When I was a kid, I was a brown-bag creature of habit. Every day – from my first day of kindergarten to my last day of eighth grade – my mom packed me a PB+J with creamy peanut butter and apple jelly on white bread, a small bag of chips and a quarter to buy a carton of chocolate milk. Same thing. Every. Single. Day. And I loved it. In fact, I never gave it a second thought.
Until I had my own kiddos, that is. They are NOT like I was. All three have very different personalities and like very different things in their lunches. One wants to be surprised, one wants no surprises, and one wants to pack it herself. And all I really want is for each of them to leave home with a reasonably wholesome lunch I know they won’t trade.
Which is why I’m all about mixing and matching. It helps me pack lunches that satisfy even my most high-maintenance child, plus keeps morning madness to a minimum. My secret? I put out a few different options and let the kids pick from what’s there to pack their own lunches.
Protein, produce, snacks and treats – I make sure our kitchen is stocked with plenty of choices in each category. Everything’s divvied up into individual servings and put within reach of all the kids. From there, I have only two rules: They have to select one thing from each category, with as much produce as they’re sure they’ll eat. And mom or dad have veto power upon review.
There are staples I like to stock in each category. They can be mixed and matched a million different ways, but the end result is always one healthy and delicious lunch for my kids. Organized by category, I offer up to you what works for my fam:
PB+J isn’t to my kids what it was to me. Mine prefer lunchmeat stacked onto sandwiches, stuffed into pitas or wrapped in lettuce leaves. They’ll even layer several pieces of meat with a slice of cheese and roll it up. They like jerky, pepperoni sticks, hardboiled eggs and string cheese too. Sometimes they ladle up leftovers like turkey chili or bean soup into a thermos.
Unlimited Fruits & Veggies
My kids can add as many of these as they want (within reason). I actually encourage it. Mine love fruits like bananas, frozen grapes, apples, clementines, fresh berries, dried figs and melon wedges. And the most popular veggies at our house are grape tomatoes, carrot sticks, pickled anything (okra is the fan fave – no joke!) and a rainbow of raw pepper strips.
Hummus for dipping and nut butters for smearing are favorites in my house. My kids like to pack black olives to eat off the end of every finger, and raisins and dried cranberries to line up like ants. Veggie puffs, potato crisps and woven wheat crackers also fit into our snack category, as do pretzels and popcorn.
1 Sweet(ish) Treat
Unless there’s a birthday on the calendar, I don’t let the kids pack cookies or other sweets. Instead, they can have a granola bar, yogurt cup, flavored milk or baggy of trail mix.
Not that treats are totally banned. I keep small desserts that taste like big indulgences on hand for after-school snacks. While they don’t get packed for lunch, sometimes I’ll slip notes into their lunchboxes that hint at what sweetness is in store for later. “Cookie date at 3:30. Have a SWEET day until then. Love, Mom.” When they walk in the door, we meet in the kitchen to share baked goods or boxed treats, and they recap the school day before we take on homework. It’s a tradition my mom started with me and my sisters, and one I am thrilled to carry on.