The beginning of the school year brings many things. Fresh haircuts, new clothes, and some combination of nervous excitement as they head off to find out what awaits them for the coming year. If you’re a parent, this may bring a sense of normalcy back to your life after a crazy summer break. Or, let’s be real here, a sense of dread as packing school lunches finds its way back on your to-do list. If this is you, know that I feel you, my friend. Packing school lunches was never my favourite task. So, in this post, I’m sharing some tips to make school lunches a little easier this year.
Handling Boomerang Food
If you’re tired of seeing an almost full lunch bag come home each day, know that I’ve been there. My youngest is very picky with flavours and textures, so the options feel pretty slim sometimes. This makes it even more disheartening when food comes home each day. Understand that there are many reasons for this, so try not to take it personally. Here are some tips to help deal with the inevitable returns you get at the end of the day from the school lunch you lovingly planned and packed.
Get Them Involved
Maybe a no-brainer, but getting them involved in the food selection is the easiest way to make sure that their lunch actually gets eaten each day. You can do this in a number of ways. Take them to the grocery store with you and allow them to point out things that appeal to them. Or, if that sounds like an exercise in frustration for you, ask them before you head out. Get them to give you a list of things they’d like to see in their lunches. While you may not agree on every item, take their selections into account when shopping for the week.
It can also be really helpful to get them involved in packing their lunches. I often prep food in groupings (dry snacks, fresh veggies, fruit, etc). Have them help you with the selections and packing in whatever way is age-appropriate.
You know the old saying, variety is the spice of life. If you send the same lunch to school day after day, eventually they will get bored and you’ll start seeing a large percentage of it come home at the end of the day. It helps to keep a list of lunch components they like and try to rotate so they aren’t seeing the same lunch day after day.
Consider packing something they consider a treat, to be enjoyed after a certain food item is eaten. So, if they tend to always skip the veggies, tell them the treat needs to be saved until after the veggies are eaten. If the veggies come home, perhaps a treat isn’t included in their lunch the next day.
Some will consider this bribery, but let’s be real here, school can be HARD for those sweet little souls. I’d be packing them a little treat anyway, so I feel no guilt over asking them to eat something healthy before they tuck into their favourite treat.
Use a Thermos
A good thermos can be your best friend when it comes to packing school lunches. You can provide a hot meal that they love, like soup on a cold day, or leftovers from last night’s dinner if time is tight. Just be sure that they can open it on their own and you’re set.
I like to boil the kettle and pour the boiling water into the thermos for a few minutes to warm it up. Then, I’ll heat the food a little warmer than eating temperature before pouring it into the thermos. This ensures that it’s still warm enough to eat when lunchtime comes around.
School Lunch Packing Tips
Here are some handy tips to help keep you sane during school lunch season.
It can get hard coming up with lunch ideas every day, so I find it helpful to include the major plant-based food groups. Ask yourself if each is represented. Does this lunch contain whole grains? What about fruit? Some vegetables? Are legumes represented? Once I finish hitting those main groups lunch is basically done. Add a snack or two (depending on what you’ve already packed) and call it a day.
Pack the Rainbow
A helpful way to ensure they’re getting a good variety of nutrients is to pack the rainbow. Aim to have something red, something orange or yellow, something green, something blue or purple and even something white or brown. If you hit them all you’ll know they’ve had a well-rounded day.
Pack Some Extra
Growing kids have unpredictable appetites. One day they may only nibble on their lunch and claim they weren’t hungry. The next day they may eat the whole thing before noon. Avoid having hangry children by packing an extra snack. This is especially important for growing kids. Also, remember that plant-based foods tend to have fewer calories, so your little plant munchers may have bigger appetites than their omnivorous peers.
If you’re concerned that this will lead to extra food waste, set some guidelines around which items to eat last. Things like crackers, trail mix or other dry snacks don’t spoil as quickly, so they can be sent multiple days in a row if your child isn’t hungry enough to eat them. You’ll be glad they had it when they come home with an empty lunch bag and are ravenous for a snack.
Handling Pizza Days
Most schools offer pizza days or some other form of hot lunch once in a while. Unfortunately, many have not caught up with offering plant-based options in these cases. If your school is one of them, consider planning your own special lunch day with your child. This will keep them from feeling left out if everyone else is getting a special lunch at school.
