The day-in-day-out-ness of packed lunches is heavy and dull and BORING. But unless you are blessed with an impressive school dinners arrangement, it’s also likely to be one of life’s necessary evils along with visiting the hygienist and (sometimes) easing off on the mid-week drinking.
There are a million online posts on creating the perfect packed lunch – that sweet spot of healthy + delicious + satisfying – but at all ages, children (and partners) are picky and fickle and fussy and awkward and hormonal and starving and busy and distracted and so the perfect packed lunch is not something you can download from Pinterest, it’s entirely personal to you and your family.
One packed lunch does not suit all.
I’m not a fan of preaching a solution, but I have found a few packed lunch principles that have helped me over the years. Think of them as a framework, a guide to working out your own solution to sanity.
So, what are our packed lunch objectives here?
I reckon we can strip this down to -
- The packed lunch is as easy as possible to create, and you can face creating a version of it on repeat
- It is nutritious enough – with space for treats
- It is enjoyable to eat
- It actually gets eaten
And with these simple objectives in mind, here are my 10 principles for packed lunch sanity. But remember, this is YOUR sanity at stake here and that is going to look different to my flavour of sanity, so, as always, take what is helpful from my thoughts and shelve the rest.
1. Ask what they like
Please - hear me out here. What I’m not suggesting is that you create packed lunches to order, goodness no! It is helpful though to understand what your family prefer; what works; what’s a nightmare to manage; what is their favourite; what is the lunch that they dread; what order do they eat their lunch in (I know that sounds weird but try asking the question – I was shocked when I realised that each child had a rather rigid approach to the order they tackle the contents of their lunchbox!). This is about being informed, not about creating the ultimate favourite lunch every day. It’s also worth remembering that these likes and dislikes change with time, with the season and with the whimsical fluctuations of childhood. Taking a packed lunch ‘temperature check’ every now and then has always served me well - towards the end of the summer holidays is my personal favourite moment.
And here’s another bonus of asking what they like, sometimes you get surprising responses (I’m looking at you, Loaded Potato Skins from last night’s dinner, served cold) and that can mean more options and if there’s one thing we LOVE, it’s more packed lunch options!
2. Choose your moment
In my world, the single biggest contributor to my packed lunch sanity is the time that I choose to make the packed lunches. This may not work for everyone, but I never, ever make packed lunches in the morning before school. Never. Ever. I like mornings to be calm and throwing in the production of multiple lunches at an early hour just doesn’t work for me. My preferred moment is always the day before (not quite 24 hours ahead of time, but probably close to 20 hours) and before you gasp in horror, this has always genuinely worked out well for me (and my children). Yes, I choose sandwich contents with care (no sliced tomatoes or cucumber which will go soggy) and yes, I opt for bread rolls over sliced bread because they hold up better to sitting around for longer, but aside from that, it really is no drama. I’m not saying that my solution will necessarily be your solution but making sure that you’ve found YOUR optimum time is a gamechanger. See point 3 for the equipment I use to make this easier.
3. Select your equipment
Having the right kit is helpful. It doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive, but it does need to do the job. ‘Right’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘cute’ but it does mean ‘functional’. Here’s the equipment that I use regularly –
- A lunchbox for each child – I opt for a heavily insulated style as it’s hot in Dubai; I also avoid lunchboxes made of soft fabric as the contents seem to get squashed more easily. This is Hella, 11 years ago on her first day at school, when her shiny, new lunchbox looked ENORMOUS. Until, I recently came across this photo, I hadn't realised that she's still using the same box at the age of 15 – respect to Hella!
- A selection of small boxes for fruit, vegetables, treats etc – I use the Lock & Lock brand, which open and close easily and seal pretty tightly.
- Some plastic/spare cutlery so that losses are no drama.
- Aluminium foil – I always wrap sandwiches in foil rather than putting them in a box; this is because I can’t fit enough food into the lunchbox if I have too many boxes to squeeze in.
- A cheap, plastic box about the same size as the lunchbox (one for each lunchbox) – Because I prepare lunches the day before, I fill these same-sixed boxes with the prepared lunches and store them in the fridge so that after school the contents can go straight into the lunchbox, ready for the next day. This was a gamechanger for me.
