It’s fall — time to head back to school! Packing lunches kids will love can be tricky, so we turned to an expert for tips: our Test Kitchen Manager Amanda Haas, author of the book Real Family Food. When it comes to making healthy, great-tasting meals for families, she’s a pro. And for lunch boxes, she says, “My goal is to get my kids to eat as much real food as possible.”
Her go-to lunches include chopped salads, chicken or steak with chimichurri, soups, braises and build-your-own wraps, and she always includes a fruit and vegetable in the mix. Here are some of her best tips!
Give kids some control. “My kids don’t really like sandwiches — they would always come back half-eaten,” says Amanda. “So finally, we asked them, what do you want?” She was surprised when they asked for salads, casseroles, fruits and vegetables. As often as possible, she brings her kids along on grocery shopping trips, and she has one golden rule: if they bring a fruit or vegetable to the cart, they can have it. They are more likely to try (and enjoy!) something they chose themselves.
Make a double batch. It only takes a little additional effort to make a double batch of something you can eat for dinner, then pack leftovers for lunch. Amanda likes Chinese chicken salads (dressing on the side) and lasagna. “My kids love lasagna — I can put almost anything in there and they’ll eat it, so I pack in as many veggies as I can.”
Give leftovers some love. Eating the same dish for dinner and the next day’s lunch can get boring. “Sometimes I’ll wait two or three days before packing dinner leftovers for lunch so they don’t feel so much like leftovers,” says Amanda. Also, she deconstructs dinners to create hands-on lunches. Tuesday’s dinner tacos can be packed as tortillas, vegetables, chicken and salsa for Wednesday’s make-your-own taco lunch.
Serve a homemade hot lunch. Look for microwave-safe containers that will hold heat for hours. Amanda heats up soup and lasagna in the morning, then packs them in containers so they have a hot, satisfying meal come lunchtime.
Skip the sweets. In general, Amanda shies away from packing desserts in lunch boxes. “My feeling is, they are assaulted with sugar while they’re at school and at sporting events,” she explains. “And if they don’t have dessert during the day, we can do a sweet treat after school and feel OK about it.”
Share the workload. Planning and cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for a whole family is a LOT of work. For lunches, Amanda does the planning while her husband takes care of the cooking and packing. Next, she wants the boys to start packing their own lunches! She knows a friend who makes a chart with a list of proteins, vegetables, fruits and snacks, and lets her kids choose and pack lunch boxes themselves — that way, they’re guaranteed to be balanced meals. Everybody wins!
Make it look good. “I am so not the person to cut sandwiches into cute shapes, but if a lunch looks nice, kids will want to eat it,” says Amanda. Try cute bento boxes, and cut vegetables into even sticks. “A little bit of effort goes a long way.”