The cooler nights are here. The tomatoes are ripening on the double. You've pulled out your first pair of socks in two months. You've stood in amazement at how much your little one has grown in the past two months in the sun. It can only mean one thing: it's time to think of lunch boxes.
Obviously it means more than one thing. But today's blog post is about developing a method to the lunchtime madness, be it for your littles who are away at school or daycare, or be it for the bigs in your life (including you!) who are keen to amp up the good food and make lunch a tasty and nourishing thing. We'll round it all out with a good list of quick ideas for lunches, and point you to a few good spots online for tote-friendly recipe roundups.
If this meal is for a little
Keep it simple. Repetition is a-ok. In fact, some children really thrive on predictability and the security of knowing what their lunchbox contains. If your child is one who likes surprises, still stick to the same lunches but add one small compartment with a surprise in it that is different every day.
Involve your children in the preparation! They are never too young to participate in food choice and prep. I think it is a big part of parenting and guiding them in this world, so get them in the kitchen. Take them grocery shopping, and give them the choice of veggies and fruit they would like to try in the coming week's meals. If they pick a packaged item from the shelf, read through the list of ingredients with them and help them decide if this is something with which they want to fuel their bodies. Have them help with a batch cook prep session on Sundays say, where they chop those veggies and fruit they're going to eat this week. They can cut them in to pieces and in to containers in the fridge. This will make meal assembly a breeze in the coming days.
For my daughter, as she is now preparing her own lunch, we sat down together to drum up a list of what type of meals she can pack for herself on what days. She has always loved the security of a routine, and so loves to have the same meal every Monday (tuna salad), and every Tuesday she counts on a mini pizza, and Wednesdays are for thermos meals, and so on and so forth. It takes the guesswork out of what to make, almost like the plan has been pre-decided and all she has to do is follow the plan. Which is easy, and certainly do-able for her. We went over the concept of what types of things to include in her lunches, always ensuring there is a good protein and a good fat, along with a vegetable or two every day. Not only does she enjoy making her lunches (I know, the school year hasn't yet started... (I promise she did this last year and was a champ)) she actually eats more of it too, meaning she has the fuel she needs to get through the day of school work and play. And I am throwing less soggy, spent good food in the garbage at the end of the day.
Think of themes for those days as a jump off point perhaps. Mondays = tacos; Tuesdays = soups; Wednesdays = eggs; Thursdays = salad; Fridays = pizza. This list can come from a 10 minute brainstorm session where everyone pitches in. What are your family's favourites?
We have a hand-drawn calendar on our corkboard in the kitchen that my kiddo refers to when preparing her lunch the night before; in this last week leading up to school is the perfect time to get them to build this calendar. They can design it themselves; or you may want to use a pre-made one. I found a few bright and colourful what they call free 'printables' online, you may want to check them out.
Whether you are preparing for a kid-friendly lunch or a meal at your desk or in the work lunchroom (think of the $$ you will save from not going out! and how much more nourishing the food will be!), there are a few good tips that apply to both.
Freezing smaller portions of things like roast chicken, extra pulled pork meat, or other things of the like can be done in easy portions by first doling them out in to silicone muffin trays or ice cube trays. Once they've had a few days to firm up in the freezer, pop them in to a freezer bag to keep them fresher and to keep them from drying out. They'll make for easy peasy meal prep in no time flat! Look for a list of ideas using this method below. (One of my favourites is to freeze pesto into cubes. Adding one to last night's dinner makes it a whole new meal for lunch today! Add one to some frozen stock, throw in the leftover side veggies from supper and add some roast chicken and lunch is served.)
Interested in bringing something liquid to lunch? Salad dressing? Apple sauce? Yogurt + fruit? I highly recommend picking up a flat of 1/2 cup sized glass 'mason-style' jars from Canadian Tire or your favourite grocery store. They seal up like a dream, preventing those sloppy messes from taking over the backpack or briefcase. Bonus, they're fairly easy for littles to open at school. I hand these half cup jars out at some of my classes; they're the perfect size to make enough salad dressing for a few days so that you only need bring it to work on Mondays. It can stay in the fridge at work for the rest of the week, one less step to think about when preparing your meals for the rest of the week. (Remember this post on making your own salad dressings? Worth a recap to understand WHY you'd want to make your own.)
Sandwich or wrap popular ideas chez vous? Might I recommend you go for a sprouted grain product instead of straight up white or brown bread (whether gluten-free or gluten-full). It's the same idea behind this story here about the fox; choosing a sprouted grain product will be immensely easier to digest, and kinder to your system. Think of swapping things out: use lettuce leaves for 'boats' instead of corn tortillas for build-your-own-taco lunch. Use nori leaves to wrap the tuna salad for lunch (although I'd recommend they are assembled only at eating time, otherwise they go soggy). Instead of the wrap, keep the inside components but make it a salad instead. Have them with sprouted grain chips or sprouted crackers instead. Use your liver pate or smoked salmon + cream cheese + chives spread as a dip for veggies!
