Working Moms and Kids’ Lunches


2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on working moms and kids lunches — but you may also want to check out our more recent discussion on easy school lunch ideas.

Whether you’re packing a daycare lunch, a school lunch, or your own lunch in the post-baby-budget world, having kids introduces many of us to a new competitive sport: lunches. I kid — but only a bit. It seems like there’s suddenly pressure to pack the healthiest, non-chokiest, variety-filled, visually appealing lunch box — with as little waste as possible, of COURSE. How much do you feel the pressure (am I alone here, ladies?), how do you save time, and what are your favorite products for lunch boxes (either in terms of foods or packing supplies), and your favorite sources for finding out about new products and foods?

For my $.02, we loved the Thinkbaby bento boxes when we were packing Jack’s daycare boxes. I bought a ton of silicone cupcake liners, which I liked at the time because they were colorful, durable, dishwasher safe, and microwave safe — I could nuke the frozen peas, carrots, or broccoli in the little cup, drain it, and pack it. We packed a TON of sliced grilled cheese sandwiches for poor Jack at the time — I suspect we overdid it because he doesn’t eat them at all anymore. I bought a few proper bento supplies from All Things for Sale (inspired by this post on HelloBee), but to be honest rarely use them. I try to only go grocery shopping once every ten days or so, so frozen veggies and dried fruits have always been key for us!  (I’ll be honest, he also eats a ton of Annie’s bunny snacks, granola bars, and so forth.) Beyond purchasing the supplies, I’ve usually outsourced most of the actual making of the lunches to my husband.

In terms of ideas for new prepackaged foods, I like Nutrition Action Health Letter, SELF’s Healthy Food Awards, and The Soft Landing for thoughts on babysafe food products.

Ladies, what are your thoughts — how do you balance the desire to pack the “perfect” lunch with the time/energy required for making it? What supplies or packaged foods are your favorite? Any great tips to share (for keeping things hot, cold, or the like)?

Pictured: Amazing, gorgeous bento box (“20080530 :: bento diary :: tatooine) originally uploaded to Flickr by vingt_deux.


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  1. anne-on says:

    I generally try to keep it to a routine for my son – morning snack is either cereal + freeze dried fruit, homemade muffin/quick bread, or a cereal bar. Lunch is some sort of meat (meatball, grilled chicken, deli meat roll-ups, sliced pork loin, sliced steak) with either whole wheat bread and/or crackers, plus fruit or veggies (applesauce, pear sauce, carrots, etc.). Afternoon snack is pretzels/goldfish/graham crackers/etc. My son is allergic to unbaked dairy, and school is nut free, so peanut butter sandwiches and/or cheese are out. I totally envy the parents who have kids old enough for real sandwiches – one day!

  2. Nonny says:

    I’ve shared this before but given that this is a dedicated thread, will repeat my formula.

    I use Rubbermaid Lunch Blox. At the moment my daughter (15 months) takes one 1.2 cup container, three 1/2 cup containers, and two 1/4 cup containers each day, plus two bottles of milk (which we are now transitioning to sippy cups). I pack her lunch every night as follows:

    – 1.2 cup container – fruit (usually an entire banana or an entire orange, cut up)
    – 3 1/2 cup containers – one protein, one veggie, one carb (usually some sort of flatbread)
    – 2 1/4 cup containers – one cheese, one fruit or veggie.

    At some point fairly soon (maybe around the time she stops taking milk to daycare) we might start transitioning to a sandwich or other entree-type meal, but at the moment she has little interest in sandwiches.

    I find this formula works really well and requires little brain power on my part, especially at the end of the day when I’m putting the lunch together and don’t have much energy left to be creative. Plus, when I go grocery shopping each weekend, I know what I need to buy for lunches for the week.

    • Lyssa says:

      That sounds like it could be a good system for a grown-up lunch, too! What kinds of veggies and proteins do you usually pack?

      • Nonny says:

        Veggies – often leftover veggies from the night before – so steamed broccoli, asparagus, carrots, peas, corn, yams (her favourite). Recently she has really gotten into eating raw orange and yellow peppers so now I am sending those too.

        Protein – a bit more difficult as she isn’t really into things like hummus or lentils at this point. Typically I buy pre-cooked turkey breast, ham, sliced roast beef, etc., or give her leftovers from the night before. If I am really at a loss, I scramble or hard boil an egg and send that. The only thing I don’t send is leftover fish – while she loves fresh salmon and other fish for dinner, she doesn’t seem to like eating it the next day.

    • I saw your comment on this before and wondered – how do you deal with all the washing? I can’t imagine dealing with SIX little plastic containers every single day.

  3. mascot says:

    Lunch is included during the school year (yay!) but we are going to have to pack it everyday this summer for camp. Interested in seeing peoples strategies.

