It’s a word that strikes fear into the heart of many a parent once the school year approaches. No, not homework or carpools.
I’m talking about lunch: the soggy sandwiches, unloved fruits, crumbled granola bars.
In fact, this story came about after my editor and I commiserated about our meal-making woes. She’s on a quest for eco-friendly storage and leakproof baggies. Meanwhile, my older son has brought home the same shriveled, uneaten orange for two years.
I asked parents (and a few professionals) for their lunch ideas, hacks, and innovations. The response was overwhelming. Recommendations for storage containers, YouTube videos of parents creating Picasso-level sandwiches, and assembly strategies poured in. Dozens of people messaged me wanting to share. Others sought advice or needed to vent.
As one fatigued parent put it, “The trick is to load their account with lunch money.”
If you find yourself staring down an uninspiring bin of limp lunch meat, read on for the Commandments of Lunch-Making.
Shop for the child you have, not the child you want. You might entertain visions of your young gourmand eating orzo salad and hummus roll-ups, but if your kid is strictly sun-butter and jelly, embrace it — but don’t totally give up. Be strategic.
Needham-based dietitian and mom Maggie Shapiro says that kids can try a food up to 20 times before liking it. Many parents give up too soon. Instead, simply pack the aspirational food alongside the preferred one. For instance, a child who eats only carrots could get three-quarters carrots and one-quarter cucumbers.
“Keep persevering. Keep trying and giving options,” she says.
Meanwhile, validate your kids’ tastes by shopping, gardening (if that’s your thing), and making food with them as much as your schedule allows. America’s Test Kitchen Kids editor in chief Molly Birnbaum sets aside Sunday afternoons for meal prep with her 2-year-old. While her toddler isn’t ready to make lunches yet, she helps to select strawberries.
“Studies show that kids are much more willing to try new things and to eat if they’ve been involved in cooking, grocery shopping, and gardening,” she says. “That sense of pride in making lunches is huge.”
Look for bridge foods. If your child resists certain ingredients, use “bridge foods,” advises Shapiro. For instance, a child who fears veggies might be tempted by a ranch dip on the side.
Also bridge the food fear gap by introducing your kids to new tastes in a non-intimidating setting. Rather than springing olives on your child at lunch, present them at dinner or offer a nibble during prep, Shapiro suggests.
“It takes pressure off the kid,” she says.
And if your child is adamantly finicky, realize that lunch isn’t the venue to press it. They need fuel, not new culinary horizons, during school hours.
“Lunch isn’t where I try new foods; it’s where I do things I know they love so they have energy for the rest of the day. It’s a long day,” says Lauren Stein, a cookbook author (“Fresh Made Simple”) and mom in the Back Bay.
Buy the right tools. Many parents swear by bento-style lunch boxes, which offer tidy compartments where kids can easily see their options. And with cubbies for crackers, cheese, meats, dips, et cetera, kids feel ownership over their meal assembly. Best of all, individual compartments prevent that dreaded lunchtime disaster: foods that touch.
“My kids can open and close them on their own,” says Stein. “I offer slices of ham, cheese, and crackers, or cucumbers and cream cheese, and they can make — and eat! — them.”
Styles and prices vary, but favorite eco-friendly brands among parents I surveyed include PlanetBox, Bentgo, and Yumbox. America’s Test Kitchen recommends the monbento MB Square Box ($29.99) for its deep compartments, durability, and leakproof structure.
Many parents also recommended colorful silicone baking cups to carve out even more compartments in the bento box. Fill ’em with small snacks like nuts or trail mix.
Stay organized. It goes without saying: chop, slice, dice, and store ahead of time. But where to put the (literal) fruits of your labor? Michelle Kenney, owner of Acton-based organizational service the Lighter Home, has ideas.
First, purge your fridge and pantry of old, expired foods: forgotten string cheese, stale crackers. Wipe down all surfaces. Then, compartmentalize.
Kenney stocks her fridge and pantry with easy-to grab, individual serving snacks (cheese sticks, yogurt sticks, granola bars, individual size popcorn and pretzels). In the pantry, she stores snacks in small, plastic woven baskets from the Dollar Store. In her fridge, she uses long, clear containers, which she labels for her kids (and spouse). She likes the mDesign Slim Plastic Kitchen Pantry Cabinet ($26.99 on Amazon, though she’s also seen similar ones at HomeGoods).
She stores wet fruits and veggies in clear plastic baggies, but she favors Bumkins reusable, BPA-free bags for non-perishables ($8.95 on Amazon).
Learn from social media pros. This tip isn’t for everyone. Some of us can barely slap a sandwich together. But if you do aspire to artful lunches, consider adding Bella Boos Lunches, Crafty Lunch Lady, Feeding Littles, and Raising Generation Nourished to your Instagram and YouTube diet for inspiration.
“The lunch-making community is big on Instagram,” says Somerville’s Meghan Bo, who also has a YouTube channel. “They’re very realistic and have great tips. We’ve all become friends doing these lunch videos.” For Bo, the extra effort is worth it.
“My daughter is a really picky eater. I was trying to figure out ways to get her to eat her lunch. I was tired of the bag coming back full,” she says. She now adorns her daughter’s applesauce with candy eyeballs, among other techniques.
For low-maintenance intrigue, consider decorated cupcake picks (eyeballs! hearts!) and edible markers. Kenney, the dietitian, writes messages to her kids on hard-boiled eggs.
Be loyal. Don’t reinvent the wheel with every shopping trip. Stick to your favorites.
Bo loves Wegmans Greek yogurt, which she considers the most flavorful. Kenney, the dietitian, recommends healthy staples such as Joseph’s flax, oat bran, and whole wheat flour tortillas, Wholly Guacamole (which has a good shelf-life), Sun-Maid sour raisins (“They taste like candy!” she says), Beanitos gluten-free chips, and MadeGood granola bars. Instead of packing juice boxes, she sends her kids to school with a reusable water bottle. Stein, the cookbook author, relies on Cabot pre-sliced cheddar cheese and Siggi’s yogurt tubes, which have “lower sugar and taste good,” she says. They also fit snugly into bento boxes.
Let your kids take control. If all this sounds like way too much work, consider Medford mom Judi McLaughlin, a self-proclaimed “liberator of lunch-making,” who hasn’t made a lunch since 2007. (Her husband does the Market Basket runs.)
“Don’t tell me Johnny is in six AP classes and is a math savant but he can’t make a sandwich. It’s counterintuitive to me! I feel like it’s an insult to your kid, if you think they can’t make lunch,” she says.
She presents cereals to her kids cafeteria-style in Zevro dry food dispensers ($24.49 on Amazon). She stores lunch essentials in Sterilite three-drawer units ($24.76 on Amazon), easily organized by food type: savory snacks, fruits, school-sanctioned nut butters.
“If they can break into a cabinet to get cookies,” says McLaughlin, “they can make their own lunches.”