I like to cook. Sometimes my daughter likes to eat.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Packing School Lunches

Last week on vacation I realized that for the next six weeks, I not only need to pack MZ's lunch, but also 1-2 snacks per day, depending on who she's with that afternoon. Ugh, she'll need a backpack just for her food! On the upside, none of the camps are dairy kosher, so she can finally have her beloved turkey sandwiches.

When I got home, there was an email from a member of my mom's group asking about packing lunches for K. Many of our local preschools serve lunch, so this thing I've been doing for three years is new for some of my friends. I realized I have quite a system down, and thought it might help others who are facing this challenge for the first time.

I hate packing lunch, because it's monotonous. Our situation is complicated by MZ's school's dietary requirements (no meat, nut free); since we don't eat vegetarian more than 1-2 times per week, I have to make special items for her lunch (none of that arrabiata sauce with pancetta for her, must make marinara). But I do have a livable routine down, starting with planning out the lunch menu on Sunday. It's a loose plan, but it helps me maintain a grocery list and gives me something to refer to on brain dead nights. Each evening, more or less, I talk with MZ at dinner about a firm menu for the next day, and prepare whatever I can (sandwich filling but wait till morning to put it together) while R cleans the dishes. When I wait till morning to decide on and make lunch, I always regret it. I've got lunch-making down to about 10 minutes, but there's no extra minutes in our morning routine.

Lunch consists of a protein, a starch, a veg, a fruit and either a relish (various pickles, olives) or a treat (tapioca pudding, packaged applesauce), and a half-thermos of milk or kefir. I try to shoot for zero waste but I don't have the same schedule flex that I used to, so there are some packaged items like cheese sticks, yogurt squeezers and fruit mashables. I pack bento-style, using the sections in Lock&Lock containers and/or silicone cupcake liners to separate portions, tucking in a few olives or a Babybel cheese to fill gaps. Inspiration here: http://lunchinabox.net/

As far as equipment, I've settled on some pieces that work really well for us:
  • Various sizes of the Lock&Lock plastic containers, which are made of "good" plastic, come in "section-able" configurations, do not leak and are easy to open;
  • Small sturdy plastic containers available at Kamei on Clement;
  • The Thermos brand squat 10 oz container for hot lunches and the tall, slim 12 oz for cold drinks (Foogoo or Funtainer depending on branding, available at Target);
  • The "wrapnmat" for sandwiches;
  • Wax paper bags for items that need to be heated in a microwave, such as quesadillas -- our preschool did this for the kids but I don't know if that will be an option in K.
  • Daiso in Daly City and Ichiban Kan in Japantown for cute sauce and relish containers and fruit vegetable/picks, as well as decorated foil for wrapping up items that don't need microwave heating (maybe quesadillas this year?)
  • Mini reusable "blue ice" cooler packs (available at Target or Daiso) to keep it all cool.

There are a few items I've looked into but haven't purchased:
  • Stainless steel containers at Daiso -- the sizes are somewhat limited but several preschool friends use them
  • I covet this stainless steel set, the Kids Konserve metal lunch kit.
  • Two newer products that are interesting: the Go-Green Lunchbox and the Easy Lunchboxes set
  • Reusable Bags is also a great source for lunch equipment including the Lock&Lock line.
  • Daiso in Daly City and Ichiban Kan in Japantown carry many cool bento boxes. I've avoided them because of the type of plastic, but YMMV.
  • Bernal Parents Group and preschool parents report that the Laptop Lunch kit leaks, so I've avoided it.
For lunch boxes, none are as well made as the Hannah Andersson ones, which go on sale near the start of school, but our entire family uses the built Gourmet Getaway large neoprene tote, because it is light, washable, colorful, insulated and the size is super flexible (the standard lunchbox size does not easily accommodate a thermos of milk and a thermos of hot lunch).

This year I would like to do something that a Bernal parent suggested, she made flash cards of all the lunch options in a given category, and the night before, she would have her kids choose from each category, and she would put the lunch together after they went to bed. As they got older, they would assemble more of the lunch based on what they picked out. I love this idea, but I've never had time to make the flashcards so who knows if I will ever do this. But what a great idea!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm pretty serious about packing a nice lunch for myself, having been critically influenced by Russell Hoban's *Bread & Jam for Frances* at a tender age (and if y'all haven't read it, do so immediately).

I have a variety of packaging options, depending on lunch. The Laptop Lunchbox works for me, but it's not that hard for me to keep it horizontal (ergo leakless), esp. with a furoshiki. I also have a couple of bento boxes -- one enamel one that I've had since I lived in Japan in the 1980s.

I haven't been happy with the Wrapnmat; it doesn't wrap my sandwiches as tightly as I need them to be wrapped, esp. if the bread isn't square (which it never is).

The two new products you mention look really useful, particularly as they have a large compartment. All my bentos have only small & medium compartments -- not large enough for a sandwich or big salad. As a result, I end up packing Japanese-style lunches most of the time.

8:09 AM

Blogger EasyLunchboxes (Kelly Lester) said...

Terrific and informative post! Really appreciate you including my Easylunchboxes as a resource. Now through Labor Day, take 10% off with the code GREENIT. -Kelly Lester, mom and CEO, EasyLunchboxes.com

1:35 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know about lunchbots? http://www.lunchbots.com/ I found out about them because I am writing an article on camping with children and they are stainless steel (my favorite material) all the way to the lids. No more plastics, safe or unsafe! Would be great for cold foods. I haven't tried them yet so I don't know if they leak. Hopefully they don't.

4:40 PM

Anonymous cidyv said...

Wow! What a great blog!! Ur so awesome! I was actually just having this conversation with L this morning on the way to camp. I'm might try those flash cards... Do u have any specific lunch ideas? I'm so tired of Mac n cheese, sunflower seed butter and jelly, bagels and cream cheese and quesadillas? Or is that what most people ru sending? Next year at least I can add turkey and ham!

11:02 AM

Blogger EasyLunchboxes (Kelly Lester) said...

Hi Cindy,
Check out our yummy lunch gallery. Lots of great ideas you can see pics of: http://bit.ly/cjDMh2

11:35 AM


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