For my girls, we discuss ahead of time what special lunch item they would like on pizza days. Usually, it’s a hot lunch option or something we don’t eat very often. I don’t mind taking a few extra minutes to make this lunch special for them, as they are willingly choosing plants over peer pressure. I feel that’s a choice worth rewarding.
This one is for the little ones heading off to the primary grades. Ask your child to try opening each container you plan to use ahead of time. If they struggle with it, consider using something that will be easier for them to open. This will give them more time to actually eat their lunch, instead of waiting patiently for the lunchroom supervisor to get to their table to help them open containers.
Keep it Simple
Let’s face it, lunchtime typically equals social time for kids. They’re going to be far more interested in chatting with their friends than eating. Plainly put, if you pack something difficult to consume while goofing off with their friends, chances are good it’s coming home at the end of the day. So, keep lunch options simple and easy to eat. One-handed options like wraps and stuffed pitas are a great option. For the little ones, consider cutting their sandwiches into quarters as this tends to be more manageable for them.
Consider using a shelf in your pantry or a section of your fridge to house pre-packed snack options for the week. To do this I’ll often pre-pack school snacks in little containers so they are grab-and-go. Then, you can make them responsible for selecting their snacks (under whatever guidelines you feel comfortable with). They can add these to the main item that’s been prepared and lunch is done. As they get older, they can help you set up the snack stations and eventually take over the task entirely.
An Evening Event
If your mornings are chaotic and busy, the last thing you need is something extra on your to-do list. Save yourself the hassle and pack school lunches the night before. You can even pair it with dinner prep and utilize some of the same items to save you some time. Having some broccoli with dinner? Prep some extra to send as a raw snack in their lunch the next day. Only thermos items need to be packed the morning of. The rest will happily sit in the fridge overnight, ready to be grabbed in the morning.
Handling Nut-Free Lunches
Some schools have regulations around what you can and can’t send. For example, the school district that my girls attend is completely nut-free. This is to help make school a safer environment for children with life-threatening nut allergies. So, be sure to abide by these regulations to avoid getting calls home from the school, or having your child’s lunch confiscated.
With a little practice, making school lunches nut-free can be pretty easy. When it comes to baked goods made during the school year, I get in the habit of making them nut-free from the start so they are all fair game to be packed in school lunches. Here are some tips for keeping your plant-based lunch nut-free for schools that require this.
Some substitutions are rather easy to make. If your child likes almond milk with their lunch, try sending another plant-based milk option with them instead. Soy, hemp, rice or oat milk are all great nut-free choices. Depending on where you live, you may also find some of these options packaged in small tetra packs, suitable for a school lunch. Otherwise, just find a reusable drink container your child likes and use that.
The same goes for any baked goods that are potentially going to school, use one of the nut-free dairy alternatives in your baked treats as well.
Swap in Seeds
Nuts may not be allowed, but seeds are a different class, and typically non-reactive for those with nut allergies. So, you can safely swap seed butter in place of those nut butters that kids tend to love. Sunflower butter is a great nut-free alternative to peanut or almond butter. It works well in a sandwich too.
When it comes to dressings or sauces you may want to send, try making them with sunflower seeds instead of cashews. They’re cheaper and you won’t notice the difference in flavour. I typically blend the sauce a little longer just to be sure it comes out as velvety smooth as the cashew version.
Many of these dressings and sauces can also be made with tahini, which is ground sesame seed paste. It makes a great nut-free base for salad dressings and veggie dips too. Just add some garlic, lemon juice or apple cider vinegar and whatever spices you like.
Leave a Note
If you’re sending something like a sunflower butter sandwich to school, consider putting a little post-it note on the sandwich container, identifying what it is. This is especially helpful for younger children who may not be able to explain to a lunchroom supervisor that his or her lunch isn’t breaking the rules (even though it looks a lot like peanut butter). Something as simple as “this sandwich is made with sunflower butter and does not contain nuts.” It may just save you a phone call from the school.
The Bottom Line
Packing school lunches was never my favourite chore. It got a little tougher when we first switched to a whole food plant-based diet, but a little creativity definitely helps. I hope these tips and tricks help to make this task a little easier on you until the magical day when you can make them do it themselves. 😉
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