Help me with DC2’s lunch!

Yes, I know we’ve been making school lunches for one or the other of my kids for the past 9 years.  BUT we have some new challenges this year now that we’re at public elementary school.  Here are the rules for my kindergartener:

  1. No nuts or peanuts (new school is completely nut-free)
  2. No red dye (DC2 gets hives)
  3. No cheese (DC2 hates cheese)  (Also no tomatoes, same reason)
  4. Nothing “spicy” because DC2 has no tolerance for spice (which is bizarre because I lived on Indian food when I was pregnant with hir and everyone else in the family eats plenty of spice, AND so did zie… hir spice tolerance seems to be going down instead of up!).
  5. Things DC2 can open on hir own (this was the big new piece of information for us).  Note that DC2 cannot open any of the individually packaged apple sauces or fruit cups that we bought in great supply in the city the weekend before school started [update: we have successfully pierced foil covered applesauces with a plastic spoon.  Plastic topped and screw topped will have to wait for more hand and arm strength.].
  6. Nothing that needs refrigeration (I am regretting my decision not to purchase the fancy $23 lunchbag we saw at Whole Foods that has a spot for an icepack– I may end up trying to find one at Target, but for now, DC2 really loves hir lunch bag that looks just like DC1’s backpack but doesn’t have any insulation much less space for an ice pack)
  7. Something healthier than just jam sandwiches
  8. Things that take WAY the heck less time to put together at 10pm than what you get when you google “what do I send in my child’s school lunch” or any similar query.  Pinterest is not what we’re looking for.

I do not know if DC2 likes sunflower butter or not.  I will be getting some at the grocery store this weekend.  BUT, even when zie was allowed nut butter zie would only permit one almond butter and jam sandwich per week.  DC2 likes variety.  If I send, say, a mini-salad for too many days in a row, zie refuses salads for weeks.  Generally I can get away with things about once a week.  The one exception is fruit– so I will always be packing fruit, but zie can’t just have fruit.

Extra points for things that we can buy on Saturday but will still be in decent shape by Friday.

We have 3 different kinds of bento boxes (two of which fit in hir lunchbag, one that’s bigger), several small plastic containers, one insulated small metal thermos that sort of fits in the lunch bag (but can’t be heated up), one reusable sandwich bag, one reusable snack-size bag, and all shapes and sizes of ziplocs.  Also I could probably be easily convinced to buy more bento boxes because they’re clever and adorable.  (I also use them for my lunch when I’m not just taking a pyrex of leftovers to reheat.)

Last year, faced with the challenge of making hir own lunches in middle school, DC1 ended up getting hot lunch instead.  That coincided with DC1 getting to be obnoxiously picky about healthy food zie used to eat without complaint at home (something that has subsided a great deal this summer).   Zie has promised us zie won’t eat French fries every single day, although that seems to be an option at the middle school.  Some of the lunch options at the elementary school are healthy, but many are not.  I’m worried about DC2 making unhealthy choices through peer pressure.  If we get too overwhelmed with lunch making and DC2 agrees, we will load up hir lunch account too, but for now we’d like to keep sending healthy food.  If we can just figure out what.

What do your elementary schoolers take?  What did you take as an elementary schooler?  What do you suggest that fits the rules above?


91 Responses to “Help me with DC2’s lunch!”

  1. Zenmoo Says:

    Packing lunch is hard. I have a set of categories and a list of options within each category that lives on the fridge. This means anyone (including DC) can make a balanced lunch. For example categories (options) are:
    sandwich (jam, ham, honey, Vegemite)
    Fruit (apple, banana etc)
    Vegetable (carrot stick, mini cucumbers)
    Protein/dairy: (cheese, boiled egg)
    Treat/2nd carb (crackers, pretzels, slice, cookie)

    We’ve talked about how being healthy means eating a mix of foods and a mix of colours. Obs, DC would just eat honey sandwiches if given a choice. She can add or remove suggestions from the categories but we have always at least one agreed item in each category. It’s at least partly her job to come up with ideas given she’s picky.

