Packing a healthy, sustainable school lunch is difficult. There are so many rules and variables! Does the food need to be kept hot or cold? How long can your equipment (lunch box, thermos, ice packs) maintain a safe temperature? How do you pack perishable foods so they arrive intact? What about all the plastic baggie waste?
So many of my friends just give up and have their child order the school hot lunch:
It's taken me 8 years of trial and error, but I finally have a solution to all the lunch woes!
For years I battled with various plastic bottles. Most of them leaked. But when I finally found some that didn't - there were other issues. Could they be in the dishwasher? Did they contain BPA? No matter what, they always made the water taste awful. Eventually - I found screw top stainless steel water bottles and we have used them for the last few years. They do not leak. They do not taint the taste of the water. They keep the water cold, and they are inexpensive!
They do occasionally get dinged. If my kids ding their water bottle, it's on them and they get to use one that's a little ugly. Knowing that, they have been more careful and we have solved any future dinging incidents.
This has been super challenging. For years, I thought we were doing well with "bento box" style lunch boxes. But it turned out that food was constantly mixing. I like to send cucumbers with ranch dressing, applesauce, maple syrup for dipping waffles, etc. All of those things would run around the box and soak the other food. That's unacceptable. So then I would use small tupperware containers. They worked great, but didn't fit in the lunchbox well.
Then I came upon these beauties -
These are the lunch blox from Rubbermaid. They have a large square (perfect for sandwiches) and 2 smaller rectangles. These are the perfect serving size for fruits and veggies - applesauce, baby carrots, cucumber slices, etc. The tops can mix and match so you don't have to find "the perfect lid" while you're rushing each morning. And there is an ice pack that fits directly onto the sandwich box. All of the parts snap together (if you want them to) and their "square" shapes make them fit in a lunch box easily.
This set solves a lot of problems - fitting in the box, containing everything, keeping liquids separate, and not creating a ton of garbage. But it wasn't perfect. I needed some smaller containers for sauces.
I also have this set:
This set has a larger container (perfect for burritos/salads), the rectangle shapes and some small squares. These squares are perfect for packing bbq sauce, ketchup, maple syrup, ranch dressing - anything small. This is the Fasten + Go rubbermaid set - it all latches together with a lid to become it's own lunchbox.
If I were heading to work, this would be a great lunchbox for me. For my kids, I prefer to send them a mix of items in their school box, and I put the lid and latch away in storage. But together all of these little containers make packing a lunch easy -without any garbage created! They are plastic - but polypropylene (which is BPA free.)
The only other things you need are utensils and a Thermos. I love this thermos:
It's stainless steel and holds a whopping 15oz. It comes in multiple colors: we have the blue ones. Over time, the paint on the outside of the thermos does come off and you are left with a silver colored stainless steel - but it works great. It can hold a full meal and it stays hot!
Just pre-heat with almost boiling water for 2 minutes before filling it with food. What I do is fill a coffee mug with water, microwave that for 2 minutes. Then pour it into the thermos and let it sit while I make the rest of the lunch. I refill the coffee mug with the food for the thermos. Then a few minutes later, I heat up the food in the microwave and I pour the hot water onto my sink full of dirty dishes (there is always an omelette pan or something to benefit from the super hot water.) Then I put the food in the thermos, close it up, and send them out the door with their lunches.
For utensils - I like these:
They are made for camping, so they can hold up to a lot of abuse. Plus they solve the issue of fork versus spoon - they are both!! This saves room in the lunchbox and makes sure they always have what they need to eat the various foods.
My children will not select fruits/vegetables on their own. Left to their own devices they would eat processed carbohydrates (chips, crackers, cookies...) so I make sure their lunches contain at least 2 servings of fruit/veg. My son is a volume eater so he gets 3.
I prefer to pack leftovers in my children's lunches. Why? Because they are complete meals - mini versions of whatever we had for dinner. Soups, casseroles, etc. When we don't have any packable leftovers, then they get some sort of sandwich (or occasionally a mixed salad), the two fruit/veg and maybe a treat or concentrated carbohydrate. It all depends on what is in the house and what they have been doing lately. Do they have the mile run that day? Do they have gymnastics every day after school? Are they sick?
Back in 2010, I put together a big list of possible food items for school lunches. I still like this list.
I have a few standby's. My kids love soups in their lunch, and they absolutely love it when I pack "breakfast for lunch" such as an omelette, waffles with bacon/sausage, etc. These are the usual suspects in our lunches: unsweetened applesauce, baby carrots, cucumber slices, sliced oranges, dried fruits, sliced apples (lemon juice keeps them from turning brown,) trail mixes of seeds/nuts/raisins/prunes, little container of cereal, anything currently baked such as banana muffins, granola bars, cookies.
It doesn't have to be difficult and it doesn't have to be boring. But it does have to arrive in one piece and provide nutritional balance. If you are new to packing lunches, hang in there! You'll eventually get in the groove.
I received a few complimentary rubbermaid items for review purposes, but all opinions expressed are my own. I did not receive compensation. All articles on this blog may contain affiliate links/ads.