I forget to eat lunch. Always. Worse confession. Sometimes my middle schooler does, too.
We just both get in the groove — me with writing, her with whatever reading or art project she is working on — and lose track of time.
While one would think that homeschooling allows us the luxury of a hot, home-cooked meal for lunch, the reality is that our days are short and choppy. My two younger daughters are still in public school for the 2017-18 school year. They will join us at home next year. Until then I have to get them up and out the door by 7:30 a.m. — that includes packing a nutritious, non-boring lunch — and I leave to pick them up by 2 p.m. before driving everyone around to all the after-school activities.
AND, not one of my children likes sandwiches. Never. Nada. Don’t even try it.
My solution is to prep everything on Sundays and to make planned leftovers throughout the week. I know this is not a revolutionary concept, but I think people get so caught up in the rush of day to day life that they forget to do this task. And, really, it doesn’t take that long if you make it a habit. Plus, my organized middle daughter LOVES to help with the prep.
Whether its a stay home kinda day or an out & about, field trip day, you gotta eat, right?! And, my girls — ages 11,10, and (almost) 8 — eat A LOT! Their metabolism is through the roof. All three regularly eat two helpings at dinner, plus 17,258 snacks. Approximately.
I keep a stash of prepped food in my fridge, freezer, and pantry – all bagged up and ready to go.
Here’s my prep plan for make ahead, non-sandwich lunches and snacks …
I usually buy two types of fruit each week. I mix things up and rarely do the same thing two weeks in a row — too boring! In addition to the usual suspects, like strawberries and raspberries, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.
1.Grapes – I pluck them all off the stem, wash and store in either tupperware or a giant ziploc. It makes things move so much easier in the morning.
2. Bananas – My kids love bananas, but they refuse to eat one with a bruise. This is a ‘Catch 22’ because it is next to impossible to pack a banana in a lunch box or for snacktime without bruising it, right?! My solution is to buy organic bananas because they are smaller and fit perfectly into those sandwich-sized Gladware container. Genius! Don’t bother trying to stick a few crackers in there; they just end up absorbing the banana taste. Yuk!
3. Kumquats – We like to try unusual fruits and veggies when we run across them at the grocery store. Some we like; some we don’t. It’s the *trying* that’s important. Kumquats are a favorite. They look like teeny, tiny oranges, but taste like kid-friendly, sour candies. You eat them whole, skin and all. Definitely fun.
4. Clementines – These are always available around December-January. My kids will eat the clementines, but not the nearly identical mandarins or the ubiquitous sliced oranges. Go figure.
5. Dried Cranberries – Can’t get enough here. I pre-pack them in little 2-3 oz containers on Sundays. I have both disposable and re-usable containers on hand.
6. Pomegranate Seeds – Again, I take everything out of the big container on Sunday and re-pack it in little containers. Grab and go, baby!
7. Fruit Salsa – My kids love when I pack fruit salsa and cinnamon chips in their lunch. I pack the salsa up in 2 oz containers on Sunday, but this does not stay fresh long. We try to eat it in a day or two.
8. Apples – While I don’t pre-cut apples, I do prep containers of dip. Sometimes it is nut butter, sometimes it is caramel syrup, and sometimes I make Cream Cheese Caramel Apple Dip in my little 2 oz containers. Those are extra special days. I use the super easy recipe here – # 85.
I have not met a veggie I didn’t like. Well, except rutabaga. Meh. I happened to marry a man that thought there were only two vegetables worthy of eating — potatoes and corn. After 21 years of marriage, he is starting to see the light. When we finally had kids, he started trying new things with them. It worked because my kids LOVE their veggies!
9. Carrots – Even though baby carrots are super easy to grab for lunch as it is, I like to switch things up. Some weeks we have baby carrots, some weeks we have a bag of crinkle cuts, sometimes I even peel and slice big carrots into strips. I always have 2 oz containers of both hummus and Ranch prepped and at the ready. This makes it easy for lunches, but convenient for snacking as well. My 7 (almost 8) year old even grabs carrots and Ranch as her snack of choice whenever she is hungry before dinner. Works for me.
10. Cucumbers – I don’t prep these ahead of time, but my kids *are* particular about their cukes. They like them cut in circles, not slices and they like salt. I have a little salt and pepper shaker that I pack for this.
11. Jicama – This is another one of those *try* veggies. Simply peel off the thick skin with a knife (a vegetable peeler never seems to work well) and cut into strips. I prep these ahead of time and keep in a ziploc. We eat dipped in Ranch dressing. Try one. You might like it.
12. Tomatoes – I buy small, grape tomatoes and my kids think they are candy.
13. Mushrooms – Whenever I need a container of fresh button mushrooms for a recipe, I buy three. I double the amount in the recipe and my kids eat the third. Most of the time they tear into them, but I try to make sure 1 or 2 make it into lunchboxes.
14. Cauliflower & Broccoli – We typically steam this for dinner, but it helps lunch prep go easier if I wash a few florets and keep them in a Ziploc. There’s that grab & go again.
