Back to School Lunchbox Ideas and Tips – Part 2

Well, after reading Part 1 I hope you all have some sort of container or lunchbox for your kids to transport all the yummy nutritious food you are about to make. Today we are going to talk about some general tips and ideas for basic lunchbox packing and some ideas for grocery shopping and prepping certain foods ahead of the start of a crazy week so you can have one or two more sips of coffee in the mornings. I’m all about doing anything that allows me to sit for one or two extra minutes with my hot cup of joe.

Tips & Ideas for Better & Easier Lunchbox Packing!

I want to open this post with a statement that might sound surprising to you. School lunches for kids DO NOT have to be this beautiful, amazing, every-day-is-different creation. If you’ve seen my Instagram feed (@therealisticlunchbox) or Facebook group (The Realistic Lunchbox) you might think I promote that philosophy a bit, but I post a lot of variety to give you new ideas and cater to different kid’s dietary needs and tastes. If you’ve found a healthy way to feed your kids at lunchtime and worry that it is a bit repetitive then STOP! Most young kids love repetition and don’t care. So, as long as they are eating healthy foods and there is some variety, then don’t worry. Let’s be realistic here.

So what does a well balanced healthy lunchbox look like?

Let’s break it down….

Veggies

At a meal that is not served at school I recommend a goal of half the plate being filled with veggies. However, at school, sometimes this can be tricky because kids have so little time to eat. Eating raw veggies can take a lot of time! So while I still think veggies should be present in a lunchbox, I’m also conscientious of time limitations. So pack a variety of colors, shapes and types of veggies but don’t overdo it. I am also a big fan of dips like hummus or a yogurt based homemade ranch dip to pair with raw veggies. This is an easy way to add some protein and healthy fats while making veggies more fun to eat. Some ideas for fresh veggies include:

  • Carrots/tri-colored carrots
  • Cucumbers (my kids love the mini crunchers because there is less “mushy” interior)
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Bell peppers/mini bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Snap peas
  • Kale (chips)

You can also pack veggies in a lunch with soups, stews, or salads. Veggies can be added to sandwiches, pasta or rice or quinoa dishes or even in smoothies! (Check out my recommended Squeasy Gear for smoothies and the Thermos Funtainer for soups and warm food in the prior post, Back to School Lunchbox Ideas and Tips, Part 1.)

Fruit

I have a love-hate relationship with fruit in regards to nutrition for kids. Everyone touts the benefits of fruit, and that’s true, but seriously, what kid doesn’t like fruit? I find this the easiest thing to get most kids to eat. And if you are one of the few parents whose kids don’t really go for the fruit…don’t sweat it. They’re not really missing out on much. They can get plenty of antioxidants from veggies and calories from other foods (with less sugar).

There are some fruits that don’t pack well in a lunchbox. Sometimes raspberries or watermelon (or other fruits with high water content or that are very soft) can get too juicy and squishy. The fruits with the least amount of sugars per serving are the berries, which also have high amounts of antioxidants. Be sure to buy organic for fruits (like berries) that are on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, which are the foods most heavily contaminated with herbicides and pesticides.

So pack the fruit (or don’t) but don’t worry too much about what kinds to pack. Just limit the fruit so your kids will eat some protein and healthy fats.

This list is by no means inclusive of all fruit! I try to buy in season but it’s hard sometimes when the kids just want their favorites!
  • bananas
  • Apples
  • Cantaloupe
  • Clementines
  • Kiwi
  • Grapes
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries (these can sometimes get squishy in lunches)
  • Blueberries
  • Melon
  • Olives
  • Avocado
  • Mango

Protein

Whether you and your kids are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free or have other dietary trends, ALL kids need protein and plenty of it. Make sure there is an adequate source of protein in each meal for your kids. If possible, buy grass-fed, pastured organic meats, dairy and eggs. Also look for lunch meats or preserved meats without nitrates or nitrates. Read more about how and where to buy good quality meat and fish (and what not to buy) at foodrenegade.com and foodbabe.com. Or make your own lunch meats, read more at thenourishinggourmet.com.