  4. Meg Murry says:

    I didn’t know I lucked out at the time – but if you have the choice between a daycare that will serve your kids meals and one you have to pack them – go with the one that provides food if you can at all afford it! My kids are amazing eaters, and I think a huge part of it is due to the lack of catering to picky eating and the peer pressure of seeing other kids eat the food -although part of it also could just be dumb luck and the fact that their father also was never a picky eater.

    Now that my older son is in elementary school and we have to pack his lunch, and I’m a job with no easy nearby food its a lot more difficult, and we rely on PB&J more than I care to admit. We’ve played around with the Pinterest idea of having different bins in the pantry and fridge for different food groups and telling him to pick one from each bin and put it in his lunchbox himself – which works ok when I have time to restock them, not so well when all that’s left is old oranges and sad baby carrots.

    • +1. If you have the choice, go with a daycare that provides meals. Our daycare subscribes to a city-wide daycare catering service (this is in Boston), and they circulate a menu every month with all the meals. Some are simple, like breaded chicken sandwiches, and others are more elaborate (Cajun, Asian, Mexican days, etc.). It’s amazing. And DS gobbles up everything — I think the peer pressure really works.

    • Agreeing with this too. If you can find a daycare/preschool that provides lunch, you can avoid the packing and washing, and as a plus, yes, the peer pressure often gets kids to try new foods too. My oldest now buys school lunch daily. Unfortunately, kid #2’s preschool doesn’t provide lunch, so I pack, but try to keep it simple. If he were older and wanted to bring lunch, I’d be teaching him to pack it.

  5. Stephanie says:

    My LO isn’t old enough to need to have a lunch packed for him yet, but I’ve been looking at food52 and Amanda Hesser’s kids’ lunches with awe (and intimidation).

  6. Angela says:

    My kids get breakfast, lunch, and snack provided by daycare at no extra cost. The whole facility qualifies for the school lunch program because most of the kids receive some sort of assistance. The daycare is part of a local community college and most of the parents are enrolled in said school. I think we are the only family in my daughters class that pays full rate out of pocket.

    Although the meals are often NOT what I would feed my kid (pop tarts and corn dogs) they have been getting better over the years. They used to get pop tarts on a weekly basis and now it’s only once or twice a month.

    For my five month old I will do what I did for his older sister and pack baby food for him and then pack “first foods” for him until he’s about 1 1/2. Because the school qualifies for the free lunch program you have to have a doctors note to pack their lunch and their lunch must comply with federal/state guidelines.
    If your packed food didn’t comply they filled it in with their food anyway. Packing became a huge hassle when my daughter got older so it was no longer worth it. Plus she was the only kid that did it.

    Right now we could get free baby food during the day for him but I choose to provide my own (organic or homemade). Also if we used formula we would get that for free as well.

  7. Momata says:

    My kid is 16 months old. I send breakfast and lunch, and daycare provides snacks. I’ve interpreted this to mean that I should send sufficient proteins, fruits, and vegetables, and they provide the carb-y snacky goodness.

    I prepare and package all of her food on Sunday evening. I use the OXO Tot Baby Block containers, which come with a little tray so I can group like items (all the week’s strawberries, for example) together. Then when I pack her lunch the night before I just take out all the stacked-up trays and grab one container from each tray. I send 2 proteins, 2 fruits, and 2 vegetables. Prep takes me about an hour. I will often make breakfast and lunch for myself with what I prepare for the kid – cut up fruit for my own oatmeal, or vegetables for my own quinoa salad. I have never had a problem with anything going bad stored in these little containers by Friday. So yes, she eats the same thing every day for a week, but I mix it up the next week and she usually eats what we eat for dinner.

    Proteins include 2 sliced hardboiled eggs, plain Greek yogurt (I have a really hard time with the sugar content of flavored or “baby” yogurt), cottage cheese, cut up cooked hot dogs/turkey or chicken sausage, chicken nuggets (these I take out of the freezer the morning of), mini cheese ravioli with ground beef and tomato sauce, cut up meatballs, etc. I try to do one meat and one egg or dairy.

    Fruit: all the usual suspects (berries, cut up melon, cut up kiwi, clementines).

    Vegetables: cut up roasted butternut squash, steamed broccoli with cheddar cheese, sliced beets (Costco sells them cooked and in little baggies), sauteed carrots, sauteed red peppers, peas, corn. I will often send a vegetable she’s never had before to daycare because I think she eats better there, in the group/more distracted setting, than she does at home.

    • Nonny says:

      Your comment about your daughter eating better at daycare than at home is interesting because I’ve found the same thing. My daughter usually gobbles up anything and everything we send in her lunch, even if it isn’t something she typically finishes at home. For instance, I can’t get her to eat a hard-boiled egg at home (though she loves scrambled), but if I send one in her lunch she eats all of it.

