Beyond the SandwhichSep 01, 2022 ● By The Hood Magazine
By: Jessica Schaap- Certified FASTer Way to Fat Loss Health Coach and mother of 4 lunch eating kids
I have a love-hate relationship with school lunches. I love the idea of them right about this time of year. It’s August, I have grand ideas that I will be making star-shaped sandwiches and baking scratch cookies every week for my kid’s lunches. Then Labor Day passes and my dreams go out the window. Every morning it’s a “Dang it! I forgot to pack your lunch!!” morning. I have 4 kids, from college to elementary school. I know this song and dance very well!
Many of you HAVE to pack school lunches due to allergies and food sensitivities. For that, I applaud you. Packing lunches every day is a feat all on its own, but packing one with dietary restrictions is a whole other arduous task. I won’t be talking about that in this article, but hopefully, I can give light to some new ideas or swaps you can make.
For the past two years, most schools in our area offered a free lunch program due to the pandemic. This year, at our school, we are back to paying for school lunches. A few years ago, I wrote a school lunch article about the cost comparison of a school lunch vs. a brought-from-home lunch. It was significantly less expensive to make your lunch. But, as we know, time is a precious commodity, and many times my sanity is worth the price of a school lunch. But one thing that you can’t put a price on, is your children’s health. With a little time, planning, and creativity, you can pack a well-balanced, healthy lunch from home.
Let’s break this task down step by step.
Step 1: 5 for 5
Essentially you need 5 lunch ideas with these 5 food groups: Protein, veggies, carbs, fruit, and treats. These are in order of importance. Protein is the most important food group for your growing kid. If you get nothing else from this article, remember this: always have some kind of protein source in your child’s lunch. Make a list of possible food choices that will go in each of these 5 categories. This list will become the foundation for your lunch planning every week. Don’t worry about having 5 different foods from all 5 categories. Your kids can have repeats! If we do 2-3 different veg or fruit choices that week, I call that a win!
Step 2: Become friends, and I mean dear, close friends with the Thermos aka the Funtainer ;) This could be your saving grace for well-planned school lunch. Thermos even named their nifty item the Funtainer. It’s a 10 oz container that keeps your foods hot or cold. Now, they are not cheap…roughly $31, but they are worth every penny. A couple of pointers for this handy Funtainer: In the morning, whether you are re-heating or heating up, heat the food to a higher temperature. Hotter than you would serve it. Also, let some hot or boiling water sit in your container to heat it. Dump it out and immediately put your hot food in it. This will stay warm for several hours. Another tip: if you have soggy food like chicken nuggets, put a paper towel at the bottom to absorb the moisture.
Step 3: Pre-plan your 5 for 5. This is an easy step to miss. I don’t have to say how crazy our schedules are and how busy life is. We obsess about our time and are careful not to waste it; if you can sit down at the end of every week and pre-plan your next week of school lunches, it will deposit a lot of sanity coins in your mental health bank.
Step 4: Involve the consumers of the lunches. This involves steps 1 and 3. Take your master list of options and let your kid(s) plan their menu for the week. I have my youngest, a 3rd grader, circle 3-5 foods from each category on the list and we plan it out. I do remind him that there will be repeats. Yes, you are going to have broccoli more than once this week! When it comes to my middle schooler, we don’t pre-plan separately because he’s a hormonal teenager, ha! I do plenty of arguing with him in a day. He gets what the baby of the family planned out!
Step 5: Assemble. Depending on what is planned for your meals, assemble as much as you can beforehand. For example: If we are making 3 sandwiches that week, I will pre-bag or pre-package the meat choices, and the carb, and let them assemble their sandwich at the lunch table. Picture two slices of bread in a package (this could be any type of container you have at home: baggies, reusable environmentally friendly bags, plastic or glass containers), and the meat and cheese in a separate one. This is a valuable time saver! From here, we grab and pack that morning. Pro-tip: Buy prepackaged mayo and mustard packets. Game changer! You shouldn't pre-make a sandwich on Sunday for Wednesday as it will get soggy, so package up the components separately. We pre-package anything else for the week that we can.
As far as the Funtainer, when you are planning on using leftovers the next day, set them aside right away. I have a big family and there are rarely leftovers. If I am planning to send chili leftovers with the kids tomorrow, I dish out their lunch servings before their dinner servings. This ensures that there will be enough for the kids at lunchtime the next day without having to fight my kids on serving sizes of dinner. Plus it's one step closer to pre-packing their next day's lunches.
Alright, we have a plan! Let's get into the menus. Step 1: 5 for 5. Here is my list of the fab 5.
Protein: Deli meats, *all beef hotdogs, *chicken nuggets, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, egg/chicken/tuna salads, *baked beans, *taco meat (walking taco), milk (for the cereal), and *mom’s leftovers.
Veggies: Celery, chopped broccoli, chopped cauliflower, side salad, sliced cucumbers, sliced peppers, mini peppers, sugar snap peas, and everyone’s favorite baby carrots.
Carbs: Bread, tortillas for roll ups or wraps, pita pockets, naan, whole grain crackers or chips, and oatmeal.
Fruits: Apple, banana, berries, kiwi, cuties, anything in a cup-like Mandarin oranges, peaches, and fruit cocktail. Pro-tip: Be very cautious about the sugar content in pre-packaged fruits. I always try for fresh, but in a pinch, I look for packed-in-water fruits.
Treats: Whatever you fancy. If your family is like mine I have to guard the treats with my life! Hide them, lock them up, threaten privileges taken away if they eat them at home! Smh!
Here are some meal ideas to get you rolling:
Deli meat sandwich, baby carrots, apple, and a cookie. Very basic and should always be available for stand-by if your lunch planning goes awry.
Leftover *chili, corn chips, sliced peppers, banana, and a treat.
Walking taco: *Taco meat, crushed whole grain tortilla chips, lettuces, tomatoes, cheese, and salsa. Add in pineapple and a snickerdoodle cookie for a fun Mexican-inspired lunch.
Banana, sun butter (if nut free can use almond butter), and a drizzle of honey rolled up on a whole grain tortilla. Add in yogurt with berries, sliced cucumbers, and a treat. Your protein source is yogurt so have some fun with mixing it up.
Hard-boiled eggs, *oatmeal, mandarin oranges, carrots, and a mini donut for a treat to wrap up this breakfast-inspired lunch. Note that the eggs are your protein source.
Another breakfast lunch: Milk/cereal, yogurt, berries, and spinach salad with poppy seed dressing.
*Baked beans with chopped all beef hotdogs, side salad, peaches, and a treat. Franks and beans are an underrated lunch!
The beauty of these lunches is to work them around the foods your family eats regularly. Again, I can’t stress enough to put in as much fresh food as you can. Try to steer away from packaged foods. My motto is if it came from the ground or had a mom, it’s fair game to pack for lunch.
I have found getting my kids involved in packing school lunches has also taught them a lot about health. My 8yr old knows that for each meal he needs protein, veg, and carbs. This sets a foundation for healthy eating for a lifetime! My college sophomore daughter, to this day, maintains a fairly healthy eating regimen, within reason…I am not that naive lol! But she often comments on how surprised she is to see her generation eating so poorly and how picky everyone is. Out of 4 kids, I have zero picky eaters. There must be some method to my madness!
Health is wealth and sharing is caring. If you need some healthy lunch planning inspiration, you can find me on Instagram @jessicagingerschaap. I will be sure to post some adventures in packing lunches! Also, pull up Pinterest and type in ‘school lunches’ and get a plethora of ideas! Happy lunch packing! The fun is just about to begin. :)