Make school lunches fun again

6 April 2022

4 min read

I don’t think I am alone in saying school lunches were never the highlight of my childhood. Slimy ham and smelly bologna sandwiches and kids throwing up in the lunchroom because we had a lack of knowledge about lactose intolerance still haunt me to this day. It wasn’t ALL bad of course; I grew up in a time void of parental nutritional shaming and information overload about the benefits of proteins, omega 3 fats, and probiotics on nearly every food label on market. Yes I too delighted at the sight of dunkaroos, fruit roll ups, and yops in my lunch box. One of my favourite lunch time pastimes was stabbing those $1 chocolate milk bags with a sharp straw.

My lunch typically consisted of a crustless Nutella sandwich on white WonderBread, cheese strings, 50% real juice box, dunk-a-roos and the like… not because my mom couldn’t think of anything better or more nutritionally substantial but because I was an incredibly picky eater. I vividly remember going great lengths to barter my dunkaroos for my friend’s Mars bar. The lunchroom was full of fun an exciting tales.

When my 4 year old son Camden started kindergarten, I was overly-enthused about applying my creative knack for food styling with my encyclopedic-like knowledge of unsubstantiated nutritional claims; I was going to make the best damn kids lunchbox on the block. I was going to make school lunches fun again.

All parents have their particular gifting. Some are administratively gifted, some expose their kids to all sorts of sports and recreational activities, and some have art rooms full of Pinterest worthy crafts. Admittedly, I am not gifted in any of these domains. But I do pack a mean lunchbox.

After many, many, many trials (and errors) I have come up with a system that allows me to pack my kid’s lunch on the 7am autopilot mode that is my brain at that hour. Almost all lunches consist of a granola bar, apple sauce, a fruit, a veggie, something salty, something sweet, and a sandwich or wrap of some sort. I say veggies lightly. My son has always been my fellow household foodie but also my toughest food critic. It took me several rejections and a near mental breakdown when I found out he was purposely dropping his red bell peppers on the floor in order to avoid having to eat them for me to throw my “well-balanced diet” lunch standard out the window. Forget the exposure theory – olives are the only vegetable we pack around here.

And while I’ve included an “other” main section below, we mostly serve sandwiches (on very good bread because I am a bread snob). I used to do fancier things like homemade pancakes, before I found out they would come back home rejected for being “too sticky” (from the maple syrup) and cold (aka room temperature). I’ve let go of trying to be “low waste”; I pack go-go squeeze without a second thought. Yes this is me “lowering my standards”. Also me is the mother of a son who asks his teachers for freshly squeezed lemon juice for his bottled water.

Pancakes, sadly rejected

Things to know

In kindergarten, there are usually two food breaks, one in the early morning around 10am and one at noon. Most schools across Ontario do not allow nuts. So peanut butter and jam sandwiches are a no no. There are a ton of alternatives, like sunflower seed butter, pumpkin seed butter, and our favourite, tahini (sesame seed butter). Hummus is also a common favourite, especially for dipping veggies. If your kid is sensitive to dairy, there are a lot of surprising vegan/nut free options on the market. My favourite being these granola bars, because they include dairy free chocolate and are fairly low in sugar.

If you plan to pack strawberries out of season, might I suggest you macerate them with a sprinkle of sugar and squeeze of lemon? Also, if you leave the pit in a sliced avocado, it should prevent it from browning. To be sure, you can also squeeze some lime and add a pinch of salt on the top, and store it face down. Apples need a squeeze of lemon juice as well to prevent them from browning.

In terms of what to pack your items in, my personal favourite is the Planet Box lunch box, which I have had since my little one was one year old and have used countless times. He really enjoys opening up the box and having all the items laid out bento box style. For little kids, anything to make eating fun is a win! There are so many of these type of lunch boxes on the market, such as this, this and this.

Most popular items for breakfast, snack and lunch

Morning snack: apple sauce, nut-free granola bar, salted popcorn, or oat O cereal with shelf stable milk.

Fruits: apples, blackberries, strawberries, clementines, grapes, mango, avocado

Vegetables: edamame, celery, olives, pickles, carrots, cucumbers

Sandwiches/wraps: cucumber cream cheese, grilled cheese, tahini and raspberry jam, sunflower seed butter and jam, tahini chocolate spread with banana, turkey and cheese, salami and cheese, firm tofu and mayo.

Other fun mains: make ahead protein whole wheat pancakes, banana pancakes, mini waffles, store-bought sweet potato avocado sushi or cucumber sushi.

Sweet: dark chocolate chips, dried craisins, vitamin gummies or probiotics, smarties, mini ginger snap cookies.

Salty: veggie sticks, banana chips, spicy ketchup chips, pretzels, rice crackers, sweet potato crackers

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