Here are some ideas for protein sources:

  • Cheese/cheese sticks/cheese stick wrapped in salami or ham
  • Cream cheese/cream cheese and salmon/cream cheese and cucumber sandwich (on sprouted whole grain bread or between whole grain crackers like a sandwich)
  • Banana and nut butter (chocolate hazelnut/almond/cashew/sunbutter/peanut butter/etc) on a sprouted whole grain tortilla (rolled up) or on sprouted whole grain bread
  • Greek yogurt (with honey/maple syrup and/or fruit and/or granola) or as a base to a dip
  • Bacon
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Cottage cheese
  • Salami/ham/turkey/chicken strips/other meats (can be on a sandwich or as a side to crackers and cheese)
  • Mozzarella balls (as a side or on a skewer with other food)
  • Jerky (beef/turkey/salmon/bison)
  • Hummus
  • Roasted chickpeas

Healthy Fats

Fats usually don’t stand alone (unless you are eating a stick of butter or drinking some coconut oil?) They are often packaged safely, protected from oxidation, within whole foods like seeds, nuts and animal meats. Here is a basic list of foods that contain healthy doses of fats for active, growing kids. Don’t fear the fats! Kids (and adults) need fats to grow up healthy, build strong cells, grow smart brains, and by eating a healthy dose of fats with protein and non-refined carbs we will hopefully provide the next generation with a much lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and many other ailments contributed to by diet and lifestyle. Since toxins are stored in fat, choose organic or clean sources. Read more on the truth about different fats and whether they are healthy for you in this article from Harvard.

  • Avocado/guacamole
  • Salmon or tuna (dried/smoked/fresh/canned)
  • Olives
  • Coconut
  • Eggs (egg yolk)
  • Nuts and seeds like pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts and pistachios (also as nut or seed butters)/ muffins or bars containing nuts/seeds)
  • Full Fat yogurt
  • Cheese

General Lunchbox Packing Tips

Keep it Realistic! Our kids will likely have 20 minutes or less to eat their lunches, and that is being generous for some schools. For this reason I recommend:

  • NOT packing foods in multiple containers. One (or two) easy to open containers saves time.
  • Show some love for the veggies but not too much! Packing half a lunchbox of raw veggies that take forever to chew isn’t always the best idea for a limited lunch time. You can always put out a large plate of raw veggies as an appetizer before dinner when the kids are whining for food. (They will also eat more veggies when they are presented first!)
  • Don’t pack things that the kids have to assemble before eating.

Balance. Make sure to pack a well balanced lunch so that your kids can concentrate better at school. When kids are hungry or have fluctuating blood sugar levels from inadequate or poorly balanced meals they show increasing behavior problems, attention probables and can’t retain or focus as well. Does your lunchbox contain a protein source, some fat, veggies and possibly some fruit? Chances are that it’s balanced then. Chips, crackers, bread, etc are all extras in my opinion and those are the easiest things to pack. First focus on the protein, fat and veggies and then fill in the rest as you feel your kid needs.

Visually Appealling. People eat healthier when presented with colorful, vibrant, well presented foods. Try to add color with various veggies and fruits, use accessories like muffin cups or silicone pods to present foods in a more organized way, use fun accessories to jazz up some foods, or use a smaller Lunchbox to make it seem full. Large empty spaces can detract from an otherwise appetizing lunch.

Choice & Challenge. Try to pack most foods that your child loves or really likes so you know they will eat it but also pack a few new foods, foods that they’ve seen other kids eat and are interested in or foods they see at the grocery store that they ask about. While lunch at school isn’t really the best place to present a plate of completely new foods, sometimes it can be fun for them to experience a new food with friends (or they can laugh about it together and wonder what the heck mom/dad packed….)

Don’t Chuck It! Encourage your kids to never throw away their uneaten lunch. This allows you to see what they are eating, or not eating. This can be incredibly helpful information! We went through a period when my Kindergartener was having some behavior and attitude issues at school and home. As I saw his lunchboxes come home I realized that he wasn’t really eating anything, only some veggies (yeah, I know, he’s a bit abnormal in that sense). I was packing a well balanced lunch but he was so focused on talking with his friends and getting to recess that he just wasn’t eating much lunch. We had a couple weeks of sporadic conversation about how our bodies feel based on how and what we eat and he started to make the connection. After that, things went much smoother on the eating lunch front and on the behavior front. Also, if your kids bring home their lunch leftovers they can eat it as an afternoon snack. Less wasted food and you don’t have to prepare an extra snack!

Be Prepared. Prepping a little bit on the weekends can really help reduce the morning chaos. Some people like to make lunchboxes the night before, and some don’t but either way you can prep these foods like these for lunches ahead of time:

  • Boiled eggs
  • Bacon
  • Kale chips
  • Healthy muffins
  • Avocado chocolate balls
  • Granola or energy bars

Grocery Store Tips

Fresh produce and fruit is something you are going to have to buy at least once a week but there are some packaged foods I’ve found to make life a lot easier (and healthier) when it comes to lunch packing. Here are some of my favorite premade/packaged foods available at grocery stores or online. You will find most of these pictured in my Instagram feed.