    We also jazz up sandwiches with swapping bread for wraps sometimes. Woo, we know to live it up

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If only Americans could stomach vegemite! I like our three and four compartment bentos because they make the job of balancing so much easier.

    • Sarabeth Says:

      This is what we do as well, but we have four categories: Fruit/veg, carb, protein, and treat. Treat is always reasonably healthy, often it’s dried fruit or nuts. Fruit/veg is only eaten maybe 20% of the time, but we keep sending it.

  2. Susan Says:

    We have most of the same constraints :/
    Quesadilla with refried beans and corn
    Sun butter and jam sandwiches
    Bagel with sunbutter
    Cream cheese and jam sandwiches
    Oatmeal in insulated container
    Ravioli with butter

    Black olives
    Sweet potato cubes
    Frozen corn
    Trader Joe’s pea crackers
    Seaweed snack (nori)
    Beans (black, kidney, garbanzo)

  3. gwinne Says:

    Dude. Tough combo! Sunbutter + jelly was LG’s staple for many years (now she won’t touch it). Bagels and cream cheese. Tiny Boy actually will eat cold salmon. What about hummus and chips/pita? Pasta salad? Hearty muffins. Have you checked weelicious website/book? That’s my go-to when I need new ideas. I’ve also done zenmoo’s chart, for LG who makes her own lunch. Need to update it…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hummus is great. Pasta salad too (though as a leftover from the night before). I don’t know if I’ve seen weelicious– most of the online sites have been pretty intimidating!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Dc2 complained bitterly that they couldn’t heat up hir pasta salad today. We told hir we blame hir daycare teachers for microwaving things. When we were kids we got used to eating cold lunch from home. Zie was not impressed.

        (DC1 had pizza and a banana for lunch–zie reported virtuously choosing a banana over fries and then being unable to open the banana.)

  4. sneakers Says:

    One of our daughter’s lunch staples: tortilla with cream cheese and turkey or hummus and turkey . . . And then I cut them into smaller rolls as well.

  5. delagar Says:

    Man, I am just so glad I never have to worry about school lunches ever again.

  6. Kingston Says:

    My elder liked a cut-up turkey frankfurter (health-food store variety) in his lunch. Younger liked popcorn shrimp or fish sticks — not the cheapest or healthiest solution, but it contained protein and he’d eat it! I didn’t find lack of refrigeration to be a problem — they ate lunch pretty early.

  7. Miser Mom Says:

    I suggest getting a subscription to Chop Chop (the non-profit cooking magazine for kids). That really expanded the list of things my kids wanted to eat, and encouraged them to start experimenting themselves. Even now in their teens and 20’s, they thumb through old editions for ideas.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DC1 has done a lot more cooking this summer. Still, zie is a lot pickier than DC2 who will eat pretty much anything except cheese, spicy food, or raw tomatoes. DC1 taking more charge of menu planning and cooking means that zie has been able to avoid more food that zie dislikes.

  8. Omdg Says:

    We just switched to school lunches for this reason. Sooooo excited about it. Things that come to mind include: boiled eggs, cut vegetables (carrots, red peppers), cut fruit, olives, salami. I’m guessing Nutella isn’t allowed, but if it is, there’s another option. Cream cheese sandwiches. Also leftovers. Today couscous with vegetables. There’s also cold pasta (daughter loves it, me… ick).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sadly no Nutella. (Also DC2 dislikes cream cheese.)

      If this gets to be too much of a problem for us we’ll switch to school lunches, but although there are healthy options there are also unhealthy options and DC1 became a lot more picky about not wanting to eat healthy food at home (previously zie was just anti tomato and onion, now zie is anti almost all veggies and anything that looks different) after starting school lunches. If that happens with DC2 then dinner will become impossible.

      • omdg Says:

        Yeah I totally hear you. Our school has a hamburger day and a pizza day every single week. And I strongly suspect the veggies will often not be eaten at all. However, our au pairs have all ended up gravitating to nutella sandwich every single day (despite our protests), and I have my doubts whether that is any healthier. We have gone through a similar eating phase with the veggies. Damn it! And she used to be such a good eater!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        At DC1’s school this year, *every* day of every week is hamburger day and pizza day. (They also have a regular hot lunch line with the same stuff as is available at the elementary school. And a la carte junk food bags. DC1 has promised zie will be good.)

