If you’re like a lot of us, you’ve got two “First Day of School” pics for the ‘gram this year: first day of virtual school and first day of face-to-face, “hallelujah-the-kids-are-finally-out-of-the-house” school. So although you may have been using our tips for feeding the homeschool family a few weeks ago, maybe this week you’re scrambling to pack school lunches again. Because, hey, it’s 2020, and nothing makes sense anymore.
But no worries — we’ve got tips to help you navigate all the new pandemic-related rules and pack lunches in this new environment. And since your office fridge and microwave are probably off-limits, these may come in handy for you too.
How the Cafeteria is Changing
Some cafeterias are moving to pre-packaged food only to minimize contact, so if you’re trying to keep your kids eating real food, you’re better off packing your own lunches. But that might look a little different this year. Middle and high school cafeterias usually have a microwave or two for student use, but that is definitely not happening this year.
So the challenge is creating healthy school lunches that are either still delicious when cold after sitting beside an ice pack all morning or totally non-perishable at room temperature. An added challenge? To prevent overcrowding in the cafeteria, your kids may be eating at unusual hours this year. So it’s extra important to have super satisfying lunches to keep them going.
4 Tips for Making School Lunches This Year
1. Make edible ice packs
The USDA says you need at least two cold sources to keep your food at safe temps. The thing is, two ice packs take up a lot of space that could be used for cheese, fruit, or other delicious-but-perishable things. That’s why we’re all about edible ice packs like bags of frozen grapes and berries or frozen yogurt containers. By lunchtime, they’ll be thawed enough to eat, and they’ll keep all of those sorta-kinda perishables nice and cool.
2. Opt for Insulated Lunch Kits
“Brown bagging it” should only be metaphorical if your kids are packing any perishables. In addition to two cold packs, the USDA says you’ll need insulated lunch bags to keep temps out of the “danger zone” where bacteria grow easily. To add traditional ice packs, opt for a larger lunch box, or splurge on a Yeti lunch pack.
3. Build a Fun Bento Box
Bento boxes are perfect for school lunches because they never get old, and kids love to build their own. They can stick to a few of their favorites and still change it up with something new when they’re getting bored. See all our ideas for building healthy, filling bento boxes in this post!
Not pffff as in the sound your kids make as they roll their eyes at your dad jokes. PFF as in protein, fat, and fiber. This trio is the best way to make sure your kids are getting a balanced, filling meal, so try to include a source of each in their lunches. Thankfully, a lot of classic lunch box foods fit the bill:
Fruits and veggies (Fiber)
Whole fruits that don’t need to be refrigerated (think apples, oranges, pears) work great for non-perishable lunches.
Chia seeds (Protein, Fat, Fiber)
They may not be your usual school lunch item, but this little superfood checks all three boxes. Freeze some chia pudding in a small mason jar for an edible ice pack.
Hard cheeses (Protein and Fat)
Hard and semi-hard cheeses are less likely to spoil than soft ones. Thankfully, the kid favorites are usually hard cheeses like cheddar and colby.
Whole-grain breads (Fiber and possibly Protein)
Breads with lots of seeds will have an extra boost of protein.
Nut butters (Protein and Fat)
The classic PB&J is still on the menu. Give it an extra healthy boost with some chia seed jam!
100% grass-fed beef and all-natural turkey jerky and meat sticks
These are one of the few convenient sources of non-perishable protein. Meat sticks have the added benefit of being individually wrapped. Our original and pineapple mini sticks make perfect kid-friendly, healthy snacks to bring to school, and you can find them on your next Target run!
For more clean snack and protein ideas, we’re loving the Merryfield app, which rewards you for shopping clean, better-for-you brands. Here’s Merryfield’s roundup list of clean snacks:
Merrfyield’s Smart On-the-Go Kids Snacks
Once Upon a Farm Dairy-Free Smoothie Pouch
GoMacro Kids MacroBar
Country Archer Mini Sticks
LesserEvil Organic Popcorn
Stonyfield Organic Yogurt Tubes
Orgain Kids Organic Protein Nutrition Shake
Applegate Snack Pack
Orgain Organic Kids O Bars
Justin’s Nut Butter Squeeze Packs
For even more lunch box ideas, check out their healthy kids meals for picky eaters!