4. Find a rhythm
I love the concept of finding a rhythm in all parts of life, and making packed lunches is no exception. Let’s not forget, this is about creating lunches ON REPEAT – we are not in a one-off situation here. For me, a rhythm is knowing broadly what the lunchboxes will include in an average week. Here’s an example –
I hardly ever fill this out and won’t necessarily follow it to the letter but knowing that I have a basic rhythm to my approach helps to keep me sane. Your rhythm may look different and it will probably be changeable but I think it’s always helpful.
5. Lay down the law
Remember, this is all about finding a structure for packed lunches that works for you and being clear on what’s important for you and your family is part of that. For me, avoiding waste is important, so from the beginning, my packed lunch law has been, ‘As long as it gets eaten, I don’t mind WHEN you eat it’. This gives space for finishing up the lunch box contents at home or in the car, with clarity on expectation and less need for nagging. Perhaps eating lots of vegetables is important to you, or only having sweet treats on the last day of the week. Once you know what’s important, then you can create a packed lunch law to suit and retain enough sanity to recognise that it probably only needs enforcing 80% of the time!
6. Make it easy for them
If it’s not easy, it probably won’t get eaten. Let me say that one more time - if it’s not easy, it probably won’t get eaten. In my experience, this means that anything that needs peeling or slicing (oranges, hard-boiled eggs, apples etc) will remain untouched unless the hard work is done in advance. Yes, it’s annoying but it comes down to how much you want lunch to get eaten.
7. Make it easy for you
There are a few things that make it easy for me –
- Preparing the packed lunches the day before (see point 2)
- Using a cheap, plastic box about the same size as the lunchbox (one for each lunchbox) to store the prepared lunches in the fridge so that after school the contents can go straight into the lunchbox, ready for the next day. This avoids mix ups as well as fridge raiders inadvertently eating something that’s for lunches.
- Stock up on the non-perishables and things that can be frozen.
- When I have a bag of croissants or a pack of hot cross buns or a batch of muffins that are going in the freezer ready for lunches, I individually wrap them in foil before freezing them so that it’s easy just to grab what I need and put in the lunchbox. I normally store them in separate bags/boxes in the freezer so I know what I have – I might also write on the foil with a Sharpie. Overnight in the fridge, there is plenty of time for defrosting.
8. What always gets a YES
- A cold sausage
- Any sandwich containing a cold sausage
- This noodle salad
- Anything containing chocolate or covered in chocolate or with chocolate sprinkled on it
- A little box of chocolate chips (a good backup when you’re running short of things that might classify as ‘treats’)
- A few raspberries with a spoonful of Nutella (don't forget to include a spoon)
- A sliced apple with a spoonful of peanut butter for dipping (the smooth variety works better than crunchy here)
- A small pot of custard
- Cake. Any cake. Obviously.
- These Pita Bread Crisps (with a dip or just on their own)
- A slice or two of cold pizza
- Bolognese pasta in a flask
- Pesto pasta in a flask
- Leftover curry in a flask
9. What always gets a NO
- An overripe banana
- An apple that isn’t cut up (or maybe that’s just my children?)
- Anything that requires peeling or extra effort or is time consuming to eat (see point 6 above)
10. Be prepared to change it around
It feels good when you’ve done all the things – you’ve asked what they like, you’ve chosen your moment, you’ve selected your equipment, you’ve found a rhythm, you’ve made it easy for both you and them and you are totally clear on what always gets the YES and the NO – and it’s working brilliantly and everyone is eating and everyone is happy enough. Hooray for you, hooray for everyone, you’ve totally nailed it!
But then, suddenly it isn’t working anymore and everyone is a bit moany and things are not getting eaten and ugh, what happens now? Now it might be time for a bit of a packed lunch redesign (or perhaps just time for the holidays!) and a return to asking what they like. More than likely a few tweaks and adjustments are needed and soon there will be a new rhythm. We’ve moved from sandwiches every day, to salads every day and back to sandwiches again. Quantity also varies depending on schedules and intensity of sporting activities. And sometimes it’s just that a bit of boredom has crept in. Being prepared to change it around every now and then is at the very heart of packed lunch sanity – the other route is where madness and resentment lies. Proceed with caution and a bit of patience!