        At the elementary school, DC2 will have the option of say a grilled chicken sandwich but will also have the option of, say, nachos (which zie wouldn’t take because of the cheese sauce, but each day there’s at least one main option that is about as healthy as tortilla chips covered in neon cheese sauce). And apple juice and grape juice count as a fruit (but only once a week!). Glancing through… chicken nuggets, fishsticks, hamburger/cheeseburger, pepperoni pizza, baked potato with shredded cheese and breadstick…. not exactly Michelle Obama-worthy.

        DC2 did really well the year zie was at a preschool that served hot lunch, but the trick was there was no choice there and although they were not local/organic/etc. options, they were reasonably healthy.

  9. Lisa Says:

    I love the lunch suggestions I find at Wendolonia – ignore the cutesy stuff and use the helpful list of lunchbox options! I also loved the way she (used to) shows pictures of the lunches before and after the kids ate them. It helped me panic less about my little one not eating much of the lunches I sent. As they get bigger, not a problem. :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Had not seen that site. There’s soooo much cutesy stuff out there. I suppose if I liked reading novels less that would be something I could do as a hobby. But alas…

      Most of these look pretty reasonable:

      DC2 does like cucumbers. I’ll have to start shopping with veggie sticks in mind now that our CSA is kaput.

  10. chacha1 Says:

    Wow. It was school lunch, or PBJ, or bologna & cheese, for me. And from age 10 or so I was packing it myself. LOL

  11. L.M. Says:

    In our district, school lunches (and breakfasts) are free for all kids, so we let our kids make their own lunches if they’re interested but they generally eat school lunch. I’m not sure it’s super healthy, but when they take lunch to camp during the summer they bring home the healthiest part uneaten half the time anyway. We have varying levels of vegetable tolerance at our house – so our policy is that everybody needs to eat some fruit or vegetable with dinner, but it doesn’t have to be what’s on the table – anything in the house is fine. So two of our kids like frozen peas and green beans. Sometimes they try what I’ve made (one decided she loved grilled eggplant last week – that felt like a big win!), and other times they just eat strawberries/grapes/a banana/etc.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Currently DC2 is good with all vegetables except tomatoes. Life was much easier back when dc1 was too. It is much easier making one pot meals and not having to deal with whining. Even if they get nutrients from a banana and frozen peas.

  12. Ana Says:

    These are the things we rotate through: turkey sandwiches with mayo/mustard, whole wheat tortillas with hummus, grilled chicken (we make a couple breasts on Sunday and chop up for the week) and shredded carrots, quesadillas with refried beans, spinach and chicken (plus/minus cheese), chicken salad in a sandwich or wrap. We add a little container of veggies (raw carrots, peppers, peas, broccoli—depends on the kid) and a fruit plus a salty snack (pretzels/chips/crackers). We pick ONE meal for the week and they both eat that all week for 5 days. We have always done this so they don’t complain. If there is pizza in the hot lunch my 7 year old will not bring a lunch that day.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      How do you keep meat cold?

      • Ana Says:

        I guess its not a big issue for a couple hours indoors in an insulated lunch bag with stuff straight out of the fridge (we make and pack everything 1-2 nights ahead of time and pack it into the lunch bag the night before & leave in fridge until just before leaving for school, which is 5 min away)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We’ve got waiting for the bus outside in the early morning Southern heat, the busride, the not so cold a/c in the classrooms (though the a/c in the hallways is colder), and minimum 3.5 hours between getting on the bus and lunch, maximum 5.5. Exactly the conditions that all those scare tactic articles that keep popping up when I research insulated bags keep warning about.

  13. Allyson Says:

    My best entree idea was hummus, and you have that. The GoGo Squeez applesauce pouches have a wingnut-style cap that my kids could handle long before they could do the circular caps, so that may be an option. Good luck!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Waaah, DC2 can’t open the wingnut style caps! And I just bought more boxes of them after finding out zie couldn’t open the plastic topped containers. We obviously need to do some hand strength exercises. (If DC1 took a lunch, then zie could take them, but I have a feeling they’ll just be taking space in our pantry for quite a while.)

