Does anyone enjoy making packed lunches? Apart from the creators of some of the amazingly beautiful Japanese bento boxes that crop up on social media, I think most of us dread the lunchbox. Making packed lunch in the rush of a school morning while, in my case, screeching for teeth to be brushed and shoes to be found is no fun. Below are some idea for making life easier and getting more variety into the whole situation.
These tips also work for evenings if you are dashing from school to sports and don’t have time to stop for dinner. And don’t forget my healthy breakfast ideas post if you need help in that department.
Don’t make life harder than it needs to be
First up, and I know this is weird given that this post is all about new ideas, if it aint broke don’t fix it. Don’t feel like it is your duty to serve up a different totally homemade lunch every day unless that is your thing. I love cooking but I’m more than happy to throw carefully chosen bought things into a lunchbox alongside things I’ve made. Life is hard enough without feeling you should be making homemade cakes for lunchboxes on top of everything else.
Nutrition wise, you can’t really go wrong with a sandwich on wholegrain bread with a piece of fruit, some raw veg and something sweet but not riddled with weird processed ingredients. So if that’s what your crew like, stick with it and keep life simple. Children are often less bored of things than we think they are and as long as dinners are varied, they’re probably getting a decent mix of foods over the week.
If you have a really picky eater, it may be easier to keep lunch simple and use your energy (what’s left of it) on dinner. Lots of children take things for packed lunches that they’d happily eat at home but leave them uneaten after a remark from one of their friends.
Time is usually the least plentiful ingredient in a packed lunch so if you are more likely to have time once a week to do some prep you can:
- wash baby tomatoes, grapes, berries and put them in small containers in the fridge ready to throw into a lunchbox
- make a batch of muffins or flapjacks and freeze them
- make a batch of soup or stew and store it in individual containers ready to microwave in the mornings – see the recipes below
- put natural plain yoghurt and frozen berries or honey in individual containers in the fridge – saving sugar, money and plastic
- put houmus, tuna mayo, grated cheese or cream cheese into small pots in the fridge ready to grab and stuff into a box with some pitta bread from the freezer and some baby tomatoes.
- Cook sausages or chicken drumsticks. They will be fine in the fridge for 3 days after being cooked. be sure to have an ice pack in the lunch bag to keep them cool until lunchtime.
Back in the day, my mum used to make batches of sandwiches and freeze them so that I’d take a still frozen sarnie into school and it would be defrosted by lunchtime. I’ve not yet got to that stage but it may be one to try. If you do, grated cheese or nut butter and jam sandwiches freeze well – just don’t add any lettuce, egg, tomato or cucumber to the sandwiches and check if your school is a nut free zone as many are.
Share the load
A bit of prep earlier in the week means children can be given the job of grabbing their own bits from the fridge. My eldest son is 8 and loves egg mayo sandwiches so he boils his own egg each morning, takes the shell off, mashes it with mayo and makes a sandwich. It makes a bit more mess than if I do it but it means I can be off getting ready while he’s busy. He hasn’t yet suffered from his friends shouting ‘eggy!’ at him like children in the 1980s did so fingers crossed this can continue.
His brother, not an egg lover, makes himself a great houmus and grated carrot or ham and cream cheese sandwich.
A change from a sandwich
Sandwiches and wraps are great but if you fancy a change, try these alternatives…
Cheese and Courgette muffins – These muffins freeze brilliantly, just defrost them and pop them in the oven for 5 minutes to refresh them and crisp them up again. Or grab one from the freezer in the morning, throw it in a lunchbox and it will be defrosted by lunchtime.
Frittata – perfect served cold in packed lunches, this frittata can feature any flavour combination you like. Eat if for a quick dinner with salad one night then use leftovers for lunches the next day.
Three way pea salad – packed lunches are the perfect way to use up any leftovers of this delicious salad. Serve with flatbreads and cold meat for a make your own sandwich.
Spanakopita – make these individual pies and keep them in the fridge for a perfect packed lunch filler.
Hot portable lunch ideas
Wide necked flasks are great for keeping soups, stew and pasta hot until lunchtime. You can buy them here in the US and the UK.
If you have a stash of ready to reheat soups, stews and pasta sauces in the freezer, you can pull something out the day before, then reheat it in the morning. When reheating, ensure that the food is piping hot before transferring it to the flask. Have a read of my blog on safe storing and reheating of leftovers.
Some of my favourite flask fillings are:
Soups are a great way to get loads of vegetables into a meal. I always make my soups in large quantities and freeze individual portions to help make packed lunches easier. If you are unsure of how to store your leftovers, watch this:
Here’s a link to all of my soup recipes. The ones I tend to use the most for packed lunches are:
Julie’s lentil, carrot, tomato soup – Growing up this was a pretty-much weekly lunch and is now on my meal plan most weeks too. It is full of protein and fibre and offers a virtual hug in a flask.
White bean, kale and parmesan soup – this soup is veg packed and can either be left chunky or blended smooth for those that are a bit pickier.
Mushroom barley soup with rosemary – an earthy and delicious soup with extra creaminess, works really well with cheese on toast or crackers.
One of my favourite stews is this End of the Week veggie stew – here’s a quick video of the making of it. It is great as a flask filler, with some pitta bread to dip in and feta cheese to crumble on the top.
Sweet potato and black bean chilli – It is easy to make, comforting to eat and works for my whole family. It is even better the day after you make it as the flavours mellow together. Serve with pitta or homemade nachos and some grated cheese.
Orzo, the rice shaped pasta, cooks in minutes and can be stirred with sauce before going in a flask. Here are some sauce ideas:
Homemade pesto – easy to make and store this pesto is full of flavour and can be packed with veg too. The pasta can be cooked in advance and mixed with the pesto. Just add some more pesto and water before reheating.
Meatballs – another of my batch favourites, these can be mixed with cooked pasta then reheated till piping hot.
Tomato pasta – this is the most versatile of all tomato sauces and is be the base of so many dishes. I batch make it, freeze in small portions and whip it out frequently. Stir through cooked pasta and pop in a flask with some grated cheese to sprinkle on top at lunch time.
Because we know this is the best bit for all our kids!
Banana bread – this freezes brilliantly, so cook it, cool it, slice it and freeze it. Grab a slice out of the freezer and pop it in your packed lunches. It will defrost by lunchtime.
Crispy date and chocolate bars – still one of my most popular recipes on the website. These provide the chocolate hit whilst still being good for you.
Flapjacks – an oldie but a goodie.
Shortbread – another classic that freezes really well.
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