  • Lara bars
  • Cocoroons (by Sejoyia foods)
  • Terra chips
  • Seaweed snacks
  • Coconut date rolls (Whole Foods bulk section)
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Aussie bites (founds these at Costco)
  • Epic meat jerky
  • Somersault sesame bites
  • Dried fruit
  • Figgy Pops
  • Sprouted whole grain bread, tortillas and crackers
  • Dang coconut chips (tons of flavors!)
  • Go Raw Cookies
  • Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars
  • Way Better Snacks chips
  • Late July chips

And lastly, some favorite treats (some are healthier than others) but none contain artificial sugars, flavors or colors.

  • Chocolate covered colored sesame seeds (Trader Joes)
  • Bitsy’s Brainfood Smart Cookies
  • Yum Earth gummies
  • Chocolate covered coconut
  • Dark Chocolate
  • 365 brand gummy stars

Do you have some lunchbox tips to share? Feel free to leave comments and pics! You can also follow me on Instagram (@therealisticlunchbox) or on Facebook (The Realistic Lunchbox) for frequent posts of the lunches I pack, along with healthy eating ideas and recipes.

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Back To School Lunchbox Ideas and Tips – Part 1

Admittedly, I’ve had a recent love affair with Instagram. It’s so easy to snap a shot of my subject, tweak a little filtering and editing, say a couple words and bam, you’ve got a post of your amazing creation sent out to the world. And apparently people like me on Instagram. #stillbogglesmymind However, a friend I’ve known for years sent me a message and basically requested this post. At first I was like, “Seriously? I have no time for that…” but then I got to thinking….I kind of owe it to my followers. I mean, how else can I expect them to be brilliant at making lunches like me if I don’t break it down for them? Ok, just kidding. I’m really glad she asked for this post and I hope you will be too.

Here’s what we are going to talk about in a multipart series.

  1. Gear – the things I use most to transport, contain, refrigerate and accessorize my lunches.
  2. Grocery List – my favorite pre-packaged and fresh healthy and natural lunchbox foods found at the grocery store or online.
  3. Prep – some foods you can make at home to pack an extra nutritional and yummy punch in your lunchboxes and some minimal prep tips for making your week of lunch packing easier.
  4. Tips – golden nuggets I have gleaned over the years that I’m finally throwing down into a list to help make lunch box prep easier.

Gear

Lunchbox or Container

As you can see from my Instagram Feed (@therealisticlunchbox) or my Facebook Page (The Realistic Lunchbox) I have some favorite Lunchboxes that I use repeatedly. I’d love to try others but if you don’t see me mention one here it’s because if I buy another lunchbox my husband will withhold my credit cards. Here are the ones I have with pros/cons so you can possibly extrapolate to other lunchboxes.

PlanetBox

I own their mid-size, the Rover, and it is hands down my FAVORITE, also the most expensive (this fact being the top of my husband’s CON list!). I bought the first one as my first son entered Kindergarten and we are now in 2nd grade with the same one and going strong! Another great thing about the PlanetBox is that the lid closes to seal all the compartments completely. No leakage. This is important when packing… let’s say a sandwich and raspberries. No one wants soggy bread. Lastly, my favorite feature is the way they designed the compartments. They are so easy to fill to make a balanced lunch that LOOKS good. I would say my only con for this lunchbox is that you can’t send warm/hot foods (well you can but they won’t stay warm/hot!)

LunchBots

(Quad on top, Cinco on bottom)

The first lunchbox we owned for kids was the “Quad” and it’s quite durable – we are approaching 4 or 5 years with this one. I love the size for toddlers and preschoolers but it’s a bit small for an elementary school appetite. I’m a big fan of the fact that it’s stainless steel and not plastic, and like the PlanetBox it is dishwasher safe. We still use this one quite frequently for my 3 year old (as you will see in my feed). Most young kids like their food separated and not touching so the Quad accomplishes this well. However, I do have a few cons for this one. First, the lid is sometimes hard to open (maybe because we dropped the lunchbox a few times??) Also, the lid is not attached to the body (one more thing to misplace…). The compartments are NOT sealed, so sometimes moisture from one food goes to visit another food and the result is not appealing.