      • teresa Says:

        I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but if you already have them, can you just squeeze the applesauce from the pouch into a reusable container that zie can open? It defeats the purpose of the grab and go pouch but at least they wouldn’t be taking up space anymore…

      • Kelly Says:

        When we were in this stage, we would just crack the seal and the zie could open them by hirself from there.

  14. Debbie M Says:

    I don’t have kids and in elementary I took sandwiches, usually peanut-butter-and-something, and bought milk, so those answers are of no help.

    Food suggestions not already mentioned:
    * hummus (besides plain: with carrot sticks or as hummus-tortilla roll-ups)
    * quiche (with somehow no cheese? or maybe the cheese tastes okay in quiche)
    * devilled eggs or hard-boiled eggs or egg salad sandwiches (you may be able to find pre-boiled and pre-shelled eggs in the grocery store now, stored near the raw eggs in little plastic bags)
    * tuna salad
    * milk or chocolate milk (in a thermos or bought at school)
    * soup (in a thermos)
    * things in pocket bread (can be stored separately to minimize sogginess)
    * yogurt

    Tactical suggestions:
    * Get mini resealable containers (Ziplock and Glad make ones that are stackable and affordable) and use those instead of hard-to-open individual packages. You could fill them up on the weekend. Of course test that they are openable before buying!
    * Since the lunchbox is small, maybe a second, insulated lunchbag or lunchbox that can hold an icepack or bring a thermos separately
    * I wonder if you can split the avocado in half, then put it back together and hold it with a rubber band (I’ve seen apples cut up and then put back together this way)
    * do school some school lunches–have hir pick out one or two healthy versions per week OR allow it any days where all the options are pretty healthy (and fries no more than once per week)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great, suggestions, thanks!

      I’ve been thinking about making and freezing mini-muffin sized mini-quiches (without cheese, but with spinach or broccoli) so I could put them directly from the freezer into the lunch container.

      We have resealable containers. The problem with them is that the glass jar of applesauce in the fridge tends to go bad before it gets used up. :( Maybe we could try putting them in the containers and then freezing them… *ponders*

  15. Linda Says:

    Can you not fit an ice pack into the lunch bag at all? Something like these are pretty flexible, don’t leak, and shouldn’t leave everything wet inside the bag: If you’re worried about the wetness factor, seal it inside a zip bag first.

    We used to take brown bag lunches to elementary school because there was no lunch program (it was a small Catholic school) and I don’t recall having access to refrigeration at school. (It was a very long time ago.) I remember bringing baloney and salami sandwiches mostly, plus chips and a Little Debbie treat if we had it. Those weren’t the healthiest lunches, but it was what we had to work with.

    These are the kinds of things that I pack for hikes and times when I’m not able to get decent refrigeration but need food:
    * Hard cooked eggs
    * Fried egg sandwich
    * Bacon sandwich
    * Canned tuna salad made without mayo (olive oil, lemon juice, chopped herbs), plus bread or crackers
    * Salami or cured meats like ham, plus bread or crackers
    * Bean salad (vinaigrette dressing plus steamed green beans, or a mix of canned beans like garbanzos, kidney beans, etc.)
    * Hummus and veggies, crackers, or crispbread
    * whole fruit

    If ze eats yogurt, that can be OK with limited to no refrigeration for several hours. And any salad dressing that is essentially vinegar and oil based (like a vinaigrette) does fine without refrigeration for hours, too.

    Maybe adding a salad that has a slice or two of ham or salami, or some cooked, crumbled bacon or hard cooked egg + greens + chopped veg would work once a week? Or just add a green salad with some canned beans + chopped veg. If you’re worried about ze being able to open a container with the salad dressing, use kale or cabbage as a base of greens and toss the salad with dressing advance. Those greens hold up really well (and are improved!) with being dressed in advance, unlike lettuces.