Another way to have an easier time with grains is to reach for a true sourdough bread instead of a regular loaf. Sourdough is a naturally fermented process which breaks down those nefarious anti-nutrients in grains, inherently making the job of digestion easier. How to know it's a true sourdough? Make sure there is no yeast on the list of ingredients.
Double up and make extra
Next time you're making a pot of soup, or a stew in the slow cooker, consider making a bit extra. If you're roasting a chicken, it's worth throwing in a second one just for the meat you'll have at the ready for easy lunch planning. The extras can easily be frozen in containers or bags into the freezer in single-serving sizes. Taking them out the night before works well, or bringing them to work frozen first thing in the morning prevents them from leaking on the way to work. See? There's a plus to every side, my friend.
A note on thermoses: it's best to preheat the container with some boiling water for 10 minutes, as you are heating up the meal that will be going in. Just make sure to dump the hot water before you put your food in. I've been caught a few times with my eyes half open...
I have a wee list of things below, based on whether they're plant powered or animal powered. You'll find a list of thermos-friendly ideas, and freezing-friendly things too. Please add your ideas in the comments below! It takes a village, friend.
Throw some of these ideas together for a nourishing meal in a flash.
Plant-powered small bites
- nuts + seeds
- sweet potato chunks
- carrot 'coins'
- vegenaise + pesto = dip
- kale chips
- seaweed crackers
- popcorn + coconut oil/butter + hot sauce + parmesan (opt)
- salad of vegs + salad dressing in a small glass jar
- smoothies (make sure there's a good fat – coconut oil, full fat yogurt, nut butter, cocoa butter)
- nut butters on fruit
- celery sticks with nut butter and goji berries (fire ants on a log!)
- shredded coconut
- homemade trail mix (seed + nut + dried fruit + cocoa nibs)
- use sprouted grain bread or true sourdough for sandwiches and wraps
- use nori leaves for wraps
- make nori rolls with tahini, cukes, avocado, sprouts and cut into sushi like pieces
- things-on-a-stick (fruit salad this way! Or veggies + cheese!)
- easy homemade mini pizzas (naan bread + sauce + toppings)
- guacamole + sprouted crackers or chips
- beet chips
- pickles (fermented dilly sticks are a great first ferment, and tasty bites)
- hummus or babaghanoush with veggies
- sprouted corn chips with salsa
- apple sauce
- fruit crisp
- yogurt or creme fraiche + maple syrup + berries
- yogurt + granola + berries
- veggies + ranch dip
- mayo + pesto = dip
- sardines + mayo + celery + curry powder
- hardboiled eggs
- egg salad
- deviled eggs
- protein pancakes
- pepperoni sticks (with clean ingredients)
- farmer's sausage (with clean ingredients)
- pâté or liverwurst
- smoked salmon
- bacon strips
- tuna salad (or salmon, or sardines); fish + celery + smashed avocado + curry powder
- roast an extra chicken and shred that meat in muffin cups, store in freezer bag for easy portion retrieval
- send lettuce or corn tortillas for your person to make their own tacos (+salsa +cheese +sour cream)
- Meat salad in a wrap: chicken, apple, creme fraiche, celery, pickle relish
- sushi salad (smoked salmon + leftover rice + nori leaves + sesame seeds + chives + avocado)
- salad of cherry tomatoes + peppers + cucumbers + bocconcini cheese + basil + balsamic
- tzatziki + cukes + snap peas
- celery stick + cream cheese
- 1 tbsp butter + 1 tsp honey = frosting, along with an apple or pear to dip
- yogurt + chia jam
- Gut loving jello squares
- homemade yogurt/creme fraiche fruit leather
Good meals to cook extra for the thermos
- cook extra sausages at dinner
- meat stock + seaweed + chives
- make a big batch of soup or stew and freeze in individual portions for easy retrieval
- make a double batch of your famous meatballs and freeze for easy lunches
- make a double batch of your family's best crockpot recipe and freeze for easy lunches
- make an extra shepherd's pie and divy it up into single sized portions
- refried beans
- keep your stock hot in your thermos, and make your own noodle soup with ingredients in a glass jar (veg, garlic, sesame oil, cellophane noodles, herbs); add stock only just before eating
- last night's dinner
- frozen stock cubes + frozen shredded chicken + frozen pesto cube + hit of salsa or cube of pizza sauce = instasoup
Use silicon muffin trays or ice cube trays to freeze small portions, pop in freezer bags + label
- meat stock / bone broth
- leftover meat
- roast an extra chicken for dinner, and shred the meat for quick easy grab protein
- double your recipe for pulled pork and freeze the meat for quick easy grab protein
- pesto (great way to jazz up lots of things, and change the flavour of a leftover)
- pizza sauce
- blitzed pulse paste (great to add fibre and protein to a quick pieced together meal)
My only rules: Keep it simple. Routine is key. You got this.
Good luck on your lunch planning! Now go play with your food.