August 26, 2014

Tips for the easiest (and cutest) back to school lunches

3 minutes
Cultural exchange

This post comes from Selena Kohng of How About Cookie. As a parenting writer, blogger, and mom of three, Selena is super passionate about making food healthy and fun for her little ones. She started making bentos and food art when her middle child started school and instantly got hooked. Check out How About Cookie’s Instagram for more adorable lunch inspiration! 

Whether it’s you packing the kids’ school lunches or your au pair, this almost-daily task starts back up again as the school year returns. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sending the little ones off with a traditional PB&J in a brown bag, but if you feel like making mid-day meals a little more inspiring this year, here are some tips!

“Bento” is the latest buzzword in the parenting world, with pictures of lunches-turned-works-of-art dominating Pinterest and mommy blogs. In fact, chances are that you’ve probably pinned several of your own. If the idea of packing a healthy, fun lunch for your kid is overwhelming, not to worry: it’s a lot easier—and quicker—than you might think. Here are a few tips to get you packing back-to-school lunches like a pro in no time.

1. Choose the right container.

A true bento is about offering a variety of healthy food. Divided containers work best, since they hold multiple options (a win for you) and separate food so they don’t touch (a win for your kids). Look for lids that are easy for little hands to open and close. Also, bigger isn’t necessarily better; food packed tight in a small container stay put, while food with too much empty space surrounding it will bounce around and make a mess. Easylunchboxes, Yumbox, Planetbox, ECOlunchbox, and Lunchbots are a few examples of quality brands.
Tip: Use silicone muffin cups as easy dividers and food picks or toothpicks for fun mini kebabs.

2. Come up with a system.

If you have a plan in place, you’re more likely to follow through. Pack the night before while the kids are sleeping. Cut fruit and veggies for the week and store in sandwich bags. Organize your tools in assembly-line style on the counter. Whatever works for you, make it a habit—and make life easier.

3. Pack fruits and veggies in a rainbow of colors.

The more colors, the more attractive the lunch, and the more likely your child will eat. Choose hardy fruits and veggies like carrots, apple slices, snap peas, cherry tomatoes, and grapes. “Leaky” fruit, like sliced melons, work well if placed in their own leakproof compartment. Healthy packaged food is great too, but don’t be afraid to push into whole foods more.
Tip: Squeeze lemon juice, or any citrus juice, on cut fruits like apples, pears, and avocado to prevent browning.

4.  Introduce new foods at home first.

You want your child to eat healthy, but you don’t want a lot of waste, either. Don’t make the lunchbox their first foray into figs or mushrooms; do your taste-testing at home, then build a repertoire of meals you know they’ll be willing to try. Heat up favorite dinner leftovers in the morning, then throw them in a thermos for a hot meal.
Tip: Involve your kids by letting them have a say as to what they’ll be eating. Give several choices, and even try inviting them to help you wash, slice, and pack their lunches. Giving them ownership will go a long way.

5. Cookie cutters work wonders.

Naysayers may say no one has time for cutesy lunches, but using cookie and fondant cutters on bread, veggies, or cheese takes mere seconds. Your kindergartener might not touch bell pepper strips, but can be convinced if they’re shaped like hearts, stars, or flowers. Check craft stores or online stores like Amazon for dozens of adorable options.
Tip: Browse Etsy for unique 3D-printed cookie cutters in shapes from everything from Marvel superheroes to telephones, sports logos to Disney characters.

6. Include a note for your little ones

I believe there’s no such thing as telling your kids too often that you love them. Including a note in their lunches once in a while shows you care and that you’re thinking of them while they’re at school. Cultural Care’s version of lunch notes features messages for each days of the school week. We also likes these downloadable lunch note jokes and these adorable illustrated notes for boys and girls.

7. Choose a few unusual, surprising foods to keep kids guessing

These days, there are so many wonderful pre-packaged snacks that are healthy to eat and make life easier on mom and dad. Consider trying some of these options to give your kids’ lunches some variety: organic fruit snacks from bare, Blue Diamond nut packs, 18 Rabbits granola bars, Babybel mini cheeses. Peas of Mind veggie wedgies, organic fruit and vegetable cookies from Bitsy’s Brainfood, Good Bean flavored chickpeas, Justin’s nut butters.

8. Make the utensils fun!

There are so many delightful utensil options for kids that making eating that much more fun. Who doesn’t prefer to eat with a fork, spoon and knife with legos attached? Or those decorated in multi-colored polka dots? Or even a colorful pair of “training” chopsticks? Consider investing in a set of re-usable utensils your child will enjoy using all year round.

Parents and au pairs: what do you do to keep your kids’ lunches interesting and healthy?