      • Meg Murry says:

        Do you think she actually eats it though, or just winds up mushing it around/wearing it and they throw it out?

        • Nonny says:

          Well, normally they send home whatever she hasn’t eaten (even her banana peels come home), so I think that on the whole, she usually eats it.

          • Meg Murry says:

            Oh, ok. I’m just asking because I thought my older son was eating his whole lunch, and then around halfway through the year he told me “no, I never eat the banana, they told me to throw away all the food I don’t eat”. Thanks kid, glad we were throwing away all those bananas!

        • Momata says:

          I am told that my kid eats everything I send.

  8. Her Royal Highness says:

    My daughter is 23 months. For almost a year this has been our strategy. We have 3 Laptop lunch boxes (with extra accessories to make washing easier). We pack 3 lunches on Sunday night and 2 on Wednesday night – this eliminates the having to do it every day factor, and saves a lot of time by doing it in bulk. She generally gets the same thing, or riffs on a theme, for the first three days, and then another theme for the second two. The laptop lunch box makes it easy to see what she is eating.

    My general strategy is main course plus a veggie side dish for lunch, and fruit for one snack and something else for another snack – sometimes a mini muffin and raisins, or more fruit, or whatever we have on hand. She often gets leftovers that can be eaten cold for a main course – pasta or beans and rice, or a sandwich (which I have to cut into bite sized pieces to get her to eat…we are vegan, so usually her sandwiches are humus or sunflower butter since her school is nut free). Because her meals are relatively small, this is an easy way to use up the last bits of things from the fridge – a couple of grapes or a strawberry or two that would otherwise go to waste because it isn’t enough food for an adult is easy to stick in her lunch box.

    My husband made fun of the lunch boxes when I bought them, but recently admitted that he really likes using them because they make packing lunch so much easier. They are visually appealing because they are colorful (the inserts come in all different sizes) and display the food in a nice way. I have colorful silicone cupcake liners that I use to separate things sometimes, and they are pretty too.

  9. M in LA says:

    My fantastic hubby does most of the lunch makings for our 4 year old. We do a fair amount of cooking and so send her with dinner leftovers – leftover stir-fry, leftover meatballs, leftover pasta – whatever we had that week. We make enough dinner to plan for 1-2 additional lunches. Then we add a container of fruit (either fresh or frozen – she loves to eat frozen berries or frozen mango from TJs) and a container of veggies (usually just a handful from a frozen veggie bag, microwaved). She also loves Trader Joe’s frozen dumplings, potstickers, etc., if we are out of ideas. The daycare provides a morning snack and afternoon snack, which are always healthy (fruit + cottage cheese, ham roll-ups, oatmeal, etc.), so that’s awesome.

    There is an option for hot lunch at daycare, but it comes out to just over $5/day – which seems a lot for a scoop of pasta, grilled chicken breast, or cheese quesadilla. But if she ever gets tired of lunch from home, we would happily switch. Again, our daycare does great with healthy options.

  10. The boys have been eating tunafish sandwiches this week because I screwed up ordering the groceries. My lovely au pair happily makes these even though I know she hates tuna (sorry!). They also get a fair amount of pb&j — although I do the bourgie thing and make them with whole wheat bread, natural peanut butter, and no-sugar jam. I’m teaching the au pair to make proper American grilled cheese sandwiches, which she’s pretty happy to learn because they are delicious! and she wants to be able to make them for herself, too. I keep threatening to introduce the boys to fluffernutters, but my husband claims they have no nutritional value (and they don’t but they are culturally so important to us New Englanders!). I’m thinking when we visit my family in Boston this summer, they might have to have a taste (along with the lobster legs I plan to feed them). We also do a lot of this and that. Chopped left over chicken, chopped cooked veggies, cut up fruit, some bread. Kind of whatever’s available and easy for the kids to eat.

  11. Burgher says:

    We use easy lunch boxes a lot. They are basically a tupperware for homemade lunchables. Our toddler loves them & we can’t even pack his lunch with him seeing the container because he will freak out and scream for “my lunch my lunch!” I try to put one item of each food group into it or as close as I can get with what I have on hand. For example, cheese and crackers, strawberries, carrots and celery and hummus. When my husband does lunch, the poor kid ends up with chicken nuggets or an uncrustable PBJ and a piece of fruit and/or a go gurt. I made myself stop caring, because the kid isn’t starving and working full time with 2 kids, you just cannot do it all!

  12. We all eat the same thing almost almond butter and jelly sandwich, yogurt, and a side of fruit. We’ll occasionally do leftovers, too (for them, almost never for me).

  13. EB0220 says:

    I thank my husband every day for vetoing any daycare that doesn’t provide lunch. Back when I did have to pack lunch, it was pretty much chicken, black beans, rice, guacamole and fruit.

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