    You may want to look into vegan protein options, too, such as seasoned, cooked tempeh or tofu since protein seems to be the trickiest thing to tackle without refrigeration.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We can fit an ice back depending on what else we put in, but we would have to buy a new lunch bag to enure that the ice pack actually touched a predictable part of the bag. DC2 is stoked right now to have a lunch bag that looks like DC1’s backpack, and it doesn’t have a separate compartment for an ice pack. Once the novelty wears off we might be able to get a new lunch bag. Maybe at Christmas.

      The only milk product DC2 likes is ice cream. Zie will eat cereal with milk, but will not finish the milk, only the cereal. Occasionally zie will eat pizza with cheese, but it has to be hot and melted and sometimes zie will pick off the cheese. If I weren’t there at the birth I’d seriously be wondering.

      • Linda Says:

        I forgot about lentil salad! The way I make it is basically with cooked lentils, diced celery and carrot, and some homemade vinaigrette dressing. Pack a pita into the lunch bag, and it’s a tasty and healthy meal. If you make some at the beginning of the week it should last until Friday. I saw this recipe for what is essentially a lentil hummus and it reminded me of lentil salad.,,10000002002216,00.html

        Now I have to try to cook some lentils in the microwave. We have a heat advisory today and a week with temps in the 90s and 100s so there will be very little stove top or oven cooking around these parts this week.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Could you duct-tape a piece of fabric to one side in order to create an ice bag pocket?

  16. K Says:

    Send frozen peas without thawing them first; they’ll keep the food cold and be thawed enough to eat by lunchtime. Or freeze the sandwich bread (or bagel), make the sandwich in the morning, and the frozen bread/bagel will keep the sandwich fillings cold but will thaw enough to eat by lunchtime.

    • K Says:

      Or freeze the juice box, if you pack juice boxes.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Peas defrost pretty quickly (speaking from experience). It is also very humid so anything frozen attracts condensation… I suspect a frozen sandwich will become a soggy mess by the time it thaws. The south is not friendly.

        We don’t have enough time to do anything in the morning–DC2 has to be out at the bus stop at 6:59am.

      • Rosa Says:

        do you have tiny tupperwares the kid can open? We had this weird set of one inch square containers someone gave us but my kid couldn’t pry them open without spilling them :(

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I suppose we should double check.

  17. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    For any of our SE TX readers:

    Basically, on Sept 1st a new law goes into effect that makes it much more difficult for people in Texas to get compensation from weather-related catastrophes *including hurricanes* from their insurance companies. So if your roof is leaking, get that claim in before Friday.

  18. Solitary Diner Says:

    When I was in medical school, I would make an entire loaf of baloney and cheese sandwiches and freeze them for later use. They would defrost nicely by lunch, and I never had issues with condensation/sogginess, but that might be different in a hotter/humider climate. I also found that a frozen drink box worked well as a kid, but again the humidity might be disastrous.

    Chunks of hard salami? Crackers? Individual cans of seasoned tuna? Mini meatloaves that you store in the freezer and then allow to defrost in the morning? (I used to love this recipe:

  19. Alyssa Says:

    I hate packing lunches, but would rather do that than pay for the hot lunches available. Just this week, my older son came up with the idea of rice and chicken. So, I’ll do a big pot of rice, bake up some chicken and chop it up, I’ll just keep it in a big container and put smaller servings in smaller Tupperware throughout the week.

  20. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I wasn’t allowed an opinion on my lunches in elementary school. It was a butter and sugar sandwich, plus a pork and soy sauce sandwich, plus an apple, and cold water. We got reduced lunches for some time, but not other times, so I ate that right up through middle school, and then I was allowed to buy lunch at $2 per day if I didn’t pack anything. It was usually a fully loaded baked potato for $1.50.

    JuggerBaby gets a sunbutter sandwich weekly, and most other days gets dinner leftovers or a quesadilla plus whatever fruit I’d picked up for zir (grapes, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, oranges, apples) on the side. I’m going to miss summer fruit and berries. I suspect ze will be having an opinion about those lunches sooner than I’d like but I guess that’s the byproduct of not being poor.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Not being poor is nice!

