I never could figure out exactly what my kids would like for lunch on any given day.. and in the morning rush getting ready for school, I was not going to hold a polling session to find out. Now I totally get it.. I worked outside of the home for many years and had to bring my own lunches to work and somedays you just didn’t FEEL like eating a sandwich or TV dinner or whatever was in my lunch box. But at least I was in charge of making my own decisions. I can’t even imagine what I would have thought if lunch was a game of russian roulette every day with someone packing what they THOUGHT I wanted.
So I decided I was going to let my children pack their own lunches. (Plus.. hey.. less work for me!) They were never fans of sandwiches or little "lunchbox meals” but mostly I found they were eating the “snack” like foods. Single serving packages of crackers or yogurt or fruit. Things I knew they could easily pack for themselves.
The problem was.. if I just told them to “pack a lunch” my 3rd grader will fill a bag with cookies and root beer and my 1st grader would pack a single bag of fruit snacks. They wouldn’t be balanced or they wouldn’t be sized appropriately. So I had to come up with a system and some guidelines for them, which made sure they were getting the right mix of foods, but were also getting things they WANTED to eat.
The key to my system is diving the foods up into 4 groups and making sure the kids take a fixed number of servings from each group. I’m going to give you a TON of ideas for each group so even if you kids are really picky, you will be able to find something they will eat. Maybe your groups will only have a few items (since your child will pick it over and over again) or perhaps your groups will be full of a huge variety as your child figures out exactly what they do and don’t like. But the key is giving the the CHOICE and including things they want to eat. (Since at the end of the day, getting your kids to actually eat (and finish) a healthy balanced school lunch is the goal here!)
(If you wanted you could break this into 2 groups (fruits and veggies) but I don’t care if my kids choose 2 fruit items or 2 veggie items so I have them mixed together)
I house this group in the upper crisper drawer of the fridge. I restock it once or twice a week with a mix of fresh fruit and pre-packaged options. I keep a close eye out on what my kids are choosing and what disappears from the crisper drawer and so I know what to buy fruit and veggies the following week.
My kids don’t always take the same things day after day, but I don’t buy items like berries and bananas, with short shelf lives if my kids aren’t choosing them frequently.
Some ideas for this category include:
Baby Carrots/Carrot Sticks/Carrot Coins (some kids like some shapes ore than others)
Red/Yellow/Orange Pepper Sticks
Fruit Cups (Mixed Fruit Cocktails or Individual fruit cups) You can also make your own less expensive version by splitting canned fruit into small containers
Whole Fruit (Apples, Pears, Bananas, Peaches, Oranges)
Sliced Fruit (Soak things like apples and pears in Vitamin C enriched apple juice to keep them from turning brown)
Dried Fruit (Banana Chips, Dried apricots)
Fruit Leather (sugar free)
Freeze Dried Veggie chips
Raw Green Beans
(On days my kids eat a light breakfast I make sure they choose 2 items from this category)
For me, this is the most important category and I always want to make sure my kids are getting enough protein to keep them full during the school day. My kids are NOT big meat eaters, but if yours are, lunch meats and dried meats are an easy way to get protein into their lunch boxes. Some ideas of high protein foods include:
Block cheese cut into slices or cubed
Cured meats (like pepperoni, summer sausage or salami)
Spreadable cheeses (like Brie)
Peanut Butter (I like the individual Jif to Go single serve cups)
Lunch meat (either sliced, rolled or cut into cubes)
Hard boiled eggs
Many of these choices will cross over (milk is a protein and 100% fruit juice is a fruit) but I made them their own category anyway.
100% fruit juice (pouches, boxes, cartons, bottles or even from a large bottle into a thermos)
Milk (white, Chocolate or Strawberry)
Protein shakes (especially if your child is not a big protein eater)
Iced Tea (unsweetened)
I keep all their choices in a basket on my dining room sideboard. This is also how I can control what is and isn’t available. If they have taken cookies for a few days in a row, I may remove the cookies and leave them with less sugary choices (like fish crackers or granola bars)
Examples of items in this group include:
Woven Wheat Crackers
Veggie Sticks or Chips
Puffed Corn Snacks
Buttery Snack Crackers
Cold Cereal (Dry)
Finally at one end of the table I have a basket of lunch bags and of course utensils and napkins.. so they don’t forget them.
We’ve used this system for a little more than 2 years now, and so far it is working GREAT. Sure, they are making lunches I never would have packed them but that is the beauty of it. They are actually EATING what they pack.
Here were the example lunches from my kids the day I wrote this post:
My First Grader:
Mozzarella Cheese Stick
Jif Crunch Peanut Butter Bar
Sugar Free Apple Sauce
And my third grader:
Jif Peanut Butter Chocolate Bar
Occasionally an item will come home because they ran out of time or just didn’t feel like eating it, but compared to the amount that was coming back home before, it is a huge difference. I’m throwing a lot less away!
Plus I spend so much less time packing lunches. I have to prep and fill the stations every few days, but that is a one time thing.. and I can do it anytime.. No rush in the morning.