My Top 5 (Time & Sanity-Saving) Hacks for Packing School Lunches – here’s what I do to save time, energy, and sanity while packing school lunches every day.
We’ve been having so much fun with this school lunch week! I’ve shared 2 Weeks of Healthy Lunch Ideas (+a free printable cheat sheet!), 2 MORE weeks of lunches, AND we’ve talked all about our favorite lunch boxes and reusable bags for packing school lunches. Today, I wanted to start with a few hacks to simplify lunch packing. For me, two of the big challenges are:
- I REALLY DON’T WANT TO SPEND A *TON* OF TIME ON THIS. I love (LOVE!) my children, and generally don’t mind lunch-packing, but the last thing I want to do at the end of/start of the day is make a highly intricate, fancy-shaped lunch on top of whatever other dinner/breakfast I’m working on. If that’s your jam, YAY! That’s so fun! If it’s not, you’re not alone. I’m looking for easy-to-make, reliable lunch ideas that I can get done FAST.
- I GET INTO A RUT. If I’m not thinking about it, I can easily make the exact same lunch for my kids every single day. That’s totally fine in a pinch, but providing at least *some* variety is a great choice nutritionally (more varied food = more varied nutrients), for expanding their palates (more exposure to new foods = more accepted foods), and keeping things interesting (no need to be bored!).
So here’s what I do to save time, energy, and sanity while packing school lunches every day:
1. DON’T OVERTHINK IT. NUTRITION IS CUMULATIVE.
You don’t have to spend time meticulously cutting cute shapes into slices of cheese to be a good mom. Your child will be happy to have a yummy lunch to eat!
This also means don’t stress about it being a “perfect” lunch. I’m a health-minded mom with quite a bit of training and schooling in nutrition (my degree is in Public Health with an emphasis in Nutrition and Fitness), but I also don’t get panicked if my child has chocolate chips in their trail mix (sugar–gasp!) or some pretzels or chips here and there (empty calories–I know!).
Nutrition is cumulative. Your child will get their nutrients over the course of days and weeks from the different foods they eat. It’s okay if every single meal isn’t “perfect.” Just aim for a general trend of balanced choices. Do the best with what you have, when you can, and let go of the rest.
2. CONSIDER MAKING LUNCHES AT NIGHT.
School-years are often BUSY with sports, work, school activities, homework, etc. And even this year, with distance-learning and zoom calls and working and all the other things you need brain space for during the day, there’s a LOT going on.
And often the thought, “it’s so crazy. I’ll just do it in the morning.” pops into my head. But, at least for me, putting making lunches off till the morning somehow doesn’t make them any easier/quicker to face. And often actually makes it feel even crazier because of the time crunch to get everyone dressed, fed, and out the door on time in the morning. Or to juggle zoom calls and work and at-home assignments.
At our house, we make lunches while we’re cleaning up dinner. My husband will work on dishes, and I help Milo and Sophie pack their lunches. That way we’re not creating a mess in between meals, and we can get all of it taken care of at once. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s at least something to consider if you’re feeling a time crunch. Any time you can spend in the evening will give you more time in the morning.
That’s also true for us *even* though we’re home all day every day right now. It’s been AMAZING to be able to have my kids just pull their ready-made lunches out of the fridge after their morning calls and school work. And it keeps them in the routine of sharing some of the responsibility, which feels GREAT.
3. INCLUDE KIDS IN THE LUNCH-MAKING PROCESS WHEN YOU CAN.
At our house, we all clear the dinner table dishes and, while my husband loads the dishwasher, the kids and I get started on lunches and snacks for the next day. That means we’re saving time by not making an extra mess in between meals (the clean-up gets rolled into the dinner clean-up!).
Yes, it does take a bit longer at the start, but now we’re so into the routine that my kids know the drill. My thought is that, once everyone is in the routine, many hands make quicker work. I’m also helping teach them how to pack a lunch and put together a pretty balanced meal on their own. It helps when they have a list of ideas to choose from and they know the formula we use for packing lunches. On that note…
4. FOLLOW A FORMULA.
I shared this in our lunch ideas post, but when packing our lunches, we shoot for a rough formula for a balanced meal. With our basic formula, I don’t worry about making a brand new lunch every day. I only choose 2-3 kinds of lunches to pack each week.
My kids do plenty of repeat meals and don’t mind. Yours might not want repeats (and, in that case, YOU DO YOU!). But if they don’t mind, you don’t have to pack something totally different every day if you don’t want to! Plus, cycling through choices frees up decision-making time and maintains enough variety to keep things interesting for your kids. Our basic formula is:
Protein + Carb + Fruit/Veg + Something Fun
I keep a little school lunch cheat sheet on hand with LOTS of ideas for each category. That way, we can just mix-and-match our way to different, fairly balanced lunches. If the kids get bored of one thing (sandwiches), we have TONS of other ideas to choose from!
It’s certainly not rocket science, but it helps us figure things out and still gives kids plenty of choice. If Milo wants a sandwich and chips, I’ll tell him to choose a fruit/veggie. When Sophie wants yogurt and strawberries, I’ll ask her if she wants granola or muffins to go with it. If we’ve got dinner leftovers from the night before, I can use those as my starting point and ask the kids to choose some things to go with it.
5. MAKE IT EASY FOR KIDS TO HELP.
Keep a basket of grab-and-go items in your pantry or set aside a lower section of your fridge with options your kids can easily grab. If your school requires individually packaged snacks or disposable items for lunch, keep things like favorite store-bought snacks or lunch items easy to reach. Make it as easy as possible for your kids to be involved.
Earlier this week, I shared all our favorite lunch boxes and reusable bags. Having lunch boxes that are divided makes portion sizing and lunch building as easy as possible. Using the already-divided lunch boxes and our little cheat sheet formula for packing school lunches means that it’s really easy to fill in the blanks.
I also moved our lunch boxes and reusable bags to a lower cupboard so my kids could easily grab theirs when it’s time to pack. They’re also responsible for emptying their used lunch box each day. Anything they can do to help means one fewer thing to worry about!
BONUS: Feel free to give yourself a day off.
No shame in the sanity-saving game! With our gluten and dairy intolerances, we can’t do hot lunch or something like Lunchables, but I have a few tried-and-true easy lunches I KNOW my kids will eat, and I don’t worry at all about working those into the routine on the regular. Don’t stress about using some store-bought shortcuts, pre-portioned snacks/produce, dinner leftovers, or what your school has to offer!
Now that you’ve read my favorite sanity-saving tips for packing school lunches–what are YOURS!?
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