School lunch: It’s not what you pack, it’s how you pack it

Sending kids to school has been extra tough for parents for the past few years. I can’t really speak to the years before my kids started school, but I know my parents didn’t worry about a pandemic or school shootings. Packing lunch is one way I can send a little bit of home and a little bit of comfort with my children as they deal with things they shouldn’t have to deal with, like active shooter drills or in 2021 when they had to wear masks to school. 

School lunch has come a long way since the rectangular pizza slices and marshmallow Snoballs of my youth in the ’80s and ’90s. Schools try to make the meals balanced and offer a much wider range of choices. But that doesn’t help my household, as I have been blessed with the pickiest eaters on the face of the earth. I attribute this to karma for saying things in my pre-parent days like “my kids will never eat Mac n’ cheese from a box.” How’d that work out for you, decade-ago Sarah?

It didn’t work out, and now boxed mac is a staple in our household. And weekday lunch has been … let’s just say a challenge. Mine (Kindergarten and third grade)  refuse to eat the school lunch, one kid won’t eat fruit and one kid won’t eat cheese. Sandwiches get squished into art projects, and at the end of the day it’s obvious the first thing they ate was the dessert, and maybe not much else. When they get home on an empty stomach they are crabby and evenings don’t go well. Nights and mornings consist of me trying to `make two entirely separate lunches that pack nutrition and something they will actually eat, and by the end of the year I’m basically tossing some Lunchables in their bags and calling it a day. This hurts my food-blogger heart because these pre-packaged, highly-processed cheese and cracker trays are, let’s just say, not super flavorful.

I haven’t even touched on how wasteful the lunches I pack can be… we go through boxes on boxes of sandwich bags and foil every month just to keep everything fresh for a few hours a day. I’ve tried the reusable bags and they are ok, but don’t always fit everything I want to put in them and they are hard to clean.

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So this year I am trying something different. I bought bento boxes with four compartments. A traditional sandwich can go in the large one, or a wrap, or just some meats and cheeses. You could even go with a pasta or casserole if they don’t mind having it cold. Smaller snacks fit into the other compartments and small Tupperwares contain dressings or liquid items if you have to have them. These also enable me to pack things specifically geared towards being easy for them to eat — lunch in public school is 30 minutes from start to finish and it’s not always enough time for tiny fingers to manage packages or extra containers. With the bento box, they can just open it and dig in, and so far this year they’ve eaten almost every bite, every day, which is not normal for these two.

I know you were waiting for me to tell you about the vegan paleo veggie wrap I invented for their lunches and how they love it. But that’s definitely not the point of this column. The lunches I pack are not the healthiest — they’re not unhealthy, but we pack regular bread and snacks they love like Goldfish and make-your-own s’mores. It’s not about packing them the healthiest things, it’s about packing something they can and will eat quickly that will fuel them for the rest of their day so they can learn and play.

Blogger Jennifer Anderson of “Kids Eat in Color” suggests putting something from food groups with different colors, and talking about how the colors benefit you. For example, instead of saying “apples are good for you” she suggests saying “red food gives you a strong heart.” She also wrote a blog post about making lunches pretty, and I could not agree more. It’s because they will eat them if they look good, and from my perspective, lunchtime is when they have a little bit of home with them in the midst of their crazy days and I want them to love it.

Making lunches for your kiddos? Be sure to tag us on Instagram (@ModernHippieKitchen and @FWBusinessPress or Twitter @KitchenHippie and @FWBusinessPress with photos!
About the cook
Once upon a time, shortly after graduating from TCU, Sarah McClellan-Brandt paid the rent by working as a reporter for the Fort Worth Business Press. Today she’s a social media specialist for a North Texas hospital system and in her spare time shares recipes and cooking tips with devoted followers of her Modern Hippie Kitchen blog.