The start of a new school year offers up opportunities to give children new responsibilities. Depending on the child’s age that could mean making their bed, feeding the dog or doing the dinner dishes. (Or all three!) My Kindergartener is going to start making part of her lunch.
Some days during pre-K, my daughter returned home with an empty lunchbox, and on other days, it would be nearly full coupled with explanations such as “I don’t like broccoli anymore, remember?” “I’m sick of sandwiches” or “The strawberries were too red.” (Honest, that was a real excuse!) You’ve likely heard that the more kids help with shopping and cooking a meal, the more likely they’ll eat it. I’m banking on that advice this school year.
Here are some lunch tips, pantry staples and recipes I’ve collected for inspiration for various ages, tastes and peanut-butter-at-school policies.
6 Tips for Prepping Ahead
I realize that it will likely take us much longer to make lunch together than it would if I did it by myself. I’ll need to be close at hand making sure she’s packing the essentials (protein, fruit, veggies, whole grain, etc.) and to take over any sharp knife or stove activities. But the future payoff is so big, so it’s worth it to me. Here is some advice I’ve received.
Take the kids shopping. Give them choices in the produce section for the upcoming week’s lunches. Shop the bulk bins and have them pick out the type of dried fruit, trail mix or grains they want to try. They just might surprise you!
Have the right containers for the job. Many kids like storing their lunch in multiple containers. Imagine grapes in one container, cheese cubes in another, carrot coins and cherry tomatoes in yet another, and hummus and pita triangles on the side. The next day it will be a different combination.
Prep extra staple ingredients while making dinner. Make another chicken breast for shredding, slice more bell peppers, or cook another cup of rice or greens for your child to incorporate into lunches.
Avoid the morning rush hour. After dinner, start an assembly line on the dining room table, which may be easier for smaller kids to work on than counter tops.
Don’t fear the food processor! Little fingers are perfect for pressing the buttons. Have them help chop and shred veggies for salsas, dips and spreads.
Do the dip. Have your child package up single servings of salsa, dip or hummus and grab veggies, crackers or pita chips for dippers.
What’s for Lunch?
Lunchbox Quesadilla is an easy make-ahead lunch that older kids can prepare in one pan. Kids can customize the ingredients depending on what you have on hand— it’s a delicious way to use up leftovers.
Make a rice bowl! Start with brown rice or quinoa (or both). Add a protein such as leftover chicken or cooked beans. Add veggies (sautéed greens, steamed veggies, raw corn kernels or carrot matchsticks). Top with a sauce or dressing. If your child isn’t into mixing textures, have them use bento-style lunch containers to pack everything individually.
Club Sandwich Kabobs are fun and ideal for kids to help make since they can roll up the meat and cut ingredients with a table knife. For a gluten-free alternative, skip the bread and add more veggies.
Macaroni and Three Cheese Lunch Muffins is a childhood favorite with a twist — kids can eat it with their hands. Too young to use the stove? Little kids can still help make them by fitting the muffin cups with paper liners, measuring the cheese and sprinkling the tops of the muffins with Parmesan.
There is something simply perfect about bread-free deli-style rollups with ham, roast beef or turkey.
How about tuna or egg salad with whole grain crackers?
Sesame Noodles uses sesame tahini and toasted almond butter for rich nutty (but peanut-free!) flavor. Encourage the kids to add leftover tofu, chicken or shrimp from last night’s dinner.
Avocado, Lettuce and Tomato Pita Pockets packs whole grain pitas with a mixture of greens, tomatoes and mashed avocado for a satisfying and colorful midday meal.
Have your child make a pasta salad using leftovers from dinner. Add veggies of their choice.
Egg salad can be used instead of hummus in this Quick Hummus and Vegetable Stuffed Pitas.
Pad Thai Wraps have all of the flavors of classic pad Thai wrapped into a quick lunch: tangy peanut sauce, fresh vegetables, fragrant herbs and crisp bean sprouts.
Sunflower spread is a great nut-free alternative in this Apple Sandwiches with Granola and Peanut Butter recipe.
Don’t forget the apple! They can be sliced at home and held together with a rubber band to decrease browning from oxidation
For students who have access to a microwave at school, rice balls such as Baked Brown Rice Kibbeh are fun finger foods that can be made in advance.
Add These to the Grocery List!
In addition to the usual lunch suspects, I’m also shopping for ingredients that are twice as nice meaning my household can use them in a few different ways.
Hummus, which goes from dip to sandwich spread
No-salt-added canned beans work for rice bowls, quesadillas, dips and salads (grain, green and pasta).
Colorful veggies such as bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, beans are great for veggie sides, salads, rice bowls and sandwiches.
Whole grain tortillas for wraps, roll-ups, quesadillas and cut into triangles for dipping.
Tahini is not just for homemade hummus; use it for dressings, dips, sandwich spreads and even desserts.