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Sunday Meal Planning: Back to the Lunch Grind

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I start every school year thinking this will be the year I win my kids over with the homemade lunches. And every year, I end up giving in to the siren song of the cafeteria (last year, it was the second week of school, when Truman came home with a bill -- he'd been getting both a cafeteria tray and his lunchbox every day). Certainly, I've loved being here in Portland, where school food is undergoing a serious revolution, and, most days, the children will have ingredients from local farms on the menu.

However, as the photo above (taken at a field trip near the end of school last year, so we've got to give them some slack for brown bagging necessities) indicates, there's a lot of room for unhealthy choices. As hard as I try at home to steer my children clear of refined sugar, preservatives, processed flours and other highly-processed foods: if Truman has a choice, it's chocolate milk every day, and, judging from this small window on school food, no one eats the good stuff like grapes.

So I'm trying to get it right this year.

Part of it is incorporating foods I know my children eat into school lunch-friendly configurations. Truman's heritage must be wholly Slavic: he'll eat any sort of meat in quantity with a preference for cured meats; he likes fruit, as long as it's dried; root vegetables, especially carrots, are his fast friends. But they have to be just right, or combined into other foods he likes -- I make chili, taco meat and spaghetti sauce into which I pack seasonal vegetables from carrots to zucchini to eggplant to red cabbage -- he'll eat it, almost always.

Even though I don't have an office job like many of you -- making this sort of juggling far more keenly necessary -- I've found that cooking big quantities of foods I can, later, send in lunches is one path to a calmer school week. One hot weather-friendly recent find was a whole salmon I bought, grilled, and then made into salmon salad sandwiches for Monroe (who eats just about anything between two slices of bread) and salmon chunks for Truman; we stretched the $25 fish into a whole week's meals. I've also agreed with Truman to roast a chicken one night; shredded chicken in lunches; chicken tacos for dinner the next day; chicken noodle soup or chicken chef's salad for me and the rest of the family.

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So on a Sunday (or, this holiday week, a Monday), I'll cook a few things in preparation for the coming week. I spread old jars of honey-sweetened jam on a cookie sheet (with coconut oil to prevent sticking) and dry it in a very low oven for fruit leather; I'll make granola once every other weekend, that can turn into breakfast for me and the boys and lunch for Truman (a container of granola, one of maple-sweetened yogurt, another of raisins); I'll make "healthy" peanut butter cookies, lightly sweetened and with only whole grains, for treats and rushed-morning snacks. (Yes! We eat cookies for breakfast around here.)

I'd love to hear what you all cook ahead for the week's lunches, especially in these next few weeks when it's generally going to be too hot for chicken roasting and other winter favorites. And, as the kids go to school over the next few days, tell us: what do they love?

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My 2nd grader is very boring. PB sandwich, a fruit, and a pretzel/chip/cracker-type snack. Every day. But now I have a kindergartner who likes more and will keep me on my toes. And does not eat sandwiches. He and I have talked about getting a thermos of sorts so he can keep food hot. Does anyone know if these work well? I'm looking forward to being able to use leftovers for him, but some just don't lend themselves to staying cool. I'm not a big fan of cooking lots on one day, but I'm lucky enough to have the time to cook something most nights so I don't feel the need to. And if I can pack up a little for him to take the next day, I'm a happy mama!

One thing we do in bulk on weekends is "spaghetti sauce" which is 2 jars of store bought tomato sauce with as many sautéed veggies in it as possible. Our current standards are eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, onions, carrots, summer squash...you name it. After sautéing, it goes in the Cuisinart. I refrigerate some and freeze some. It becomes pizza sauce for mini bagel pizzas, dip for green beans, chicken parmesan sauce and of course, spaghetti sauce.

As for the thermos thing, I always find that by the time lunch rolls around, it's not hot anymore and therefore my picky, non-sandwich-eating kid won't eat "cold food that's supposed to be hot". I even bought a nice Thermos brand stainless steel one and it still doesn't work well.

we always have 3 or 4 components: sandwich/fruit/sweet treat/dry snack.
sandwiches- can be made healthy with healthy bread (organic pb & fruit spread/tuna/uncured lunchmeat, etc)
sweet treats- (could be fruit too, but mostly i use this component to give my kids some sweet carb so they don't feel sugar deprived)-granola bars, fruit leather, fruit bars,graham crackers, etc.
fruit-whatever i have available
snack item-tortilla chips,string cheese,yogurt, pretzels,many of Tj's snacks without all the processed garbage.

and when my kids get tired of sandwiches i'll pack them uncured salami and chese/crackers as the "main course".

