Back to school snack and lunch ideas
Is your anxiety building for back to school… because of lunches?
Real talk: For parents of young children, packing something reasonably nutritious, 5 days a week and that will be eaten is a huge challenge.
This post discusses the challenge that is lunch, and offers tips, snack and lunch ideas that have worked for me or other moms over the years. (Yes, dads pack lunches too, but they did not contribute their ideas).
Warning: This is a big-ass post for a big-ass problem.
Back to school broo-haha
We want packing lunches to be simple and easy, don’t we?
I’d like to make an argument for teaching your child to eat what’s available for lunch.
Convey to them that good quality, fresh food is a blessing. And I feel that our kids would benefit if more parents would apply ‘you get what you get, and you don’t get upset’ to lunchtime.
But the parental struggle is real.
They are kids. Kids can be fickle. They love cherry tomatoes, they hate cherry tomatoes. Or fig bars, or whatever. They can be picky, especially if they have sensory issues. If they are like my son, they eat slooooowly.
The social aspect. Even if we have good eaters at home, at school, kids love to talk, to socialize. They would rather go play, or they are too shy to eat, or they compare their homemade food to their neighbour’s shiny sugar-laden cartoon-character-packaged items.
They’re at school. Our kids get only so much time, there is no food reheating available in most schools, and they are on their own with the containers, which we hope made it there in one piece and right side up.
No one watches them eat, because teachers, those wonderful humans who teach our kids, get a well-deserved break from them too. And of course, school staff need a break, because power struggles with kids are draining.
Parents. We as parents contribute to the power struggle around food, because we forget the proper division of responsibility.
More on that division of responsibility: You see, we are control freaks (I will raise my hand if you will), and that creates pushback. We want to control both what our kids eat, and how much they eat. But as the wise dietician and feeding dynamics authority Ellyn Satter always insisted, “Parents provide. Kids decide.” We choose what to offer, they decide what/how much to eat.
In other words, healthy lunches that can be consumed by a hurried, distracted little one are a tall order, but, if we want them to eat, and eat what we feel is right for them, we need to choose our battles. If we accept that some weeks cherry tomatoes get eaten, and some weeks they don’t, and we don’t start begging them to tell us what to pack, we respect the proper division of responsibility.
What to focus on
The main challenges as I see them are supplying food that travels well and eats easily, without resorting to processed foods (ugh, the plastic! The wrappers!) or too much sugar, as these items leave our kids with failing grades in nutrition and planetary stewardship.
Speaking of which, the containers and lunchboxes that are most easily accessible are neither health-supportive (aka they are toxic) nor sustainable.
They fail the environment, and our kids, who will inherit the earth. Also, they teach our kids that environmental considerations can wait, when they cannot. I beleive in leaving goods kids to the planet as much as a good planet for the kids.
Therefore, I will also list some better brands for lunch and water containers further down and link to them.
Let’s help each other:
If you’ve ever been stuck in a rut, can you commit to at least one more real-food sugar-free lunch each week?
Please comment below with a suggestion for a simple, balanced, minimally processed kids’ lunch.
Tips and strategies:
Keep lots of finger foods and sides in the house. This can help ensure something always gets eaten. Veggie spears, ready to eat proteins like tofu, cans of salmon, (peanut-free) trail mix, pumpkin seeds, and homemade gummies, homemade granola bars, mini muffins, prepped pumpkin French toast with pureed berries or applesauce, popcorn, cheese in cubes, goji berries, and a variety of fruit. Speaking of which…
Buy the small fruit. Small fruit is considered less desirable, and so is less expensive, but your littles will love small oranges, pears, apples, nectarines and bananas along with their berries and grapes.
Prep like a Kitchen Manager. On Sunday or the beginning of the week, clean and slice an assortment of crudité veggies like peppers and carrots, cucumber and celery. Cut up large fruit like pineapple and watermelon, boil a bunch of eggs. Mark the shells so you know which are cooked. Grab and go as you make the weeks lunches. Not into eggs? Cook and slice chicken breast early in the week to add to lunches all week. Make egg or chicken salad on the weekend with anything unused.
Dreading kindergarten without PBnJs? Most if not all grade schools have a no nut policy 😬 so many moms switch to sunflower butter for school and most kids don’t notice the difference. Chickpea and pumpkin seed butters exist too. Experiment at home making new butter blends, it’s easy!
Let them choose some items for the shopping list. Again, you oversee WHAT to eat, so you frame the choices – carrots or sweet potato this week? Even if you prep the food, this teaches them a lot of skills – being prepared, menu planning, meal balancing.
Let them help prepare the food. Using homemade dough, make your own pizza pockets or put other fillings they like. The slowly become more autonomous, and when they help make them, no complaints about what is in them. Making fruit roll-ups is easy too, and is a great way to use up any too-ripe fruit. It doesn’t have to be Pinterest-worthy – if they made it, they’ll likely eat it.
Let them pack the lunch bag. If you have a child at a “difficult” (aka growthful) stage, letting your little be more in control of herself can pay dividends. It may not always be perfectly healthy, but it’s passable and always gets eaten, and usually, left to their own devices, they end up with a balanced diet at the end of the week.
Try breakfast for lunch. Many kids find this fun and eat it up. You can make ahead batches of your healthier pancakes or French toast and they can be reheated and placed in a keep-warm container. Waffle batter can be stuffed with all kids of things – cheese, frozen veggie mix, bacon pieces. Waffles can be used as sandwich bread too.
Kids with no appetite need other cues. There are some kids that don’t ‘feel’ hungry. They are happy to starve until offered a cheese string. The food must have the right texture and colour and be easy to eat. Make it finger food. Bento boxes, rainbow coloured fruit skewers, happy face mini pizzas, pinwheel sandwiches. (If your child has no appetite, you may want to check their iron levels).