15. Sugar Snap Peas – We cannot get enough of these. They tend to be expensive, though. I make them last all week by adding two to a bag that is also filled with carrots and other less expensive veggies.
16. Pickles – I know, I know. My kids are weird.
17. Frozen peas – Weirder still … while I don’t pack frozen peas for school lunches, my kids love frozen peas when they are home. They like them frozen and eat them like you or I would eat a handful of peanuts. I have no idea where they picked up this idea — its been years — but I’m going with the flow.
As I mentioned previously, my kids are a ‘no-go’ with sandwiches. The following are my tried-and-true alternatives.
18. Italian – Skewers of tiny tomatoes with mini balls of fresh mozz. Drizzle with balsamic and EVOO. My kids won’t eat fresh basil. I also pack a few slices of pepperoni.
19. Brunch – Yogurt with a muffin. We make at least 12-24 muffins a week. Sometimes from scratch; sometimes from a mix. They are stored in the freezer, but always defrost lunchtime.
20. Snack Plate – Cheese (either mozz sticks, BabyBel, or just cubes that I cut ahead of time), salami (either store-bought summer sausage or this homemade salami – sliced in advance), and crackers.
21. Grilled Chicken – We grill out at least once on the weekends. I try to remember to throw a few extra chicken breasts on there, just with simple seasonings. Then, I cut it into slices and stick it in the freezer. I can grab a couple slices and a pre-packed tub of Ranch or BBQ for an easy lunch. They are also great to top off a salad.
22. Eggs – My kids won’t eat egg salad — and what kid will, really?! — but they love both deviled eggs and hard boiled eggs. I switch to seasoned salt in my salt shaker because why not?! And, I actually have these super cute egg molds on order. Who would think to re-shape a hard boiled egg like that?!
23. Lunchmeat – While my kids won’t eat sandwiches, they will eat lunch meat. I roll slices of ham around cheese and I roll salami up with a splodge of cream cheese inside.
24. Leftovers – I take a lesson from those .99 cent Lunchables (yuk!) and pack all the fixings for a taco or a fajitas, including little containers of sour cream, salsa, and cheese. Always a hit!
25. Cold Spaghetti – I packed this today actually. I rather make too much pasta than not enough so we always end up having leftovers. Believe it or not, my kids like it cold. I also make this crazy, but amazing spaghetti bread. Having a slice for lunch is like winning the lottery for my kids.
26. Pasta Salad – I make so many pasta salads that we had to come up with new, less generic names for them, like ‘Daddy Pasta Salad’ (his favorite) and ‘The Lime Pasta Salad’ (killer recipe here). I try to make one on Sunday morning. We usually eat it with dinner and then I shovel the rest in containers for lunches during the week.
27. Tuna Noodles (A.K.A. Tuna Salad) – Again, my kids won’t eat tuna fish sandwiches, but they will scarf down a tupperware container of tuna salad like no one’s business. I just prep the containers ahead of time and I am good to go.
28. Waldorf Salad – While Waldorf salad is great (apples, grapes, celery, and walnuts), it gets bumped up a notch to ‘meal’ when you add some cooked elbow noodles. Yum!
29. Chips & Salsa – I make homemade salsa often and it usually ends up in a lunch or two. I add some cheese cubes and a few slices of grilled chicken to ramp up the protein in this lunch. My kids happily munch away on the black olives and green peppers in it. Win-win.
30. Kielbasa – When we cook Polish food (kielbasa, homemade pierogis, and sauerkraut), I plan ahead and cook extra kielbasa for lunches. I stick in a few slices the next day and I’ve got happy campers, I tell ya!
31. Cold Hamburgers – Yes. I know, weird kids. They are thrilled when they get an assemble-your-own-hamburger in their lunch with ketchup, mustard, and pickles. This also works great with sausage patties and English muffins for assemble-your-own-Mc-Muffins.
32. Quesadillas – More cold food, but I make extra quesadillas at dinner. My kids will chow down as long as they have a little container of sour cream to dip it in.
33. Chicken Salad Croissants – This is my all-time favorite lunch. Ever. For years, my husband and kids wouldn’t touch the *good* croissants and I would just gorge on these babies. That all changed last year when, sadly, they ALL decided that they liked chicken salad (with grapes and pecans) on a croissant, too. And, yes, technically this IS a sandwich that my kids will eat. I’m in denial.
34. Pepperoni Rolls – I have three or four recipes for pepperoni rolls. When I make them, I have the kids help (of course) and make a double or triple bath to fill up the freezer. Everyone grabs them for lunches. You can microwave it, but it thaws for school lunch in plenty of time.
35. Homemade Hot Pockets – Whenever I have random amounts of leftover chicken, steak, or pot roast, I stash it in the freezer for homemade hot pockets. Again, I make a big batch and keep in the freezer so they are ready to go on rushed mornings or on days of forgotten lunch breaks.
