School lunches get no respect. They are thrown together in the morning hustle, typically arriving at the lunch table soggy, smelly, and uninspiring to the harried eater who is expected to wolf it down in 15 to 20 minutes. With such little time to eat, what parents send to school for lunch has to pack a big impact—both in nutrition and in appeal.
If most days your little one is coming home with a lunch bag full of untouched food, Catherine McCord, the mastermind behind the blog Weelicious and the food delivery service One Potato, shared her tried-and-true tips for how to revamp your kid’s lunches and make them more exciting—while saving you time in the process. “I’m always trying to find ways to help kids enjoy their lunches in the short period of time they have to eat them,” says McCord.
She has built an empire on making school lunches more appealing to kids and her book Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box with More Than 160 Happier Meals focuses on just that. McCord talked to us about her best hacks to get kids excited about eating lunch, and shared her favorite products to help tired parents make school lunches more exciting with minimal effort.
1. Start with a template
McCord says she’s the first to admit that sometimes even she feels like she has to jumpstart her lunch-packing autopilot, so she starts with a template and goes from there. Every lunch should have a fruit, a vegetable, a carb, and a protein. She says after you get those main components out of the way, you can free yourself to have fun and bring a little excitement to your kid’s lunchbox. “I focus on those components and after I plug those in I focus on mixing up the texture, color, and flavor.”
2. Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose
McCord is a huge fan of batch cooking. She suggests making big batches of favorite foods and freezing them, pulling out smaller portions to defrost overnight or on the way to school. She’s also a proponent of repurposing last night’s dinner. A few strips from your chicken dinner, and the remaining tomatoes from your salad is a great way to get lunch started. McCord says to add a few new components like a fun fruit and some cheesy crackers and you’re done!
3. There are no bad eaters
This is a big one and, McCord says, central to how she feeds her family. It’s so easy for us to look at our kids and focus on all they won’t eat; she suggests putting a positive spin on pickiness, “Don’t say, ‘Sally only will eat x,y, and z. Instead, praise them for finding foods they love.” She recommends putting the emphasis on foods they will eat instead of what they won’t. Each school year, McCord sits down with her kids and asks them to make a list of at least 10 things they love to eat. She leaves the list up on a chalkboard and commits to putting at least one of those things in their lunchbox every day. “If they start nibbling on one thing, they may start to graze towards something else—and sometimes it’s something that you put a new twist on.”
4. Find a gateway food and go with it
If you bemoan the fact that your child will only eat PB&J, you’re not alone. In fact, the ubiquitous lunch time favorite is pretty popular in McCord’s house too. It’s so popular, she devoted an entire chapter in her book to deconstructing and revamping the old favorite. “If you think your kid will only eat PB&J, that’s a start!” she says. Take a food that’s in their culinary wheelhouse and give it new life. You can turn PB&J into sushi rolls, wedge it between apple slices, or press it between two slices of whole wheat bread in a waffle maker to give it a new texture. If your kids like hummus, focus on that: Mix things up with black bean hummus or avocado hummus. McCord’s daughter loves whipped cream cheese, which has allowed her to introduce creative pairings from whipped cream cheese and jam to whipped cream cheese and olive tapenade. That favorite food can give them the safety to try new foods in a new ways. Once they try one new thing and realize they like it, McCord says you’re on your way to have a more adventurous eater.
5. The freezer is your friend
The ice pack is obviously a great way to keep things cold, but McCord recommends freezing anything you can to help keep things fresh and to have a chilly lunchbox treat. She freezes everything from fruit to big batches of carrot snack sticks in silicone baggies; by the time lunchtime rolls around those healthy treats have a nice chill and pop to them. Frozen yogurt sticks, organic push pops, and apple sauce pouches can do double duty by keeping things cold in the morning and then transforming into a refreshing, slushy treat by lunchtime.
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6. Prepare the night before
It’s a fact: Kids create less stress when they are fast asleep. Catherine is a huge fan of cutting through the chaos and prepping lunches the night before. “Allow yourself the brain space to be creative,” she says. If you have a quiet house, you are more likely to come up with new and fresh ideas for what to pack than when you are cutting sandwich quarters and shouting for your kids to put on their shoes for the thousandth time.
7. Texture is everything
No one likes soggy sandwiches, limp crackers, or mealy melon. Make sure you’re paying attention to texture before you pack. Picking out firm fruit and veggies goes without saying, but McCord says you need to pay just as much attention to the texture of your protein and carbs. Since she likes to pack food the night before, she’s come up with some great hacks for keeping bread from getting soggy. She freezes bread slices to make finger sandwiches the night before, or she rolls and flattens the dough to make “sushi” out of everything under the sun. Both are fun to eat and stop bread from getting soggy if they’ve been in lunchboxes overnight. In her book she even talks about making sure you store crunchy snacks like crackers or cookies in separate containers to keep the moisture from nearby fruits and vegetables from zapping their crunch.
8. Think small
When kids are rushed or distracted, bite-sized and smaller portions will help them enjoy their lunches without feeling overwhelmed. “Smaller portions are easier to tackle and bite-sized is more fun,” says McCord. You might be tempted to throw in a slice of watermelon, but the bigger the piece the more apt it is to get bruised and the more likely it is to only get partially eaten. The smaller the piece, the less mess, and the more likely your kids will be able to pop a few pieces in their mouths before the bell rings. Sandwiches can be cut into fingers, quarters, or small sushi rolls; melons can be in bite-sized balls; veggies can be cut into coins or small, fun shapes; muffins can be miniaturized. When in doubt, make it small.
9. Small batches for big variety
A bulk run at Costco is so tempting, but McCord recommends that you buy your produce in small batches. “A bag of apples is great, but no one wants to eat an apple every day for five days straight,” she says. Instead, buy a smaller amount of different fruits and vegetables so there is always variety. Your child will be more likely to eat their veggies if they have carrots one day, snap peas the next, and bell peppers the day after than if they are met with carrots five days in a row.
10. Give it a new shape
You’ll see McCord’s copious use of cookie cutters all across her blog and her Instagram feed. She likes to bring new life to everything from cheese letters, wishing her children a good day, to favorite pop culture cookies, to dinosaurs in sandwich bites, to flower-powered fruit bites. New shapes keep things fun and interesting and get kids excited about lunch—even if it’s the same sandwich you’ve been making every Wednesday for the past three weeks.
11. Mix up the textures
You’ve got the crunchy carrot sticks down—now McCord says to move onto smooth, sticky, juicy. “Different textures inspire the different senses that we have and keeps a kid engaged and curious,” she says. Throw in a little bit of hummus, a new fruit, or even some gummy bears just to get all of your child’s senses engaged an on board with eating their lunch before the bell rings.
12. Pick a theme
You’re out of inspiration, but you have a drawer full of skewers? Make a kabob-themed lunch! Two days into lunches and you’re already bored? Time for Taco Tuesday. Totally stumped? Try breakfast for lunch. Feeling like your kid needs a midweek pick-me-up? Put some smiles on those cheese wheels. Don’t be afraid to get silly! McCord says, “If you want your kid to have fun at lunch, allow yourself a little bit of fun, too.”
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