School lunch system

Confession: If there is one thing that tries my soul, it is thinking of enough ideas for my children’s packed lunches during the school year.

Ideally, I would move toward turning that responsibility over to them. But it has been hard for me to figure out how to do so while a) monitoring what they pack, b) getting out the door in time, and c) avoiding insanity as we all trip over each other making our own ham sandwiches at 8 am.

To tell you the truth, we are lucky. At our school, we have the option to buy hot lunch from the cafeteria two days out of five each week, for most of the year. This is an amazing gift and leaves only three days to pack, if they like the lunch enough to sign up for it. But still, I will not let that fact put a cramp in my whining.

This year, thanks to the forethoughtful questions and ideas of my friends Shaunda and Jolynn, I thought more about our plan than usual. A week before school I had no strategy at all, but by adopting others’ intelligent ideas and adding in our own, we found a method we really like.

Here’s what we do.

Each Saturday, the school kiddos and I spend an hour or so preparing lunch ingredients for the coming week. Someone might bake cookies or bars, and package them in serving sizes. Maybe someone else makes single-serving fruit and Jell-O cups. Another child cuts up fresh fruits and veggies and bags them. (Yes, they keep just fine. Even apples, if dipped in a mild salt water, can last the week nearly white.)

When I make our traditional pizza supper Saturday evening, we wrap some extra dough around tasty fillings and bake them, to make individual stromboli, crescent rolls, or hot pockets. These we wrap and put in the freezer.

I also buy easy-to-pack things: string cheese, yogurt cups, clementines, granola bars, trail mix, chips, dried fruit, cookies. I did not say all of it is healthy.

We put everything in the fridge, freezer, or pantry, easily accessible.

Then I update a lunch list to hang on the wall for the week (click to view). Their choices change every week based on what we made and what I have on hand, but my list has standard categories – here are the choices for a fresh fruit or veggie, here are the salty snacks, here are the desserts. No, you cannot pick three desserts.

Each school morning, I prepare only a main food for them (a sandwich, a bowl of re-heat-able food, or often, one of those baked sandwiches we made). The kids look at my list and pick three or four side options to go with it, and fill their own lunchboxes. (They mark things off the list so they don’t repeat. If I want them to repeat, I put it on the list multiple times.)

WE LOVE THIS METHOD.

In a couple of years, I hope to do it informally, without the printed list. For now, I still have to monitor the packing. It is not seamless. One of my children likes piggy-backing extra goodies if I don’t watch out. One is poky in packing, and needs to be hustled along. But it’s so nice to have all our options laid out, and to get the children involved in the process. They are more excited about their lunches than they used to be, and mornings are smoother.


How do you simplify lunch packing? What foods do your children love to take to school? I’m ready for some fresh ideas on homemade or simple sides.

11 thoughts on “School lunch system

  1. I like your Saturday prep ideas and the extra dough sandwiches. Ill have to try them. Our sons help with morning chores so our daughter gets the lunch packing job but needs motivation from mom.

  2. Love this — while we are homeschooling this year due to a move planned this fall/winter your system is very similar to mine the past couple years. Except I did not individually pack the stuff. To save cost on baggies we marked a baggie with their initials for chips or anything along that line and another for cookies ect. They used that baggie all week. Veggies and fruit were put in small containers. (I love Tupperware because they seal tightly and don’t leak) There were consequences if the baggie or Tupperware came up missing. 🙁

    Also, my children packed their lunches in the evening. If there was anything that needed refrigerated they put in their certain spot in the fridge and got it out and put it in their lunch bag in the morning. I then made their sandwich or what ever each morning. The teacher lived with us last year and she wanted to pack her own lunch so this system worked for her as well.

    It worked well for us and saved us tons of chaos in the mornings! 🙂

  3. Your system sounds good :-). But to me as a German it seems to be so complicated to make lunch for American students.

    When I went to school (I finished school 10 years ago) my mom (or me) sliced bread and made sandwiches with cheese or „Wurst“ (salami or kind of lunchmeat) and sometimes an apple. This was just for a second breakfast in the late morning or as I grew older for lunch.

    I had breakfast at home (cereal or bread with jam) and I usually got home early enough to have lunch there, which was a cooked meal and in the evening we had „Butterbrot“ again which was bread with butter and cheese or „Wurst“ and of course some vegetables.

    German food is so different although many Americans and especially the Mennonites have German ancestors. I cannot even imagine to have pancakes, bacon or scrambled eggs for breakfast.

    I would love to hear about your daily menu (from morning to evening).

    • 🙂 I enjoyed your comment very much. Your description of your childhood foods sounds homey, simple, familiar, delicious. There is much to be said for that, and you make me wish to scale back on variety in favor of it!

      When my extended family gets together, we often have a “German breakfast” for brunch. I don’t know how authentic it is, but it’s the kind we are served in a zimmer haus in Europe, and sounds a lot like your “Butterbrot.” We have hard rolls, salami/lunchmeat and cheeses, various spreads like Nutella or cream cheese or jam, and soft-boiled eggs. It’s our favorite meal of the weekend.

      Our daily menu at my house varies, but looks roughly like this:

      Breakfast – I rarely cook, generally only on weekends or special occasions. We eat cereal, granola, yogurt, toast with peanut butter, things like that.

      Lunch – Often sandwiches, leftovers, or soup, with sides like chips, fruit, or fresh veggies.

      Supper – Our biggest meal. I like to grill meat in the summer, with sides like potatoes, rice, or pasta plus a hot vegetable or a salad. If we wish, we add applesauce, pickles, breadsticks, or fresh fruit for a total of three or four foods. In the winter, I make a main dish containing a meat and a starch, plus sides like above. My rule for supper is: there must be something that’s not hot, to change up the temperatures and give the babies something to start on 🙂 and there must be something green. If I have baked goods on hand like cake or cookies, we have them for dessert.

      Now you have made me hungry. 🙂

      • Your description of a German breakfast is authentic! What do you mean by zimmer haus? Hotel?
        After reading your daily menu I think that your food is not so different from German food as I supposed. In the past few years German cooking habits have changed a bit because it has become popular that moms go to work. So many families have their hot meal in the evening.
        As my husband can have a hot meal in the canteen at lunchtime I can decide whether I cook in the evening or my little daughter and I warm up leftovers at lunchtime. Sometimes I cook food at lunchtime that my husband does not like.
        Maybe you wonder why a German reads your blog? 1. I do not work in the office anymore where most communication was in English and by reading blogs I hope not to forget everything.
        2. I am familiar with the mennonites. When I was a little girl we were in contact with an American mennonite family in Belgium who is now back in the U.S.

        • Don’t tell me I used the wrong words! I am so fluent in German, you know. {grin} I meant not hotel, but bed-and-breakfast: the family-operated, five-rooms-upstairs, eat-with-us-in-the-morning kind of thing. It’s how my family toured from Romania to Amsterdam in 2000, one of the happiest summers of my life.

          I am delighted to have you reading here. I like variety in cultures and people!

  4. I know a number of people freeze sandwiches. If it’s peanut butter and jelly, put peanut butter on both sides and jelly in the middle. If it’s meat and cheese, sandwich the condiments between the meat and cheese. Then just put the frozen sandwich in the box in the morning and it’s perfect to eat at noon. Lunches are my worst enemy. We homeschool, don’t eat wheat or sugar and I pack (work) lunch for 4 six foot plus giants with hollow legs. No easy solutions here. I can almost not make enough at one meal to have leftovers for lunch and I am NOT a morning person. Maybe that will make your life seem simple. Lol. Life is challenging, no matter what.

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