The Last Great Hurrah – Or – Back To The Lunchbox

All good things must end, and today is the last day of summer vacation for my children.  Angus, who turns 13 next week, is beginning 8th grade, and my sweet Petunia, 6th grade.  I tell you, I just blinked my eyes and June and July were over and done and we’d begun the August countdown.  Sigh.  While I dread the 5:45 wake-ups, I AM looking forward to a return to something like a routine.

Summer for my family is a very relaxed season.  With the exception of hygiene and tidy rooms, I don’t have huge expectations for the kids.  After 9 months of “working” full-time, I feel like they need to be free to rest, play, visit, explore and generally be children.  Typically, they develop new interests and learn new skills over summertime with little (or no) “push” from me:  this summer, Petunia took up sketching, bird watching and learned some elementary kitchen skills while Angus began learning guitar and kept busy outdoors; he LOVES cutting grass and has been tinkering on small engines in the barn with his daddy.  I’m sad all that ends tonight at bedtime; I think there’s something magical about self-directed, summertime learning, something that can’t be duplicated during the school year with it’s non-stop demands.

With back-to-school comes the inevitable question of “Mom, what’s for lunch today?!”  Part of our return to traditional eating meant that school lunches needed a complete overhaul.  Before 2015, I was pretty okay with my kids buying school lunches, but that changed abruptly when I began subbing at the kid’s school and actually SAW the lunches.  I never understood why my children were coming home *starving* at 3pm after eating lunch at 12:30—til I had lunchroom duty one afternoon.

  • Veggies were steamed with no seasoning whatsoever.
  • Portions for a 110# 6th grader were the same as a 40# Kindergartener.
  • Lunches were very carb/sugar heavy and completely lacking beneficial fats.
  • Time was an issue as that 30 minute timeslot included the 10-15 minutes it took to stand in line and order the food.

Now listen, I’m not dogging my children’s school, the lunch lady or the program they follow.  The food they serve fits the federal requirements, is considered “nutritious”, is handled properly and the lunch lady is an absolute doll.  BUT…sometimes things that look fabulous on paper don’t translate well to reality.   My personal conviction (perhaps it’s the French in me?) is that food should do more than just supply nutrients to your body, but should also feed the eyes and comfort the spirit as well.  Yes, I understand that school cafeterias can’t “feed the eyes and comfort the spirit” en masse in a 30 minute window.  Like I said, I’m not dogging the school.   They do their absolute best, especially considering the restrictions and regulations they’re working within.  What I AM saying is that we need to return to the ages-old practice of feeding ourselves from home.

So what does this all look like?

In our house, school lunches start the week before with a detailed meal planning list.  We use leftovers extensively and the only way to end up with quality leftovers is to plan, plan, plan ahead!  One to two times a week, I prepare a cut of meat large enough for dinner plus lunches for the 4 of us.  Our favorites are whole roasted chicken or a good quality beef roast, both of which can be chopped or shredded and served in a million different ways.  I follow the old “Meat + 3” approach to lunches, the same as for dinner, and it’s worked well for us for many years.  I pack a hearty main dish, hot or cold depending on the season, and plenty of nutritious “sides” that the kids can pick from to fill up their empty corners.  Typical main dishes include favorites such as chicken fried rice, soups (chicken, tomato, beef, chili), pasta salad, Build-Your-Own burritos, bite-size meatballs, shredded chicken barbeque, chicken/tuna/egg salad or baked beans.  Packed into a thermos, the hot dishes will stay hot for many hours and provide a soothing, comforting, delicious meal for the children—and for me!  (If you haven’t purchased a serving-sized Thermos yet, I greatly encourage you to do so!  We picked them up at Walmart for about $10 when the kids began Kindergarten, and 9+ years later, they’re still going strong!)    “Side dishes” can be anything and everything, depending on the children’s palates and appetites.  Favorites for us include fresh berries, nuts and seeds, cheese cubes, homemade yogurt, carrot sticks with a full-fat dip, applesauce, olives, small salads and occasionally, a small treat like a cookie, piece of chocolate or a homemade dessert.  To wash it all down, I pack a small juice box and a bottle of water, but when it’s especially frigid outside, I’ll include a thermos of hot tea, spiced cider or cocoa, again, to nurture the spirit as well as the body.

To keep the morning chaos at a minimum, I do as much prep ahead of time as possible.  When we unpack from the grocery store, we automatically portion non-perishable items into snack-size baggies or small plastic containers.  All the non-perishable items and necessary paper goods are kept in a convenient drawer so in the morning, it’s just a matter of grabbing a few sides and tossing them in their lunch boxes.   The same can be said of perishables; just designate a small basket or shelf in the fridge and load it up with small serving containers of perishable sides like berries, yogurt and olives.  In the morning, I simply prepare the main dish, add a few sides and a drink and we’re ready to roll.  Honestly, if I’ve done the requisite prep work, I spend less than 10 minutes a day on lunches…while at the same time, saving $30+ each week on school lunches.   Occasionally, something will come up on the school menu that the kids are really excited about and we do allow for a purchased school lunch from time to time, but as a rule, they find it disappointing and are ready for their home-packed lunches the next day.

Now, I want you to know that it took several months for us to find our lunch-packing groove.  It took a while to learn what worked, what didn’t and what they looked forward to each day.  Don’t expect every lunch to be a smash hit—that’s a whole lot of unnecessary pressure you’re heaping on yourself!  Just start small, one lunch at a time and go from there.   Til next time!