Sure, you've braced your kids for the early mornings. But have you prepared yourself for another 180 school days of packed lunches?
A little information — as well as the right gear — can keep it from turning into a dreaded chore. So let's start with some basics:
I don't mean plan out a week's worth of lunches. That's just crazy talk. Rather, at dinner the night before, cook a little too much. How much too much? It depends on how many lunches you need to pack the next day. Either way, those leftovers are your easy building blocks for lunch the next day.
Grilling steak or roasting a chicken? Make a little extra and turn it into sandwiches or wraps or a robust salad in the morning. Pasta night? Boil up a little extra. The next day, cold leftovers plus some bottled vinaigrette and whatever veggies or meat you have handy become an easy pasta salad.
Ditch the idea of structuring lunch around a main-with-sides model. Most people — and particularly kids — are just as happy with a bunch of small items to munch on. Assemble some fruit, fresh veggies, cheese, crackers or bread, a little cold meat, maybe a yogurt, and you have a pretty satisfying meal.
And to make packing all those bits and pieces easier, get bento-style lunch containers. These containers generally have multiple small compartments.
KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
Safe lunch packing all comes down to numbers. Cold food needs to stay below 40 F. Hot food needs to stay above 140 F. Once food falls outside those ranges, it's safe to eat for another two hours.
Figure out what time a packed lunch will be eaten. Now count backward to the time of day it will be packed. That's how long you need to maintain the food at a safe temperature. So when you shop for lunch gear — insulated lunch bags, thermoses, etc. — only buy products with thermal ratings. These ratings tell you how long they can keep items hot or cold.
Start by deciding the types of lunches you'll pack most often. Lots of little nibbles? Bento boxes are for you. Plenty of soups, chili and hot items? Multiple thermos-style wide-mouth food jars need to be on your shopping list. Go through a lot of dips and hummus and condiments? Be sure your containers are watertight.
As a general rule, I like to get two of every container. This way there is less pressure to make sure the lunch gear from the day before is washed before morning. I also prefer stainless steel because it holds up to the dishwasher (and my destructive 10-year-old) better. But it's also costlier.