenever I see fabulous sale prices on items that make good snacks or lunchbox additions, I buy 2 or more of them at a time.  One goes into the pantry for general use; the others go into a secret location where the children won’t find them, and I won’t be tempted to use them up unless I really need them.  Right now, I’ve got several bags of whole wheat mini-bagels, which were on major sale at Whole Foods for a few weeks in a row, stashed in the chest freezer in the garage.  There are two boxes of Annie’s bunny crackers, a box of Trader Joe’s cereal bars, and a couple of packages of unsweetened applesauce cups shelved in the basement.  I’ll keep adding to these stashes, little by little, one small purchase at a time — and that way, when I start to feel myself reaching the desperation point, I’ll have a well of reserves I can turn to that will help me pull it all back together.
  2. Keep a fallback lunch ready to go.  The fallback lunch is the one you pack when you’re just too tired or stressed to think about anything.  It will not be nutritionally perfect, but it will be better than panic.  I recommend putting the ingredients for the fallback lunch in a box or bag and stashing it on the top shelf of the pantry.  An example might be a box of your family’s favorite approved mac and cheese, a fruit leather or box of raisins, and a granola bar or similar item.  Or you might keep a single-serve pack of crackers, a can of tuna, a cup of applesauce, and trail mix on hand.  On a tough lunch-packing day, you can grab the kit and just follow where it leads.  Bonus points for adding some fruits and vegetables from the fridge, if you’ve got them.
  3. Try an “approved add-ins” bin.  This is an especially good trick for families with multiple children, and for families that want to foster more independence in lunch-packing (and who among us doesn’t?).  In a large bin of your choosing, pack your family’s favorite shelf-stable, nutritious snacks and lunchbox add-ons.  Fruit cups packed in juice or water, nut and seed butters, whole-grain cereals and crackers, fruit leathers, the makings for trail mix, popcorn, and rice cakes are all good choices.  Each day, once the main lunch (and any fresh items you want to add) is packed, the kids can choose from the add-ins bin to round out their meals and pack their own snacks.  Just by keeping an eye on the level in the add-in bin, you’ll know how much grocery shopping you need to do for the week.
  4. Do a “20 minute tune-up” once a week.  Pick a time and schedule it.  This is your moment: Set a timer and get chopping and packaging.  Slice vegetables, portion fruits, make single-serve containers of yogurt with frozen berries or jam or maple syrup stirred in (just not honey — honey left in yogurt makes the yogurt separate. Sad but true).  Cube your cheeses, portion your dips and hummus and salsas.  Whatever you can get done in 20 minutes is FINE.  Don’t push yourself to do more unless you’re dying to.  The point is, you’ll be that much farther ahead for every lunch-packing session during the week, and you’ll know that it’s only 20 minutes of your time that needs to be committed to the effort.  We can all find 20 minutes — even if it’s during commercial breaks.
  5. Set a snack list.  The hardest part of lunch-packing for me is invariably the snacks. I pack a great lunch, feel good about it, and then realize that I’ve forgotten to throw in a snack — and I don’t feel inspired.  The snack list should ideally contain five items in each of three categories: Fresh foods, Freezer foods, and Fair Game foods.  Fresh foods are things like apples or bananas with nut or seed butter, yogurt parfaits, fruit and cheese, veggies with dip, etc.  Freezer foods are make-ahead items that you keep at the ready: Banana bread, mini-muffins, mini-bagels, frozen smoothies.  Fair Game foods are the pantry items you can grab and toss into backpacks, like granola bars, crackers, and popcorn.  Fill out the lists with accepted items in your household, and keep it handy.  Each week when you do the grocery shopping, consult your snack sheet and do a quick check of your inventory to make sure that you have at least three of those snacks on hand, in enough quantity to keep you going for the week.  If not, stock up.  The fifteen snacks you’ve written down, packed in rotation, will be enough variety to keep the kids from getting too bored with their choices, but provide enough structure for you to keep things easy.

Packing a healthy and kid-approved school lunch every day can feel like a huge feat, but with the right organization, some advance planning, and a few simple tips like these, it doesn’t have to be a totally thankless chore.  Try one or two of these ideas this school year, and let me know if they’re a help to you and the lunch-packing routine in your house!