Picky eaters rarely get bored. These kids prefer to know what’s coming 🙂. Don’t stress, if there is variety to the diet overall, lunch can be repetitive without causing much harm.
What to put it in – Containers that won’t ruin your kids’ hormones – or the planet
Reusable (plastic-free) sandwich bags:
LunchSkins reusable bags/paper bags
MysGreen durable cloth sandwich bags with liners. These are made locally near me in New Westminster, but there are likely some local to you if you look.
Aluminum and plastic-free cling wrap:
Make your own beeswax wrap from cute fabric or buy Abeego beeswax wraps
Use parchment paper, shelf paper or waxed paper with ribbon or elastic bands
Stainless Steel lunch containers:
Non toxic and durable
Glass lunch containers:
Plastic-free Water Bottles that won’t result in metal-tasting water:
There are a lot of well-known stainless-steel water bottles out there, here are alternatives. 9 oz bottles fit well into most lunch boxes.
Lifefactory make a glass water bottle with a silicone sleeve, with straw, sport, and screw on top options.
Hydro Flask is for you if you can’t take glass to school or you want your beverage to stay insulated this brand of water bottles are very good. They also make nice insulated lunch bags.
Many parents don’t know what macronutrients their kids need, or somehow end up giving sweetened foods all day because starchy carbs, refined grains, sweets and dairy products tend to be very easy (WAY TOO EASY!) to build in or include without a thought. To avoid this, save the granola bars and yogourt for emergency times, like when they are starving after swimming lessons.
*When planning lunch, include quality proteins and fats and get carbs from produce*
New to planning lunch?
Here are two ways to think about planning lunches:
1. As macro portions:
2 x colourful high-fibre carbs / 1 x complete protein / 1 x healthy fat
2. As food group portions:
1 fruit + 1 vegetable + 1 protein food + 1 healthy oil / fat
Not sure what to include?
Examples of colourful, high-fibre carbs – fruits
Grapes, blueberries, strawberries, cherry tomato, small oranges, pears, apples, bananas, sliced nectarines or peaches, kiwi, mango spears, cucumber/pickle
Examples of colourful, high-fibre carbs – vegetables
Peppers, carrot, celery, cauli rice, zucchini, kale, lettuce, beans, sweet potato, pumpkin puree, spaghetti squash noodles, shredded cabbage, baked cassava fingers
Examples of quality protein foods
Organic chicken slices, peas, grass-fed beef, eggs, non-GMO sprouted tofu, wild salmon patties, lentil soup, roasted chickpeas, protein powder, shellfish, pate, turkey burgers
Examples of healthy fats
Avocado, coconut oil, omega oils in sauces (tomato, pesto) or homemade dressings or homemade dips (salsa, guacamole), seed/nut butters (sunflower, coconut, almond), gouda and quality cheese, hummus
1 month of mini meals – a possible lunch meal plan
Would you rather not think about it? Try leftovers, or, I made a possible plan for a medium hungry child here:
Salad with chicken
– Try kale and quinoa salad with cubes of grilled chicken (or beef) and peaches.
Rice paper salad rolls
– Fill with veggie strips, lettuce, sauce, tofu or shrimp. Cubed watermelon.
– Lentil pasta in a homemade pesto sauce with pureed veggies/herbs. Peach.
– Thin sliced meat and cheese, lettuce. Wrap in collards or tortillas. Nectarine.
– Can be full of veggies, protein (ground turkey?) and cheese. Watermelon cubes.
– With celery and fresh herbs. Serve with rice crackers and sliced apples.
– Your favourite way. Take cubes off skewers if you like. Cucumber discs. Pear.
– Spaghetti squash pasta in a keep warm container with meat sauce. Grapes.
– Minestrone with homemade crackers. Apple, or pear in a protective case.
– Sprouted grain tortillas with bean & cheese. Guac & salsa for dipping. Grapes.
– Tomato, cucumber, pitted olives, chicken, avocado, healthy dressing. Orange.
– Vegetable potstickers. Veggie sticks. Tempeh or sausage. Small orange.
– Add frozen fruit & whey powder while cooking, put in insulated container, top with omega oil.
– Purple fruit mix, pureed greens or squash, whey or soft tofu or hemp seeds, flax oil.
– Veggies & dip, cheese & crackers, olives, pickles, sausage/tempeh. Orange.
Thai noodle salad
– Sunflower-lime sauce, mung bean noodle, carrot, cukes, bean sprouts. Mango.
Lox and cream cheese
– Serve on rye crisps with cherry tomatoes and cucumber spears. Pear.
Slices of French toast
– Make with egg, milk, pumpkin puree and spice, stand the slices in apple sauce.
– Cheese sauce healthified with pureed cauliflower and nutritional yeast. Pear.
– Make it delicious, and hide zucchini and organ meat inside! Serve with applesauce.
Healthy Snacks, and leftovers as after school snacks
Avocado chocolate pudding
Powerballs / Blissballs
Sweet potato toast, healthy zucchini or banana bread with almond butter
Beet hummus with veggie sticks and seed crackers
Homemade fish patties or turkey meatballs
Greek yogourt with berries and trail mix
Easy English muffin or tortilla pizzas
Stuffed peppers or baked potatoes
Made ahead pancakes with sunflower butter and blended berries
Mexican layered dip
The occasional packaged item or junk food, if your child eats well and is healthy
So there you have it.
Tips for meals, snacks, a feeding formula, a meal plan, a bunch of strategies, even what to pack it in.
I hope this post helped you somehow. If you read it, you are already an AMAZING and CARING PARENT!
and you have an idea, please comment and share thoughts.
Much love, parents – remember, you are doing great!!