Bentgo Kids

We picked one of these up at a garage sale (#winning) so we couldn’t pick the color but my 3 year old son doesn’t seem to mind the pink/purple! Same as the LunchBots Quad, I love the size of this lunchbox for toddlers and preschoolers and the many small compartments. Unlike the LunchBots Quad, this one seems to seal the compartments quite nicely. Also a pro for me is the attached lid BUT it’s not super easy for small kids to open and close well. Sometimes I get the lunchbox coming back in the lunch bag only partially closed which means….total mess if he didn’t finish his lunch or if I packed cottage cheese 😳. My biggest issue with this lunchbox is that it is plastic. Yeah, I don’t care if it’s BPA free or not, there are so many different types of plastic and most of it touching food is not great. Today it’s “BPA is bad for you” and tomorrow it will be another type of plastic that will slowly kill us. #notafanofplastic

U Konserve

(UKonserve divided rectangle is on the right, Thermos Funtainer on the left)

I actually have the divided rectangle and the “round nesting trio” pictured above. These containers are very affordable, fairly easy to open/close for little hands, made mostly of stainless steel, and dishwasher safe. My complaints for the divided rectangle is that it’s too small for an elementary lunch and the divider seems to shift sometimes (it’s meant to be removable and movable). The nested trio I use for snacks.

Plastic Divided Containers

I found these simple plastic divided containers on Amazon. 4 containers cost me about $16, so very affordable in my opinion. As you know, I’m not a big fan of plastic, but sometimes it comes in handy. I use these containers for certain outings or summer camps when I know that I would blow a gasket if my child lost a more expensive lunchbox and the odds of getting it back were close to zero. I also use them when we need something lightweight, like for hiking or carrying it around all day. The compartments don’t seal 100% and it’s a bit sketchy as to whether they get closed up tight after a meal. They are a great option if you are a family that likes to make multiple days of meals at once and store them in the fridge. (Also pictured is a silicone Squeasy Gear bottle which I will talk about under Accessories).

Lunch Bags

Well, not much to say here other than make sure you can fit the lunchbox and/or containers in it with room for an ice pack! PlanetBox lunchboxes are a hard fit for most of the lunchboxes you will find. I just buy their brand and have been pretty happy with them. And make sure the lunch bag fits into the child’s backpack!

Ice Packs

Gotta have one. Try Target. They seem to have all shapes and sizes. I would recommend saving some money this way instead of buying the ones that are brand specific.

Accessories

Yay, the fun part! While I don’t recommend going crazy with accessories (kids will spend more time taking them out of the food then actually eating the food) I do think a few here or there can really make a child smile or be more engaged with their food. Heck, I even managed to quiz my child on spelling words without using technology and while miles away from him. Stumped? Just wait. Here are some of my favorites….

Bento Food picks So many options here. Just check out Amazon for a variety of choices. My favorites are listed. Food picks are great to dress up a strawberry into a little strawberry creature or to simply make mini skewers of olives and cheese (or anything else you want to string together.) It can add a lot of variety and creativity to how foods are presented in a lunch box. Kids are much more likely to eat an olive on the end of a cute eyeball pick then one that’s not! (Here you can see a few of the bento eye food picks…)

CutezCute Bento Eyes Design Food Pick (Set of 10), Black/White https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HQXU194/ref=cm_sw_r_oth_tai_l56Nzb8089G5V

1 X Japanese Bento Cute Food Pick 100 pcs – Clear and Slim by JapanBargain https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0011NDYYO/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_tai_6jfOzbRZ5NNA4

Torune 26 Piece Japanese Bento Accessory Food Pick Letter Set https://www.amazon.com/dp/B002BHHHUQ/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_tai_7kfOzbPN9A90P

Silicone Muffin Cups (round/rectangle/square/star) These are great to add divided spaces to lunchboxes with larger compartments. While they won’t work for things with high liquid content, they are perfect for the toddler or child who doesn’t like their food groups touching. (In this lunchbox I used a green star shaped silicone muffin cup).

Ipow Thicken Silicone Cupcake Baking Muffin Cups Liners Molds Sets,24pack https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00N4ONBGY/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_tai_f-6NzbYPAVM1D

PlanetBox Silicone Pods These can be purchased through PlanetBoxes website and they are SO helpful to create more compartments if wanted. **NOTE – they also fit perfectly in the LunchBots lunchboxes! Here you can see a yellow and green pod along with two orange silicone muffin cups.

