Though I have been out of school for many years, I still feel the promise of things to come when, toward the end of the summer, the nights start to cool down and the leaves on trees crinkle and fade from green to orangey-brown. Kids everywhere head to office supply stores with their parents to buy new pencils, notebooks, and binders (or, more likely, iPads, iPhones, and laptops), to fill their backpacks (which, if they are anything like I was, are already personalized with white-out, silver Sharpie, and buttons stamped with contrarian statements).
And then there's lunch.
It's been a long while since I've packed a school lunch for myself, and it will be a little while yet before I pack one for my own future little ones (sorry mom--hang in there!), but I have had a handful of nanny gigs over the years, which required me to make bag lunches, and Evan and I picnic nearly every weekend in our beloved Dolores Park. In other words, I know a few things about making food that is easy to throw together and still tastes good after sitting in a bag (most likely unrefrigerated) for at least 3 hours.
So parents, kids old enough to pack their own lunches, and anyone else who brings a lunch to work or school, take a deep breath. This is easier than you think. You've got this in the bag.
Rule #1: Consider a reusable bag/box. If you're not already doing this, you should be. Not only are reusable lunch bags and boxes better for the environment, if they are insulated, they keep your food colder (or hotter, depending on the temperature when you pack it) than a regular paper bag. Got a big kid who thinks lunch boxes are lame? Send them to school with this reusable "paper bag".
Rule #2: Leftovers, Leftovers, Leftovers! The absolute first place you should look when you have the 9 PM "Oh damn, I forgot to make my kid's lunch!" panic is whatever you ate for dinner. First of all, if your kids ate it for dinner, they probably enjoyed it, so it will likely go over well for lunch the next day. Secondly, it's a helpful way to clean out your fridge. Either pack leftovers in thermoses or other sealable tupperware containers, or repurpose them. If this works for you, consider planning ahead just a smidge, and make a little bit extra dinner so you have leftovers ready to go for the next day.
Slice leftover grilled or roasted meats and layer them into a sandwich (see below for notes on sandwich making) with vegetables, cheese, pesto, mayonnaise, etc. Or wrap them in flatbread, pita, or a large tortilla. Think of your leftovers as a handy shortcut to lunchmaking.
Rule 3: One Good Sandwich. Sandwiches tend to be the first thing we think of for school and work lunches, mostly because they are an all-encompassing meal in one handy package. But a little bit of thought is required if you want to make a really good one. Good, sturdy bread, firstly, is imperative. You want something that will be able to hold wet or semi-wet ingredients for a few hours without falling apart. Think thick sourdough, cut from a bakery loaf, dense whole wheat bread (which is also digested more slowly, which helps combat that after-lunch need for a nap), or a roll. Toasting sliced bread is also a great way to ensure it stays intact until lunch time. And if you are making lunch for a gluten-free eater, buy a rice-based gluten-free bread and be sure to toast it before building your sandwich.
Keep sandwich ingredients minimal. I recommend sticking to 2 or 3 components, maximum. Think: salami, mozzarella, basil, or egg salad and tomato.
You might also consider a make-your-own-sandwich kit for bigger kids or adults. Send a split roll, packets of mayonnaise and mustard (grab extra the next time you are at the deli) and sandwich fillings like sliced meats, tofu, tuna salad, tomatoes, and/or lettuce. Lunchers can have fun constructing their own sandwiches at school/work, and they can choose to eat it closed or open-faced.
Rule 4: Always Pack a Couple of Snacks: Depending on how hungry your luncher gets, make sure there are plenty of snacks in their bag. Sliced or cubed cheese (or packaged cheese sticks or Babybel rounds), whole or sliced fruit and vegetables (hint: if your luncher likes sliced carrots, celery, radishes, and/or jicama sticks, cut up a bunch and keep them in the fridge in an airtight container with cold water--they'll stay crisp all week and will be ready to pack or snack on whenever you need them), raw or toasted nuts, and/or crackers (go for healthier, whole-grain ones).
Rule 5: Don't forget something sweet. A little something sweet is such a nice way to round out a meal. And no, it doesn't need to be super sugary and unhealthy. Consider a ripe piece of fruit, a small square of dark chocolate, an oatmeal cookie, or a handful of chocolate-covered almonds.
Bonus Rule: Ask for feedback! If your luncher is coming home with a half-eaten lunch, or throwing (or trading) some of their food away, find out why and adjust as needed (within reason, of course). Kids are prone to changing their tastes periodically, so don't be afraid to try things multiple times. And if your kids are old enough, consider asking them to help make their own lunches. In my experience, when kids participate in preparing food, they are approximately eight million times more likely to eat it.
Now it's your turn! What are your lunch-packing secrets? Tell me in the comments!