      Kids used to make fun of the European-style lunches my dad would send with me. They couldn’t understand a roll (I liked onion rolls best) and a hunk of cheese and a piece of fruit.

    • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

      Oh and to be helpful…the disallowance of PB always stumps me a little bit but some thoughts:

      1. Cold(ish) sandwiches: ham/chicken/turkey/pork and lettuce sandwiches. Lack of tomato and cheese seems sad but if that’s what DC2 prefers! I personally loved onions (especially well carmelized sliced onions) but I’m assuming that’s not to hir taste.
      2. Varying the bread seems to help: ciabatta rolls, pitas, thin bagels.
      3. For the colder weather, containers of soup and rolls to dip in, if you can send a hot thermos?
      4. Cold pastas with roasted veggies
      5. I’m discovering the world of chickpeas which could be made into a substantial meal
      6. Breakfast burritos keep well for JB: scrambled eggs, melted cheese (if acceptable in this situation), sausage, potatoes.

  21. Rosa Says:

    I hate disposable plastic things but school lunch has defeated me. Freezing yogurt tubes and packing a drink with ice in it can help keep the rest of the lunch cold – the yogurt tubes taste good if they are still frozen at lunch time.

    My kid likes onigiri with dried tuna flakes and I have a little press for making it in heart and panda shapes (which he now refuses because it’s babyish, but it meant I could make them ahead and stick them in the box morning of.) Roasted salted soybeans, too.

    But truthfully, 8 years into this, I’ve just let him mostly eat junky lunch because it has to be nut free, easy to eat fast (or he just doesn’t eat), not require silverware, and edible at room temperature. So today’s lunch was meat jerky, grapes, baby carrots, and Pirate Booty.

    • Rosa Says:

      oh and dried fruit solves the turning brown problem AND the “i forgot my bento box at school for 3 days now it’s gross” problem. Raisins, craisins, dried apples, dried mango.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #2 said I should send jerky

    • Rosa Says:

      jerky has been our staple for like six years now. And seriously, those baby carrots that they wash in bleach are just about shelf stable.

      I wish I could convince him to eat school lunch. This year, it’s free for everyone! And they got a bigger lunch room so they get 10 more minutes of lunch/recess every day! But the free for everyone has apparently made the lunch line twice as long.

  22. Rosa Says:

    For the container opening – there’s no lunch aide to help the kindergarteners?

    When mine was in kindergarten his dad went in and sat at breakfast with him every morning and spent the entire time opening things for kids. All the kids in my kid’s grade know him from that. But at lunch an aide helped the littlest kids with stuff.

  23. Anne M Says:

    Child gets a box of shelf-stable (UHT pasteurized) milk in the lunch bag, chilled for flavor, although it helps keep the sunbutter sandwich cooler. Sunbutters can vary a lot, we get a fairly smooth one that is lightly sweetened. A fruit-ish choice for really busy days is one of those cereal bars with fruit paste filling,

  24. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    I know you already have probably a million bento boxes gut the Rubbermaid lunchblox ones have these snap on ice packs that you can snap one to the top and one to the bottom of the the sandwich container. We also have southern heat and no refrig; my kids have the Pottery Barn medium sized insulated (rigid) lunch boxes and their food stays cold for a solid 6 hours. YMMV, of course.

  25. Leah Says:

    Is a thermos an option? My mom used to send me with hot oatmeal, a hotdog in hot water (would be warm enough by lunch), or spaghettios for lunch.

  26. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Today DC1 informed me that hir hot lunch was 2 breadsticks and a banana (still choosing banana instead of fries, so yay?) and DC2 declared that zie wanted me to stop sending things that zie believes should be heated up and refuses to eat cold. (Daycare teachers, why did you feel the need to heat up things like beans or pasta salad?)

  27. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Updates: zie is not a fan of sunflower butter sandwiches and zie does not like salami. Also if we put in too many containers with separate lids zie doesn’t have time to finish lunch.

    Dc1 is still choosing banana over fries but has gravitated to only getting plain cheeseburgers (available daily) for the meal. Sigh.

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