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Building a Better Packed Lunch

by Tara Kuczykowski on August 13, 2012 · 4 comments


School lunch as I knew it as a child is no more... My mom handed me a dollar each morning, and I actually had change left over that I was allowed to spend on penny candy at the drugstore across the street from our school!

These days our school requires us to deposit money into an online account for each child that works as a debit card system. They punch in a PIN number each day, and it subtracts the cost of their lunch from the account. Sounds convenient right? Not so much.

Well, sure, it's convenient for the school, but the problem is that there is no one monitoring what my children are purchasing. An extra milk here, a snack there, a quick breakfast before school, these all add up, and the end result is an account that is drained of its funds before it's due. We've talked with our kids about how the system works, but is a first grader really capable of understanding that a number punched into a machine is as good as cash?

Multiply that by four children in school all day this year and factor in the increased price of lunches this year ($2.25 per student!), and it's clear that more packed lunches are on the agenda. Fortunately, as school lunches have evolved over the years, so have the methods for packing a lunch. We no longer have to decide between just a lunch box or a brown paper bag.

I picked up the pretty insulated lunch sacks pictured at the top of this post at Walmart for $7.88 each. They're very sturdy, featuring a large main opening and an antimicrobial treated liner to inhibit bacterial growth that causes nasty odors and mold. I also picked up some of these Lunch Blox kits made by Rubbermaid that snap together, along with an reusable ice pack, to keep everything chilled and fresh until lunchtime.

These Lunch Blox kits are perfect for the 1, 2, 3, 4 method my kids and I have designed for packing a wholesome lunch. We pack our lunches based on selections from each of four categories: proteins, fruits/veggies, whole grain sides, and small treats.

:: Proteins

The main component of a packed lunch doesn't necessarily have to be a sandwich, although these homemade uncrustables sandwiches are a fantastic option since you can customize them to your child's tastes. Try some of these other options to keep things new and exciting:

  • chicken "snack wraps" using leftover grilled chicken wrapped in a tortilla with cheese and BBQ sauce
  • build-a-pizza with crackers, mozzarella cheese and pepperoni slices
  • "grilled cheese" made with toasted English muffins and a slice of cheese
  • a bagel spread with cream cheese
  • yogurt with granola
  • hard cooked eggs
  • savory cheddar sausage muffins (not just for breakfast!)

:: Fruits/Veggies

Thankfully my kids love their fruits and veggies, but with limited time to eat their lunch, packing whole fruits and veggies often means that they don't have time to finish everything before lunch is over. So I prefer to provide them with items that have already been prepped to eat. I save leftover pineapple juice and dip fruits that are prone to browning in it because my kids aren't crazy about the bit of tartness that lemon juice can add. Options we often have are:

  • grapes -- red, black or green doesn't matter
  • blueberries
  • sliced apples prepped as above
  • carrots and/or celery with ranch dressing
  • peeled mandarin oranges
  • dried fruits -- raisins, cranberries, mangoes, etc.
  • peeled cucumber slices with dill dip
  • sliced strawberries
  • applesauce -- we buy big jars and divide them up at the beginning of the week to save

:: Whole Grain Sides

My kids always enjoy a side that has a bit of crunch to it. While they'd be perfectly happy with potato chips every day, I prefer to look for healthier alternatives such as these:

  • pretzels -- alone or with peanut butter for dipping
  • homemade baked tortilla chips and salsa or guacamole
  • baked pita chips -- alone or with hummus
  • Sun Chips
  • whole grain crackers
  • Annie's Cheddar Bunnies
  • toasted almonds

:: Small Sweet Treats

My son still asks for these healthy apple oat bran muffins regularly, so I'll be making these frequently to round out our packed lunches. Plus they're very freezer friendly, making it easy to pull what you need from the freezer -- they'll thaw by lunchtime. Here are some other homemade treats:

Ideally my kids will plan out their lunches at the beginning of each week, but many of these items can be prepped ahead of time, so we can grab items from the refrigerator and freezer in a pinch. Add a bottle of water, and they're on their way out the door!

What's your favorite item to include in a packed lunch?

Disclosure: I am a participant in the Walmart Moms program. Walmart has provided me with compensation for the time and effort spent creating this post. However, my participation in this program is voluntary and my opinions are my own -- always have been, always will be.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stephanie August 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Thanks for the tips. My kids' school has the debit system also and we have had all sorts of issues with it; they spend it way faster on extra stuff that I know they don't have time to eat. I have already informed them that we will be packing because our lunch prices went up too, and sadly, I can pack them a much healthier lunch than they will get at school. I appreciate all the ideas!

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2 Cheryl August 13, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Thanks for all the ideas! I also pack a lot, last year we picked out one lunch a week that my first grader could buy at school, but then he burned thru the rest of the funds on snacks that were not healthy. Plus I was able to figure out that the cost of milk was more if you didn't buy it with a lunch. There were quite a few weeks that he didn't get that 'special lunch' because he didn't leave funds in the account.
Eating his lunch at school was always a big fight with us so I'm hoping he likes some of your ideas.

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3 rachel b. August 13, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Thanks for the tips on how to work with your kids to incorporate several food groups ...I agree that chips are NOT a vegetable. Ha! And fyi, I've added this to Pinterest so I can come back for a reference in the future; since my first is going off to Kindergarten this week, I'm sure we'll run out of ideas in the near future!

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4 Joanna August 13, 2013 at 8:44 pm

I'm huge on packing lunches for kids - and adults - whether its for school, during hikes, etc. Even just a day trip out can be so much less expensive if you pack a bag. I always have something in my purse, whether its something like this or a protein bar. One wonderful thing is homemade ants on a log - celery with some peanut butter and they can add their own raisins. Oikos vanilla Greek yogurt is awesome - and sweet enough it actually tastes like dessert! I usually pair it with frozen fruit (which also helps keep yogurt cool - in fact, you can freeze grapes, etc., as a cooler as well.) Tortilla pinwheels instead of a normal sandwich work well, and take up less space so you can give more options. As a special treat, once in a while I may give some chocolate chips or a homemade (and healthier) 'cookie.' If you have containers, like I do, invest in some silicone cupcake liner cups. You can put anything slightly liquidy - leftover veg, etc - in it and they bend so you can pack it tightly. If you don't want anything wet, then they're a perfect size for a serving of nuts, raisins, trail mix... anything like that. You need to make sure the container is the right size, though, so nothing falls out.

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