8 tips to reduce the stress of packing lunches
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For the last 4-1/2 school years, I’ve been packing at least one school lunch a day. Since last school year when my son started kindergarten, I’ve been packing two.
Along the way, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. I’ve come up with ideas to keep things interesting and healthy. While both my kiddos have regular go-to favorites, they also don’t want the exact same lunch every day, and I don’t blame them!
I don’t mind packing their lunches. It makes me feel connected to them and part of their day. And, well, taking care of them is part of my job! My husband and kiddos have both participated in lunch packing as well, so it isn’t always just me making lunches happen. But no matter who is packing them, we’ve got a system down that works for us.
Pack the night before when possible
My absolute best tip for packing lunches is to do whatever you can the night before. I am a morning person, and I usually don’t have to get myself ready until after my husband and kids leave for school drop-off, yet I still find it easier to do everything I can the night before.
The majority of the time I can pack everything except drinks the night before. Lunches are stored in the fridge and Thermoses are ready to be filled, so that in the morning, I only have to add the cold pack, fill the Thermos and put it all in their lunchboxes.
Napkins, notes and non-refrigerated items go into their lunchboxes the night before as well.
Buy good food containers for cold lunches
Finding the right lunch containers for cold lunches was a game changer for me. I’ve tried a few different options through the years, but by the second year in, I’d come across Rubbermaid Lunch Blox and haven’t looked back.
They are seriously awesome because they stack together with the ice pack, come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are incredibly durable. They wash well in the dishwasher, which is important to me!
The only time I’ve had to throw out these containers was when the lid fell down onto the heating element of the dishwasher (totally my fault on that one) and once my daughter threw away the lid to her lunch container.
Otherwise, we are still using the original containers along with the additional ones I’ve bought. I have enough cold lunch containers to get us through two school days without doing dishes.
Finding good reusable containers is not only cheaper in the long run but also better for the environment.
Along with the Rubbermaid LunchBlox containers, I also love silicone baking cups. I use them a few times a week to divide up food in the large container. I use them for boiled eggs, crackers, croutons and pretty much anything I need to keep separated in the same container.
Purchase good drink containers
My daughter was going into kindergarten before I thought to look for something that would keep her drinks cold. And, hands down, the best options we’ve found are Thermos brand.
My kids love the Thermos Funtainers. They start with the 12-ounce Thermos Funtainers with a straw. In third grade, I switched my daughter to the 16-ounce Thermoses and anticipate doing the same for my son.
My kids have only needed new Thermoses when they outgrew the characters on them. (But I still have Blaze and Paw Patrol Thermoses in my cabinet, because they come in handy around the house when the kids are sick and need cold water!) And with knowing that, I went with plain or long-lasting patterns for them when I bought new ones.
Outside of lunchtime, we use them in the car, for their weekly sports practices and more. They last so well and you can even replace the rubber parts if needed to make them last even longer, but I’ve not had an issue with them.
For cleaning, they are a bit trickier in that they aren’t dishwasher safe. The Thermos part (where the drink goes into) is stainless steel and dishwasher safe, but the lid and straw parts are not. They work so well and last so well, though, that I happily hand wash! All the components pull apart to make an easy, thorough cleaning possible.
Make a routine
To make my life easier, I’ve developed a routine for our lunches. My kids don’t like and eat many of the same foods, but I have a same basic plan for their lunches.
- Mondays: sandwiches
- Tuesdays: snacky lunch (think peanut butter and crackers or a boiled egg and croutons)
- Wednesdays: hot lunch
- Thursdays: sandwiches or snacky lunch
- Friday: non-perishable lunch in disposable containers
Each week doesn’t always look exactly like this. In fact, this week is all out of sorts. We were out of bread for Monday’s lunch, so Monday was snacky lunch. Then today, I had an early appointment. So hot lunch switched to Tuesday instead.
But, no matter which option I choose, I go with it for both kids. They may not have the exact same items, but they have the same type of lunch. For example, my daughter may have a turkey sandwich while my son has a peanut butter sandwich.
When I’m trying to figure out what to pack, having a category to look for helps me.
The only day that is different for them is Friday, because my son chooses to buy school lunch on that day for pizza. I have opted to send my daughter lunch in all disposable containers most Fridays so I don’t have lunch dishes to deal with going into the weekend.
Figure out hot lunch options
To help give my kiddos more lunch options, I send hot lunch once a week. That works for us. Your schedule may be different, and that’s OK!
Again, Thermos brand food containers make hot lunch days easier. I eased my way into them during my daughter’s kindergarten year with a Disney “Frozen” Thermos Funtainer Food Jar for her.
By the time she was headed into third grade, my son was headed to kindergarten, so I decided to get hot Thermoses for both of them. I picked up some off-brand ones at a discount grocery store. They were awful and nearly impossible to open once they had hot foot inside.
So, I went back to Thermos Funtainer Food Jars and have been using the same ones for nearly two years now. I love that they have folding spoons in the lid so that I don’t have to remember to pack utensils!
Like the drink Thermoses, the Thermos food jars need to be hand washed — at least the lid and its components. But they wash up well and don’t stain.
I do follow the suggestion to fill them with hot water before putting hot food in them. Usually on hot lunch days, I leave the hot Thermoses on the counter and put a big measuring cup of water in the microwave for 3 minutes and 33 seconds (because I only have to hit one number that way!). I pour the hot water into their Thermoses and let them sit for 15 to 20 minutes while I’m doing other things.
I usually pack their hot lunches around 7 a.m. and when they eat at 10:30 or 11 (depending on the kiddo), they both report their food is still nice and warm.
Involve the kids
I don’t make my kids pack their own lunches every night, but I do like to involve them as much as possible. I will often talk with them about what I’ve been sending and ask for suggestions on what sounds good as I’m making my grocery list.
They have each come up with different ideas that have surprised me and weren’t what I would have thought of. My daughter has requested salads and wraps. My son has even asked for a slice of bread plain with the peanut butter in a dip cup on the side. He’s my particular eater, so I am always looking for ways to get him to eat. If a deconstructed peanut butter sandwich works for him, then I’m fine with it!
Keep easy food on hand
Figure out what lunch plan for the week as you go grocery shopping. Then also make sure to stock favorite items that can always fill in lunches like raisins, canned fruit, crackers, granola bars, gummies, gogurt, graham crackers, peanut butter crackers, yogurt covered raisins, string cheese, etc.
I’ve found that having a few staples for lunches always in my pantry keeps me from freaking out that I have nothing to pack the kids and getting stressed out about it.
Purchase the right disposable products
While I love reusable containers for the vast majority of what I pack, the other thing I use a couple of times a week is 2-ounce disposable dip cups with lids.
These are great for packing dips, dressings and even peanut butter. I’ve utilized them to make sure that carrots get eaten. (I am a big fan of Ranch chip dip versus salad dressing because it is healthier and less messy.)
For sending in a disposable lunch on most Fridays, I also love Glad Press’n Seal. It actually stays on the sandwich and keeps it well wrapped. Then it works as a handy placemat as well! (I use Press’n Seal for many things!)