Pinterest-perfect? Not necessarily ... these tips are about real-life lunches that are fun, manageable and affordable.
- Parker Barry
School lunch is more than just a time to fill your kid’s rumbling tummy, it’s also an opportunity for both of you to have some fun.
Parents could spend hours every night browsing hundreds of creative examples on lunch and bento blogs. We did the searching for you and packed the best tips into this post to help you make lunches for school that are fun, manageable and affordable.
1. Let the kids do lunch. Share lunch-making duties, either by working together or having kids pack their own lunch some (or all) days.
“Kids should start packing their lunches whenever they are going to eat lunch at school — so if it’s kindergarten then they should start there,” said Karen Laszlo, founder of the kids’ nutrition website ZisBoomBah. Laszlo recommends that parents allow 5- to 7-year-olds to choose from a few options to create their own lunch, and plan extra time for making and packing. Lists such as the Build a Better Sandwich list may help parents and kids pre-plan.
Allow 5- to 7-year-olds to choose from a few options to create their own lunch.
2. Expand their food repertoire. Add something new to your kid’s lunch, even if it’s just one item in the mix of the typical lunchbox fare. Make a sandwich with naan or a croissant; choose a lunch day to be Pasta Salad Day and include a new item in the salad each week; pack a Paleo lunch of nuts, berries and jerky; go vegetarian or vegan for Meatless Mondays. Make healthier versions of pre-packaged meals that kids see advertised, such as the “Make Your Own–able Lunches” from Shannon Carino’s blog Bentolunch.net.
“Kids like the concept better than the food in them,” Carino said, so she uses high-quality foods instead of the pre-packaged versions but keeps the fun concepts.
3. Jazz up non-edible parts. Bento box containers and other small food holders are excellent ways to keep kids’ lunch food separated and eye-catchingly neat, which makes eating it all the more appealing. Include fun items, like printable sandwich bags, themed napkins, colorful and reusable silverware, hip water bottles, silicon baking cups (used as food holders), and cutouts for sandwiches and fruit. Bonus: Reusable items can save your family almost $250 per kid each year and help reduce waste.
Bento box containers and other small food holders are excellent ways to keep kids’ lunch food separated and eye-catchingly neat.
4. Add love notes. Or other fun surprises, like greeting cards, fortune cookies, trivia cards or a copy of a comic strip that will make them laugh. Write a note on the outside of their juice box (or even on a banana!) with a sentiment of love, inspiration or humor. Just be sure that your kid still appreciates the parental public affections; some kids (like my daughters) love to show their friends at the lunch table how much their mom loves them when I put a card or sticky note in their lunchbox, others (my son included) not so much. Ask first if they like the general idea, and keep the details a surprise.
5. Pump up the creativity. From Eric Carle book-inspired lunches to lunches with elaborate themes, the sky’s the limit. Even though it may take extra effort, bento enthusiasts say it’s fun and worthy of the time. With a few extra supplies, cutting a sandwich with a shape cutout becomes just as easy as cutting it with a knife.
“It’s no different than moms who craft, who scrapbook, or who sew,” Carino said. “It’s creative. You have to feed them anyway.”
It’s probably not realistic for most families to expect every packed lunch to be blog-worthy, and sometimes a PBJ, apple and water lunch gets the job done just fine. Even bento bloggers don’t go all-out on every lunch. Carino said she keeps a stash of healthy, pre-made items in her freezer that are lunchbox-ready for extra-rushed mornings. But adding that extra dose of creativity every once in a while can be a real treat.
Even bento bloggers don’t go all-out on every lunch.
6. Promote fruits and veggies. “One day I put a pick into a cherry tomato to make it look like a seal was balancing a ball on its nose and packed it into my son’s lunch,” said Kristie Winget, creator of the blog Beneficial Bento, which includes many gluten-free options. “He had always hated tomatoes up to that point, but I watched him examine it, shrug, and pop it into his mouth! Since then he has developed a love for tomatoes.”
Indeed, the school lunch table (when there’s no refrigerator or pantry to run to for alternatives) may be just the place for parents to make sure healthy fare is the go-to food for hungry kids. Try Winget’s make-your-own salad bar to intersperse new-to-them healthy goodies with with things you know they’ll eat, and entice through dips or dressings.
7. Expect leftovers. Chatting with friends, back-to-school jitters that settle in their tummy, and time pressure can affect how much kids eat, especially in the first few weeks as kids adapt to the new lunch routine.
“Some schools only allow 20 minutes for the entire lunch period,” said Laszlo. “So if your kids pack an apple make sure it is small enough so they can finish it. “
When you make the most of those 20 minutes by sending your kid off in the morning with a fun, healthy lunch, it just feels good — to both of you. Your kid knows that you support their efforts to think well and play well at school, and you know they’re eating well, too.