10 suggestions to spice up school lunches

If your kids haven’t already started school for the year, they will soon. And if you’ve committed to the role of lunch maker, it means time to stock up on all the “brown bag” goods.

Although I have one child who has requested a peanut butter sandwich every school day since kindergarten (he will start fourth grade next month), I continue to attempt to evolve the school lunch into something more interesting and healthy than the ol’ sammy and chips.

Many of my lunch ideas came from years of practice; however, I cannot take credit for all of them – nor can I give credit where credit is due. So many were collected during various mom gatherings, both in person and online, and I was too tired or distracted to mentally process who suggested what.

On that note, thanks to all the thoughtful, creative parents out there whose suggestions continue to nourish my kids every day. That’s not to say there’s plenty of days when most or all of the lunch comes home uneaten, which is perplexing and frustrating, but that’s another article.

Here are 10 innovative back-to-school lunch ideas:

More options, smaller portions. Although this requires the use of more plastic bags or reusable containers, I have found that, for all meals, most kids are more likely to graze than dig in. Invest in lots of lunch items such as nuts (peanuts, pistachios, almonds), carrot sticks, raisins, cheese wedges (Babybel), pickles, black olives, applesauce, goldfish crackers, yogurt tubes, granola, etc. and then dole them out in small portions.

Cut sandwiches into shapes or small squares. Using cookie cutters to cut my kids’ sandwiches into shapes means wasting part of the sandwich, however, I consider it a fair trade off since they don’t eat the crusts anyway. Plus, I often found the sandwich still in the box when it was whole or half-ed. Sometimes I just cut it into four or more pieces which seems to be more appealing, too.

Ask kids what they want in their lunch. It’s annoying, but kids often change what they like and don’t like to eat on a daily basis. He loved applesauce, then it came home untouched a few times and he informed me, once I asked, that he no longer liked how bumpy it was. (Stab me with a spork now.) Another time, one of the kids stopped eating his sandwich and informed me, days later when I finally asked, that he liked whole wheat bread better than white bread. Who knew, who knew?

Mini bagels. I should write a love letter to the mini bagel. Whether slathered in peanut butter or cream cheese or made into mini pizzas with mozzarella and tomato sauce, they have been a consistent brown bag savior for me.

Ice packs. Small ice packs open up a world of possibilities. Some of the items I send along with an ice pack are tuna fish with crackers, pasta salad, hard boiled eggs, maki rolls and cold pizza. (I had to teach my kids to like unheated pizza. They did not get it at first until they saw me horking it down with my morning coffee enough times to appreciate the merits of the cold slice.)

Soup in an insulated container. This summer, I was watching “The Breakfast Club” for the first time in at least a decade, and I was enlightened during the lunch scene. Soup in an insulated container! I completely forgot about this as a healthy lunch option until I saw Anthony Michael Hall’s character’s lunch items. One of the healthiest meals my kids eat these days is minestrone soup and I will definitely send that along with them this fall when the weather cools.

Wraps. I put everything from peanut butter and honey to cream cheese and veggie shreds in wraps and then cut them into coin-sized pieces to make them more appealing. I have also spread hummus, Nutella with bananas, and black beans and cheese on ‘em. Not all on the same wrap, of course. That would be gross.

Toaster oven items. Bean or chicken taquitos or mini tacos from Trader Joe’s can be heated in a toaster oven in the morning, wrapped in foil and will be still warm at lunch time. My toaster oven in the past few years has become one of my very best friends. It even spurred an amicable break up with my microwave.

Rice dishes. Rice is cheap, filling and when mixed with veggies and soy sauce it makes a tasty lunch option. Of course, you have to remember to send along the plastic fork or spoon. You can, of course, send a reusable utensil but keep your expectations low on the return rate. I have also mixed rice with a can of cream of chicken soup and sent it along which went over OK. No rave reviews, but it wasn’t completely dissed, either.

Ants on a log. From lunches to potlucks, this is one of my favorite items to create and share. Traditionally, it’s made with celery sticks, peanut butter and raisins, but take it wherever you want. Cream cheese and Craisins? Sure! Nutella and peanuts? Why the heck not? Creativity is the key to successful lunch making.

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