Five years ago, had I come across photos like the ones I now post of my kids’ school lunches, I’d probably think “Behind this lunch is an over-achieving mother, trying to keep up appearances.”
Because, COME ON. Who has the time or energy to make school lunches everyday—let alone lunches containing all four food groups and a drink? And it’s true; I do care about appearances, sort of. But the only people whose opinions matter when it comes to how those school lunches look are my kids. Years of experience have taught me if they like how it looks, they’re more likely to eat it.
I used to groan (or sometimes growl) every morning I stood over my kids empty lunch boxes. I knew a lot of the food I was putting in there would come back uneaten. It was a cruel lunch box boomerang game.
The light bulb went on when I started getting notes about my grade one boy and his tears in the afternoon. I realized he didn’t eat most of the food I packed and was probably very hungry. Around that time, I volunteered in his classroom and saw how much time he spent taking out all the containers of food and opening each one to see what was inside. By the time he’d finally settle on one, the bell was ringing and it was time to tidy up.
I knew I had to make a change and decided to switch to open style bento lunch boxes. I’ve been making them for four years now and those boxes consistently come back (mostly) empty.
Here are some tips for packing lunches (bento style or not):
You don’t have to be fancy to make it fun
I use mini cookie cutters and wavy knives to turn boring cheese and healthy vegetables into something more appealing to the eye. The open style of bento school lunches will inspire you to add different colours and textures, like peppers and melon, too.
Don’t forget the protein
A school day is long and both learning and play take a lot of energy, and protein is important for growing kids. Mine don’t like to see luncheon meat in their school lunches, so I have to be more creative by including foods like hummus and pita, bean salad, boiled eggs, or hard cheeses. And don’t forget about leftovers: cold chicken, sliced up steak, and pizza are great choices, too.
Put that box of cookies back, and get out your baking sheet
I used to tell myself it was okay to cheat, because I had no time. But the truth is, homemade cookies and muffins taste a lot better and they are easy to bake in batches and freeze. Bonus: if you let your kids help, they’re more likely to eat them, especially if you add chocolate chips. I use recipes with chickpeas, carrots, apples, peaches and zucchini for an extra healthy boost.
Add a personal touch
You’ll never see animals made out of rice or whiskers on my kids’ sandwiches, but I do like to add some personal touches to their school lunches. Whether it’s one of those adorable notes or a Spiderman or Hello Kitty muffin liner, that extra bit of TLC reminds my kids that I’m there in spirit (and hey, they had better eat that lunch)!
Plan ahead and store before
I’ve got my packing down to an efficient routine and I can fill those school lunches in less than 10 minutes. Each container has its role: one fruit, one vegetable, one protein, one wildcard (popcorn, pretzels, tortilla chips and salsa). Do the prep work the night before and pop them into the containers in the morning.
These days, lunch making is much less tedious than it used to be, and I know that it’s because the food I spend time packing is actually being eaten. It provides me with the motivation to keep going and inspires me to keep trying new ideas. We still have recipe flops and off days, but it’s so much better than it used to be. If you’d like to take a peek at my school lunches this year for some ideas, come follow along on Instagram.