Small containers with silicone lids I use the ones from PlanetBox that come with the lunchboxes but there are other brands that make similar small containers for dips or salad dressing or yogurt. Make sure they fit in your lunchbox (this is why I like PlanetBox – they come custom made for that lunchbox and work seamlessly together). This is also a great way to reduce your waste and get away from all the individually packaged disposable containers. #reuse #reduce

Here you can see a large Planet Box Dipper (silicone lid not pictured)

Squeasy Snacker Silicone Squeeze Bottles These come in a 3oz or 6oz size and are AMAZING for young kids and toddlers. They do a pretty good job of preventing messes when drinking (my 3 year old figured out the only way he could make a mess was to use it like a squirt bottle but other than THAT method they are pretty much mess-free!) They are dishwasher safe or very easy to hand wash and it’s food grade silicone! I like to make my popular chocolate spinach smoothie and put that in there as an accessory to a lunch. (The kids have no idea how much spinach I can hide in there!) You can also use these to make a homemade version of prepackaged versions like GoGurt. This will cut your child’s sugar intake by at least half! Here is a green 6oz Squeasy Snacker…

Thermos Funtainer For soups or dishes you want to send warm for lunch. 10oz size. (Funtainer is pictured on the right, with leftover Chipotle.) You heat the food first and then add it to the thermos. It’s easy to open, perfect size for kids and keeps the food nice and warm!

Random Small Dinosaurs Huh? Uh, yes. You know those tiny dinosaurs that kids get in party favor bags or as prizes? It doesn’t have to just be dinosaurs, any small toy can be used to add some pop to a lunchbox. I don’t use these things everyday but once in a while I do and son feels like he found a treasure in his lunchbox. I’m starting to think my 7 year old is a little “over it” but the 3 year old just loves the days I put a small dinosaur or planet or lego guy in his lunch. Go search your kids’ toy boxes and let your imagination go wild! (And wash the toys first! 😜)

I hope this gives you some great ideas! Making homemade lunches in reusable containers for your kids gives you the chance to offer them a balanced, nutritious meal to power their bodies and brains, saves you money (even after forking over the big bucks for the perfect lunchbox!), and reduces waste in the environment. It even saves them precious time by not having to wait in line to get a school lunch. With the average American child getting 20 minutes or less for lunchtime, these minutes saved is a big deal! Not to mention you can have a visual on how much and what they are eating for lunch.

Stay tuned for the next posts in this series. We still have a lot to cover!

Leftovers for Lunch

  

Toddler lunch, preschool lunch, school lunch or even for adults, this lunch is good for the whole family, especially people with food allergies or sensitivities as it is peanut free, nut free, gluten free and dairy free. 

Today we are using our Thermos Funtainer to keep honey sesame chicken with brown rice and broccoli warm. Since this is for my 2 year old I cut up all the food into small bite size pieces. The other containers pictured are Kids Konserve and have raspberries and coconut chips (chocolate and plain). You may want to check that your small child can open these containers by themselves before sending them to school, teachers are often very busy at lunch time and may not have time to open every child’s lunch stuff. 

Lego Snack Time

For my son’s 5th birthday celebration at school he wanted to bring something “cool” for his friends and I wanted to get away from the usual cupcakes or cake that is brought in for birthdays. Let’s be clear- I LOVE cake, and I let my son have cake for special occasions- I am not anti-cake by any means. But with 30 kids in the classroom and 3 teachers over the course of a 9 month school year that’s roughly cake or cupcakes on average EVERY WEEK! Yikes. So here was our alternative idea (stolen from none other than Pinterest 😜)

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The red ninja from Ninjago made out Babybel cheese. Simply remove one side of the wax strip on the cheese and draw two eyes (I used black cake decorating gel)

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PB&J Lego brick sandwiches. Cut of the crust then cut in half. I made the circles using an open baby bottle to press into a slice of bread. Then dab some peanut butter on one side of the circle to stick it to the bread.

The kids (and teachers) loved it and my son was thrilled. I wish I had some better picks but I was juggling a one year old in a chaotic preschool while trying to arrange the snack. I would have loved to have a bit more time to arrange the snacks in a more “Lego-y” way but hey- that’s what having kids is like, right?

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Little Lunchbox – chicken salad

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Well this went over better than expected. I think that telling my 4 year old there was “green food like the ninja turtles eat” may have helped. We sampled the pre made curried chicken salad at Whole Foods so he knew what it was (often kids are NOT as adventurous with food as they are in an ice cream store 😉 and the tray came back empty after school. Win win!

Lunch: pre made curried chicken salad from Whole Foods (you could make your own with leftover chicken and it would keep really well 3-5 days in the fridge), cucumber sticks, yellow bell pepper slices, roasted seaweed with sea salt, sesame crackers, dried apricots and a coconut date bar (also from Whole Foods- I’ve been a busy momma these days!)