Lunch 101

(I did a guest post for, published today. It's reprinted here.)
Technically, it’s not back to school for us: my little Toddlebug is starting preschool two days a week for the very first time, while I’ll be at home instead of going back to teaching. I’ve been thinking about the snacks and lunches I’ll have to pack for preschool. I remember that as a teacher I used to make a sandwich and grab a yogurt and an apple—or pick up whatever frozen meal was on sale. I often under-packed and was so hungry (and tired) that I didn’t make great choices later in the day. At least two nights a week, my husband and I would have the same conversation:
“What do you want for dinner?”
“I don’t know. What do you want?”
“I don’t know. How about Chinese?”
With Toddlebug in the picture, we have to do better than that. (I will forever cringe at having eaten candy for dinner a few hours before going into labor.) With some organization, I’ve learned to plan dinners better, and I can also plan lunches and snacks, whether we’re at home or on the go. I’ve been packing lunches for my husband to get him away from ramen noodles and a bag of chips.

If you’re thinking of packing lunches as well, here are some things you may want to consider:
• your nutrition/food group goals (whole grains? at least one vegetable? no fake stuff?),
• dietary restrictions (allergies? religious considerations?),
• microwave access (leftovers are great, but not for most preschools),
• avoiding wasteful disposable items,
• your children’s favorite foods,
• length of lunch time and your child’s reluctance to work for food (e.g., some kids won’t have time to peel an orange, so peel it before packing).
• Will your child pack every day, or buy some days? (That’s not an issue with our preschool, which does not offer meals.)
• Are you competing with a school lunch your child finds appealing, or with ads for products like Uncrustables or Lunchables?
• Do you have a certain budget to keep in mind?

Next, browse the web for pictures that will inspire you. Look for “bento” (the Japanese word for a packed lunch) on flickr and blogs. Don’t be intimidated by people who can sculpt a whole Star Wars battle scene out of a hard-boiled egg and three carrot sticks; you’re just looking for some ideas.

You’ll probably also find reviews of lunchboxes. If you haven’t already chosen yours, it’s time to pick a box and inner containers. Do you need one piece so nothing gets lost, or lots of flexibility for little Miss ButIHadThatYesterday? Are you looking to buy something that will last for years, or something you won’t miss if it gets left on the school bus? Should the containers be microwave-safe? Do you want a built-in ice pack? Do you need a different color for each family member? Make sure your child knows how to open the containers.

Then there’s the food. I typically go grocery shopping once on the weekend, and we get a box of produce halfway through the week. I save money by choosing the big jar of applesauce, 32-oz. container of yogurt, large box of raisins, etc. and decanting them into small containers when I need them. You might want to get a couple of different kinds of bread (maybe bagels or English muffins sometimes) to change things up if you pack a lot of sandwiches. Once every couple of weeks, I bake zucchini muffins, banana bread, or some other reasonably healthy treat that freezes well—and these don’t need to be defrosted before packing. I also make some hard-boiled eggs on Sunday night. I cut up vegetables and do most of the packing the night before, but you may find you can do some of that early in the week as well.

Last is the “cuteness factor.” Just as teachers are sometimes surprised by how much high-schoolers enjoy getting a smiley-face sticker, you might be impressed by what your kids will eat if it’s in the right shape. I’ll be doing a Letter of the Week theme with Toddlebug, but an older child might appreciate having foods cut with a little cookie cutter that matches his or her interests (cars? music notes? cats?). It’s especially effective on fruits and vegetables that are only borderline acceptable to a kid. (It works on my husband, too!) And did you know that sushi rice and hard-boiled eggs can be easily molded into shapes like teddy bears?

You may not have time to make creative lunches five times a week. Start small if you want—maybe just Tuesdays. Or what about one special item every day? It really only takes a few minutes. And if you pack a good lunch, there’s less pressure on everybody to have a dinner that’s 100% perfect.
How about Chinese?