An Ode to Packing Lunches

Healthy do-able ideas to make lunches easier.

With three kids grown (or well on their way), I’ve packed lunches on average four times per week (not a superhero) for nine months each school year (X 36 weeks) X 12 school years per kid. That’s 1,728 lunches multiplied by three kids for a grand total of 5,184 packed lunches!

That’s a lot of lunch packing. Just for the kids, not even including myself (the whole selfless mother…it’s a thing. UGH!) Periodically, my kids or husband would help, but still, I’ve packed a lot of lunch in my day.

Frankly, it’s tough to be thoughtful, loving and prepared every day for that long. Over time, it became formulaic for me. Hopefully, I can help with some creative, yet easy do-able ideas to make lunches a snap for you. In the end, you’re looking for yummy, easy enough and replicate-able.

Here’s the formula:

  • 1 main protein-rich something
  • 1 fruit
  • 1 veg (maybe with a dip)
  • 1 other item

Protein-Rich Something

Any favorite sandwich will do. The fancier, the better. Try to mix up the breads (bread, rolls, mostly dark and grainy is best).

  • Mix up the proteins. Turkey, ham, leftover chicken breast, egg salad, tuna salad or chicken salad, hummus, smoked salmon, leftover egg frittata.
  • Add a layer of veggies. At the very least add lettuce and tomato to the turkey or ham, but really, the more variety the better. Sliced cucumbers, red peppers, pepperoncini slices or radishes are delicious on a sandwich.
  • Add some cheese if you can tolerate dairy.
  • Mix up the spread: mayo is fine, but some kids don’t like it, so try Dijon mustard, tapenade (a nice salty addition), guacamole (so creamy), or a simple oil and vinegar is nice.

Eventually, you have to move past sandwiches. Some protein-rich ideas:

  • Egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad with grain or nut crackers
  • Hard boiled eggs, sliced or not
  • Jerky (it counts)
  • Cheese (again, only if tolerated) and crackers
  • Good quality deli roll-ups: Turkey, red peppers, asparagus spears, avocado slices; ham and cheese; roast beef and pickles with grainy mustard; deli meat with cheese and apple slices; deli meat wrapped in butter lettuce leaves

Fruit

Sweet, welcoming, reliable. Any fruit will do, one serving, keep the variety of the season, which is normally cheapest at the grocery store. Use organic as you can, but definitely with berries. Starting soon, I’ll rely on the bags of organic apples and pears, which are normally small enough for one serving. The large not organic honey crisps are two+ servings. Fruit anchors lunch. Nothing fancy, but always there.

Faves include:

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • All the berries
  • Cut up melon (cantaloupe is SO good right now)
  • Banana (for smaller people, ½ banana is plenty)
  • Citrus: cuties, oranges, ½ grapefruit

If you’re feeling like an over achiever, you can add a dip to the fruit part of lunch. Here’s a good dip. Thanks to Danielle Walker for this recipe:

Whipped Cream

Basic OR Fruity OR Chocolate

1 cup cashew, raw

1 ½ cups full-fat coconut milk

1/3 cup melted coconut oil

1 ounce (3 tbsp) raw cacao butter, melted (found this at Sprouts)

¼ cup maple syrup

Optional: 1 cup mashed raspberries (or strawberries) OR 2 tbsp cocoa powder

½ tsp vanilla

Pinch of salt

Put cashews in a bowl and cover them with water. Let soak for at least two hours, up to four. Drain cashews and transfer to a blender. Add coconut milk, oil, butter, maple syrup, vanilla and salt. If you are using fruit or chocolate, add it here. Blend until smooth. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Then using a stand-up mixer (or hand mixer), beat the cream until it hold holds its peaks.

Veggie

Might be a bit of a harder sell for kids, but not as they get older and more conditioned to eating raw veggies. Especially if you add a dip (hummus, guac, Bitchin’ sauce, even ranch dip.

Faves include:

  • Snap peas
  • Green beans
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumber slices
  • Halved mini peppers
  • Jicama sticks with salt and lime spritz

 

Herb Ranch Dressing

Danielle Walker’s Celebrations

1 cup mayo

½ cup full fat coconut milk

¼ cu fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tbsp fresh chives, chopped

2 tbsp fresh dill, chopped (may sub 1 tsp dried)

4 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ tsp onion powder

½ tsp sea salt

Mix all ingredients together and serve.

 

Roasted Red Pepper and Almond Dip

One of Robin’s favorites, quick & easy

1 jar of roasted red pepper with juice

1/2 cup of sliced almonds

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

sea salt and pepper to taste

Blend in blender or food processor until desired consistency. Fully smooth is nice, sometimes a bit chunky, like tapenade is nice too. Another alteration is to add 1/4 cup of feta cheese and omit almonds and balsamic. This is creamier…if you can tolerate dairy and like that taste.