36. Salad – There are entire websites dedicated to pre-made salads in mason jars. This is a genius idea that really works. When there are prepped salads, standing at the ready in the fridge, everyone in our family will grab one (except the youngest, she doesn’t do lettuce yet). Use Google or Pinterest to search ‘mason jar salad recipes’ and be prepared to be amazed!
37. Potato Skins – OK. You caught me. Not the least bit healthy. Not one bit. No matter how I spin it. But, good? Heck, yea!! I use Pioneer Woman’s Potato Skins recipe. Life-changing, I tell you. I generally make a whole 5 pound bag of potatoes and freeze what we don’t eat. You can nuke them whenever you are hungry!
38. Bagels – My husband and I like bagel sandwiches with cream cheese, cukes, and lunchmeat – YUM! My kids prefer just cream cheese. I make them at least once during the week for lunches.
39. Soup – I would eat soup every night. I love it. In fact, my favorite restaurant for lunch back in Michigan was (is) Zoup! – chicken pot pie with extra crust, please! I like to make extra and freeze it. Not all soups freeze the same, however. My favorite creamy broccoli does not, but this sweet potato black bean chili does.
40. Apple-Dapple – I am constantly on the lookout for new ideas for lunches. I think we all get stuck in ruts, but new recipes can keep things moving along smoothly. I haven’t tried this ‘Apple Dapple’ yet, but a whole wheat wrap with apples, nut butter, and cranberries sounds great to me!
41. Cold Fried Rice – Again with the leftovers, but we love it! One of my kids favorite meals is fried rice. Sometimes I throw in leftover, shredded chicken and sometimes its a pineapple version. They always fight over the leftovers and have no qualms about eating it cold for lunch.
42. Frozen Juice – I do not juice boxes. My kids drink water. They’re fine with it. I do, however, buy single serve Mott’s apple juice every so often. I open all the bottles, pour a small amount out, and then freeze. Not only are they a fun slushie by lunchtime, but they keep everything nice and cold. I do the same thing with the single serve sizes of Horizon Organic chocolate milk and Silk Dark Chocolate Almond milk. Their friends think I am the cool mom – LOL
43. Brownies – Sunday cooking also often includes a pan of brownies — chocolate, pumpkin blondies, or even Tollhouse cookie bars. I double up and make them in a 9 x 13 pan. Once they are cool, we cut them up, stick them in ziplocs and freeze. Again, they defrost fairly quickly. And, to be fair, this also helps me from eating the entire pan *blush* #ImNotTheOnlyOne
44. Pretzels & Popcorn – If we buy a bag of potato chips in our family of 5, it’s gone in one sitting. *poof* A bag of pretzels, however, lasts all week. That can get pretty boring, however, so I usually mix pretzels and stove-popped popcorn together. If you bag it up on Sunday, it’ll be fresh all week and super easy to grab and go.
45. Croutons – We can’t be the only family that eats croutons right out of the bag. Can we? Either way, we usually have some for snacking or to slip into a lunchbox.
46. Cookie Dough – I make so many different and creative desserts. Plus, I am constantly trying new ones. My poor husband likes two — plain apple pie and plain chocolate chip cookies. He’s a simple guy. I make double batches of chocolate chip cookie dough and then freeze it into two or three ‘logs’. Anytime he wants cookies, we just have to slice off a couple and bake. I have been doing this for him since 1992! He never wants me to add pecans, or white chocolate chips, or anything else. Just. Plain. <3
47. Trail Mix – I make all sorts of different trail mixes. It’s never the same. Sometimes I put it in a big, air-tight jar, but mostly I scoop it into my favorite little 2 oz cups or ziploc sandwich bags. I include any of the following that I have on hand – Cheerios, mini chocolate chips, dried cranberries, dried apricots, white chocolate chips, MMs, yogurt covered raisins, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, golden raisins, popcorn, pretzels, shredded wheat cereal, croutons, and sesame sticks (my fav!). This week you can see from the pictures that I happened to have dried cranberries, yogurt covered raisins and a small bag of MMs (There’s also peanut butter, hummus, Ranch, sour cream, carrots and cheese cubes pictured).
48. Granola Bars – I’m all about variety. I buy plain ole Quaker granola bars about once a month. The next month I’ll go for the softer Annie’s or even pop for some White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Clif Bars. I have tried about 1,000,001 recipes for homemade granola bars, but there always turn out blech. I should probably document that on this blog – my hunt for the perfect granola bar recipe. Ha!
49. Mini Shredded Wheat – We inhale mini shredded wheat cereal. Seriously, the box is gone in a day. I find that it lasts longer if I bag it up into single serve portions and let kids eat it for snack.
50. Pumpkin Pie – Our obsession with pumpkin pie is very real. I wrote about it a little here. I cram slices of pumpkin pie with whipped cream into my kids’ lunches at least once a month. I may *cough, cough* have let them eat it for breakfast on occasion, too. The way I look at it, though, homemade pumpkin pie is way healthier than a Twinkie.
I hope these lunch hacks help you
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