Back Porch Table

Lunch ideas

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Harrison Po

WHAT A LUNCH Harrison Po, 3, is lucky to have a creative lunch-making mom (Grace), who prepares tempting plates of sous vide steak, oven fries, steamed broccoli, berries, edamame crisps and chocolate caramel pretzels.

Buzz Baby is a column about life with little ones. Writer Annie McQueen has three children under the age of 4.

With school back in session, so are lunches for babies and toddlers in daycare or preschool. Are you at a dead end on creative and healthy ideas? I hear parents say it seems as if they pack the same thing over and over again.

I have struggled with this myself, having three small children. I have learned that (and this might be obvious to others) on the mornings that their neatly packed lunches have spent the night before in the refrigerator, the morning is calmer. If I pack their lunches the night before, I can take my time, get creative with new ideas and even write a note to put inside.

On the mornings I wait to pack their lunches (and have fibbed to myself the night before that I’ll wake up “extra early”– even before the kids – to get their school bags ready), I am scrambling. We are late, and it’s generally more stressful.

My favorite lunch items are applesauce pouches, quesadillas, chicken salad with crackers, pasta with butter, cut-up strawberries and sandwiches made from peanut-free SunButter and honey cut into shapes. I ordered some cute sandwich cutters on Amazon in the shape of dolphins, trains, stars and hearts. It makes a mundane PB&J a little more fun.

Other Buzz parents are happy to share their favorite go-to lunch items.

Leah Schmalz, an executive assistant for an oil and gas company, has two kids, June, 2, and Teague, 8 months. She says that she “definitely” likes to pack their lunches the night before.

“Between my ravenous toddler and balancing nursing my growing boy – while practicing baby-led weaning – I think all I do is go to the grocery store, breastfeed, pack lunches and feed my kids. It’s my real full-time job,” she said, laughing.

Leah packs her kids’ lunches in a Yumbox, a reusable and washable bento-box container with compartments. She often packs sliced turkey, wheat thins and cracker-sized cheddar (that she finds at Trader Joe’s), along with fruits like raspberries, blueberries, sliced strawberries, grapes, and cubed watermelon.

She also likes to pack guacamole, hummus, applesauce, yogurt, cheese sticks, Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, pretzel sticks, kale bites, chicken salad, mini pancakes, dry cereal, sandwich triangles and cucumber and ranch. Leah says she receives feedback from her kids’ teachers, which helps. “Sometimes their teacher will tell me they didn’t like something I packed.”

Teague is still a baby, so she packs him an age-appropriate lunch. “Teague gets a combo of bottles of pumped breastmilk and also three of either mashed bananas, mashed avocado, mashed sweet potato, yogurt, puffs, apple-sauce pouches and spinach kale bites,” says Leah.

Grace Po, a retail manager and mother of two (Harrison, 3, and Eleanor, 6 months) packs Harrison’s lunch the night before school. Grace and her husband Justin use a PlanetBox, a divided, stainless-steel lunchbox (with an Instagram feed full of photos of beautiful lunches, if you need inspiration). “I like the bento-style that makes packing lunch less of a chore,” says Grace. “I love seeing how colorful everything is when we're done packing lunch, and it's easy to make sure there is always a serving of fruit and veggies.”

Eleanor is still just 6 months old, so she doesn’t get any solids packed. “She is in daycare, and she just takes pumped breastmilk at the moment. She is a few days shy of 6 months, so we are about to start making some purées though,” says Grace.

Grace prepared her own baby food for Harrison and plans to for Eleanor’s school lunches too. “I have more control of the texture and the ratio of veggies to fruit,” she says. “When [Harrison] was ready for solids, we steamed or cooked down fruits and veggies and used a stick blender and blended until smooth. No need for a special baby food maker.”

Other parents like to pack cubed cheese and cubed turkey, which you can request to be sliced at the deli counter. Since delis use large slicers with adjustable settings, they can cut products as thin or as thick as you’d like. A good number is 5.

Another tip I have heard is, if you’re preparing lunch for your toddler the night before, prepare a larger portion for yourself if you’re on-the-go during the day, too.

One parent says she just packs her toddler’s lunch with leftovers from dinner the night before. This mom’s take on that idea: genius.

For more back-to-school meal inspiration, see What's For Dinner? School-night suppers by Jennifer Oakley.

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