We have a small thermos that works great, though I usually warm it up with some hot water before I put in the hot food. I got it hoping that my son would use it to broaden his lunch choices, but he hasn't used it much. Mostly my husband has taken it. My gripe is actually that the thing is too big. My kids only eat small servings at lunch, and I would love to find a very petite thermos (for a reasonable price).

I made a list today of "main dishes" and "extras" and "treats" for lunches. It isn't that I've come up with anything revolutionary to put in those categories this year but I feel better seeing that actually there are quite a few things the kids will eat. Maybe it will help us stay out of our rut.

On the Thermos topic, both my son and husband use these for hot food regularly. And, as long as I really to remember to warm it with hot water (usually boiling, from our electric kettle) first, they say their food is hot come lunch time (about 3 hours later).

That's a great picture. Wow.

My daughter has a small thermos food jar and she never complains about her lunch being cold. I just make sure I heat the food nice and hot in the morning and pre-heat the jar with hot water like some other posters said. Soup is a staple since that is one of the only ways I can get my picky eater to consume any veggies. In fact she often eats soup for breakfast too if I have more than will fill the jar for her lunch --- weird I know but better that frosted flakes! When we don't have soup or leftovers, her favorite lunch is hummus and pita or tortilla. She loves to have the little plastic knife and spread it on her self at school.

We do a lot of finger foods with a (healthy homemade) dip. The dip goes into a small Tupperware container and the veggies/meats in a 2 compartment lunch box thing. I provide 2-3 different types of veggies (carrots, peppers, celery, broccoli seem to be the staples with others thrown in) and a humus or bean dip plus a couple pieces of nitrate free salami or ham (also as a finger food) plus one slice of cubed cheese, plus 3 or 4 whole grain crackers. My non-sandwich eater doesn't eat everything, but most of it seems to be consumed. AND, the dips/cheese can be prepared on Sunday with the veggies being chopped about twice a week.

My daughter started high school today (14 years to the day that I was in labor with her) so we're navigating a new lunch culture. During middle school, there were several microwaves available in the cafeteria, so she was able to have a hot, homemade lunch daily. She seldom ate school lunch.

Today is free lunch for everyone at her school, so she'll eat that and try to get the lay of the land in the cafeteria. She'll see what's on offer in the cafeteria, and what facilities (if any) are available to heat up home meals.

Something I worry about is the whole peer pressure/body image/I don't know what to call it that goes on with girls in her age group. My lean, athlete of a girl has always eaten big, hearty, (mostly) healthy meals, with meats and veg and fruit and grains and dairy. Just recently I noticed she checks herself and eats much less when she's with her peers, and tends to shy away from higher calorie and/or fat foods. Something I know I'll have to keep a watch on and compensate for when it's just us. Teens cannot live on lettuce alone!

Sheryl, the concern you voice seems a valid one. I volunteer as a cross country coach, and even those girls (clearly getting enough exercise!) are susceptible to the peer-influenced idea that their calories should be severely limited. it's something we (coaches, sports administrators -- I don't see as much of the teachers' influence) work hard on reminding them: please, eat a lot of whole food! one of our coaches mentioned at the parent night that teen girls tend to be anemic; this is probably partly due to the popularity of vegan diets and the belief that vegetables are the one "good" food for teen girls.

I'd love to hear how other parents address this with girls, and whether they've found particular strategies that work (other than simply feeding them big dinners when they're away from the influence of other teens -- or maybe that's the strategy!). as a coach and a mama with a tween neighbor girl, I'm hoping to plant as many good messages in these brains as I can.

My two school-aged kids have totally different preferences: one likes hot food like soup, rice & meat & veggies, or other warmed up leftovers from dinner. The other loves a picnic spread like salami, cheese, crackers, fruit & veg.

