By Kathryn McLean

September marks back to school for many of us, and back to school means back to packing kids’ lunches, which can be a challenge for a variety of reasons. You rely on peanut butter and jam sandwiches at home, but schools are nut-free. One of your children doesn’t eat sandwiches, only lots of little snacks, but the other prefers hot lunches. Your breakfast routine is rushed and you count on the midday meal to fill your kids until dinner; what should you send?

It seems obvious, but start with what your kids like to eat. If they like quesadilla and will eat it everyday, send that. Make it in the morning and pack the slices into a thermal container to stay warm until lunchtime. Round out the cheese sandwich with a little container of sour cream or salsa. If they love grilled chicken skewers and rice for dinner, make extra and send the leftovers in their lunchboxes.

Don’t get stuck on sending variety if your kids want the same thing every day. As long as they eat other foods at home, before and after school, it doesn’t matter if they eat a cheese sandwich for lunch every day. Better the same lunch every day than bringing uneaten lunch home everyday.

Speaking of variety, try thinking through the food groups listed in Canada’s food guide:

  • Fruits and vegetables: all types, both cooked and raw
  • Protein foods, including eggs, tofu, beans, fish, cheese, meat, and poultry
  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, whole grain pasta, quinoa, and multigrain bread

Bento boxes (food containers with compartments) are great for packing lunches. Not only can you pack wet and dry items next to one another in their own compartments, but you can easily see what you’ve packed and work out what might be missing.

Start with fruits like berries, sliced kiwi, grapes, pieces of pineapple or mango, an apple, a clementine. Then some fresh veggies: baby carrots, sliced cucumber or peppers, mushrooms, grape tomatoes, and pieces of broccoli travel well. Next the whole grains: cold noodles with veggies, a sandwich on multigrain bread, some pretzels and snacking crackers. Lastly, fill in the protein area: some small cheese cubes and slices of leftover sausage. Or a boiled egg sprinkled with a little salt and pepper. Maybe a container of cream cheese for spreading on crackers.

Take advantage of thermal containers for sending both hot or cold items that your kids like to eat. Scrambled eggs, oatmeal, dumplings or pierogies, mac and cheese, a sliced grilled cheese, fried rice, chili or soup can all travel in a warm thermos. Make sure to pack a spoon or fork. Try pouring a cold smoothie into a thermos, or filling it with fresh melon cubes, potato or pasta salad, or a scoop of tuna salad.

If you make a point to have the foods your kids like in the fridge and cabinet at home, it is easier to pack their lunches. Reach for what you know they like when you pack the bento box for them, and have your kids say what should go in the last compartment. Including your kids, or at least their input, will help ensure the lunches get eaten and not returned at the end of the day.