 

White Bean Dip

Another Hutchinson Family Favorite

1 jar of small white navy beans, drained and rinsed

1 scallion, chopped

1 tbsp oregano

1 small garlic clove (or 1/2 garlic clove, depending on how much you like. Leave out, if you don’t like it at all)

1/2 cup olive oil

sea salt and pepper

Blend in blender until nice and smooth.

Other

One more thing to bring the whole lunch together! This is the pizzazz or unexpected part that will delight. This could be simple, could be store bought or homemade. Ideas:

Old-Fashioned Popcorn

Made the old-fashioned grandma way—in a big pot with avocado oil and loose kernels, serve with melted butter and a little salt. Always good.

 

Cocoa Popcorn

10 cups plain unsalted popped popcorn

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tablespoons melted butter

Place popcorn in a large bowl. Combine sugar and cocoa powder. Drizzle melted butter over popcorn, tossing to combine. Sprinkle with cocoa mixture, and toss.

 

Maple Spiced Almonds

Modified from Clean Food

1 tbsp coconut oil

3 tbsp maple syrup

2 tbsp pumpkin pie spice

3 dashes of cayenne

3 cups whole almonds

Preheat oven to 350F. In a large bowl combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Spread out on a single layer of parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Bake until nuts start to brown ~25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely. Break nuts apart and store in airtight container.

 

Coconut Cranberry Pecan Balls

From Clean Food

¼ cup shredded dried unsweetened coconut

1 ½ cups toasted pecans

1 cup dried cranberries

½ cup almond butter

½ cup maple syrup

Place coconut in small bowl and set aside. In food processor, combine remaining ingredients and process to form a stiff paste or meal. Form into tablespoon size balls and roll in coconut to coat. Serve immediately or store in airtight container for up to 4 days. Makes 12-15 balls.

 

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Modified from Jessica Seinfeld, Deceptively Delicious

An oldy but a great addition because it’s protein rich and delicious.

3/4 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup butter

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas, drained and rinsed and pureed

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

2 cups whole wheat flour (or GF flour)

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350F. In a large mixing bowl, mix butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Next add pureed chickpeas and chocolate chips. Finally stir in flour, rolled oats, baking soda and salt. Drop the dough by rounded tablespoonfuls. Bake 11-13 minutes.

 

Crunchy Granola Goodness Recipe

Modified from Cooks Illustrated

3 cups of old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup walnuts, chopped coarsely

½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut, optional

½ cup slivered almonds

¼ cup sesame seeds

¼ cup sunflower seeds

1/3 cup coconut oil

¼ cup maple syrup

¼ cup honey

½ cup craisins

Heat oven to 325F. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Stir thoroughly. Put mixture on parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes.

 

Chocolate & Orange Chia Pudding

From Amelia Freer

2 tbsp chia seeds

Juice and grated zest of 2 oranges

1 cup milk of choice (I used hazelnut here)

½ tsp vanilla

1 tsp ground cinnamon

2 tbsp raw cacao powder

Pour the chia seeds into a container with a lid then pour the orange juice and hazelnut milk (or milk of choice) over and stir. Add the vanilla and cinnamon. Cover with a lid, shake well and leave for 30 minutes. Spoon the mixture into serving glasses, bowls or cups, then grate the orange zest over the top and finish with a sprinkling of cacao.

 

Coconut “Gorp”

Combine banana chips, raisins or craisins, coconut flakes, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. That’s it. Delicious.

 

Chocolate Tahini Truffles

From Mediterranean Paleo 

2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, roughly chopped (100% cocoa)

1/4 cup coconut butter

2 tbsp tahini

2 tbsp honey

1/2 cup shredded coconut or 1 tbsp slivered almonds

Prep double boiler with water over medium heat. Melt the chocolate. Add the coconut butter, tahini, coconut milk & honey into the chocolate. Remove from heat and let sit in fridge for an hour. Ball the chocolate mixture into 1-inch balls and roll them in coconut or chopped almonds.

Important Lunch Success Notes

The key to successful lunches is to have several different sets of packable containers in the house, ready to use. If you only have one set, you’ll be great for Monday, but ill-equipped for the rest of the week. MUST have 2-3 sets on rotation so that one is always clean.

Rotation is key so that lunches are interesting, but not brain-numbing. Keeping proteins, fruits, veg and pizazz on rotation, every four weeks-ish, keeps things moving and interesting.

Savor the joys of packing and bon appetit!

For more recipes, inspiration and ideas, visit healthynestnutrition.com/blog.

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Beginning July 2021, Robin is happy to meet in person again if you're comfortable and vaccinated. Virtual meetings via Zoom are still an option if you prefer. Please let us know your preference when scheduling your session.

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