Our general guidelines are:
1 protein (cheese, yogurt, nuts, beans, meat, tofu)
1 fruit or veg (usually fruit or carrots)
1 carb (whole grain bread, crackers, granola, cereal)
1 extra something
water bottle with fresh water.

NO chips, cookies, sweets (even though we might eat these on a regular basis at home).

This morning, I made a batch of ranch dip for the veg supplement. I would love ideas on other homemade dips for the veggies. I also might do a lightly toasted grilled cheese. Or PB&H (honey).

I have a problem with the Thermos and often find the food actually spoils because it doesn't keep it hot, but it is warm enough to go bad. I have used the warm-up method mentioned above and it still has not worked for me. We've recently invested in the insulated Kleen Kanteens and will try that for soup. They surely keep my coffee piping hot for hours.

I also have a small thermos brand for lunch. I'm waiting to see what son has to say about how well it works. Klean Kanteen on standby! We talked about lists of proteins, veggies and same lunches for Mon/Wed and Tues/Thurs with bagel pizza for Friday ( listed out toppings for this too!) My first year of packing everyday so I'm very curious to see what he suggests from classmates lunches and what works for me regarding cooking/prep time. His teacher suggested he help fix lunches to learn more about healthy foods, food handling & my favorite- time management! Cheers for the new school year.

My teen won't eat lunch no matter how easy or attractive I make it for her. There is definitely peer pressure not to eat at school.

My son has a laptop bento and I follow oliva's guidelines above except that I usually include a small dessert or treat. I often set the timer on the rice cooker before bed so there is rice in the morning and combine that with fruits, veg and a protien to make lunch. Another thing he likes is quesadilla. The tortillas stand up better to packing than toasted bread. For a special treat he likes Amy's pizza squares or bean squares although I have to set the alarm earlier to bake those before school.

@cafemama--My response/follow-up seems to have been lost in the ether, but I did want to thank you for what you're doing as a coach, talking to your runners about diet and nutrition. I wish that more coaches did the same.

Any chance you'd want to share your peanut butter cookie recipe? I love the idea of having some healthy-ish cookies around for quick breakfasts and snacks!

We do a mix of homemade and hot lunch. I am very ready for the hot lunch/salad bar option a couple of days a week after a summer of camps that required snacks and lunches every single day. I would say we are similar to most of you - lots of "snaky" lunches of turkey, whole grain crackers, veggies (sugar snap peas, baby carrots, frozen peas), and fruit. Leftovers when we have them and depending on what they are. Quesadillas (whole wheat tortillas, beans, cheese and rice, sometimes chicken) are a hit as are grilled cheese (or turkey and cheese), just make sure to let cool before packing or they will get soggy. I usually make extra for dinner and have leftovers for lunch (or even breakfast). My kid will eat leftover mac and cheese and leftover pasta and meatballs at room temperature. He has not really liked the thermos. He really likes the new containers we got that are one container with three/four compartments.

How do people send grilled cheese for lunch? In a hot container? Chilled? Room temperature?

We do at least one mini whole wheat bagel with cream cheese each week. And sometimes one with nutella if I'm really running low on supplies. The only hot lunches she will eat are "brunch for lunch" and grilled cheese, so the pb&j, cream cheese bagel, rice rotation gets old pretty quickly. For me anyway.

@AR - grilled cheese is room temp by the time he has lunch.

This makes me think of that scene in The Breakfast Club, where popular girl Claire pulls out her elegant little bento box, athlete Andy eats a full-size grocery bag full of sandwiches and fruit, "weirdo" Allison eats buttered white bread topped with Pixie Stix and Cap'n Crunch cereal, the outcast John has nothing, and wholesome "nerd" Brian has a thermos of soup, a PBJ with the crusts cut off, and apple juice. Sigh.

I always end up with leftovers, no matter what I make for dinner, and they go straight into a freezer bag and frozen (in single-serving portions).

That said, I'm the only one who will eat them. My son hates everything I make unless it's chicken and plain pasta and a raw fruit or vegetable, and my husband hates leftovers. Therefore, husband and I usually just pick up something fresh from our cafeteria and my son eats at daycare. He's only 2 so they still feed them with the price included in tuition, hallelujah!

Amy, I love your Breakfast Club reference!!! It reminds me of it too!

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