So many people have commented to me over the years about the way I pre-make a week’s worth of lunches for my family.
Everyone seems to be in one of 2 camps:
A) Why does she do that?! or,
B) How does she do that?!
The fact is, the why came about just like any other hack I have for my crazy-ass life. My life is crazy! I work FT, I have kids and a life and sports and social activities and besides, I really, really, really like sleeping in.
When that’s the state of affairs then anything that can save time and effort is a winner, winner, chicken dinner. Anything that helps me get 30 minutes more shuteye in the morning or 30 minutes more rest in the evening is a big fat yes in my books.
It also means I don’t have to fork out for tuckshop money or shit lunches at the work cafe’. I also liked the idea as it meant I could make different sorts of food for everyone and we wouldn’t be stuck with boring stuff like a sandwich of day-old bread. Besides, if I let my kids feed themselves they would probably just pack a bag full of crap and no actual food.
In all honesty, pre-making lunches is actually pretty easy when you know what you’re doing. Being mindful of what foods keep and which spoil is key to having a fresh and tasty lunchbox available each day.
You won’t be cooking all weekend either. Many items can be baked ahead of time and frozen so all you have to do each week is assembly. Making a few simple changes to your morning routine can save you a stack load of time and a hell of a lot of hassle.
Having a variety of different things on hand at any one time is essential – it means no one will be bored with the same lunch day in, day out and you can go weeks without cooking anything at all. Putting aside one day a month to do a big batch load of cooking is a great idea if you can.
That said though if you cringe at the thought of cooking and just want to prep your lunches with a basket full of stuff from the shop, then all power to you sister, there ain’t no judgment here.
Quick and easy lunch assembly starts with good equipment.
Lunchboxes can be really pricey, depending on what you buy, but you do want to invest in something that will last awhile. Good old Chinese containers are handy but tend to break after a few uses.
The other big tip is that the lunchboxes you use, need to be stackable. Having them fall apart in the fridge is not going to be fun, nor will it do anything for your sanity.
The other thing you need to take into account is how deep & high the lunchbox is. You don’t want something too big as anything you put inside will just roll about, ideally, you want the box just taller than the height of a sandwich.
Finally, you need to make sure the lunchboxes will fit in your fridge. Very important:)
Now. The biggest most important part of the whole project is this. You want to purchase enough lunchboxes for 1 x per day per person.
Trust me on this.
The whole process will not work if you have to be washing and re-using lunchboxes every few days. Humor me, spend the money and I promise you it will be worth it. I know all of you with more than 2.5 kids will be all like “As if woman!” and I get that. If that’s the case just use whatever you have for the first little while until you get the hang of it and if you want to continue you can gradually add to your collection as time goes on.
When choosing a lunchbox you want something that is:
a) big enough to fit enough food;
b) leakproof (always a good option if possible, but not absolutely necessary)
c) easy to open
d) will fit inside your lunch cooler bag (if you use one)
Which boxes do I use?
Over the years I think I have tried pretty much every single lunchbox on the market.
There are loads of different varieties and they all have different uses, so the best thing to do is test a few out and see which you think will work for you, your kids, hubby, and whatever situation it’s used for.
These days I only use 3 x different types of containers:
Easy Lunchboxes (Used for everyone)
I totally love these. I got my first lot when Miss N was in preschool and they have only just started to crack and break. She’s almost 13 so for 10 years of use I’d say that’s good value. They have 3 different size compartments (the biggest of which easily fits a sandwich) which are great for keeping food separated and the best bit is they are freezer, microwave, and dishwasher safe.
These bento-style boxes come in various sizes and the main reason I love them is that they are leakproof. They are also pretty pricey for a lunchbox, so not the type of thing you really want to buy loads of without checking you like them first! I put yoghurt, sauces, even jelly in the compartments and never had any leaks. Not one. I wouldn’t trust these in the freezer nor microwave but they can go in the dishwasher.
Clip Side Container (mainly used for adults)
These Kmart gems are cheap as chips and last for ages. Just one section but the perfect size for a salad or dinner leftovers or just about anything else. The clip sides keep lids from accidentally coming off and they can also go from freezer to microwave to dishwasher.
Once your lunchboxes have arrived, label well (waterproof labels are a must, notice I don’t buy anything that can’t be put in the dishwasher!), stack them up in one pile per person and measure the height of the tallest pile.
Go to your fridge and adjust your shelves so you have one with enough height to take all your stacked lunchboxes. The idea behind this is that each person knows which stack of lunches belongs to them and you can easily stack them up to fit them in the fridge and easily pull one off the top of the pile when taking them out.
If your kids need an additional box of fruit for the day, you can do the same with the week’s worth of fruits. Try to buy fruits that don’t need chopping – think berries, grapes, bananas, apples, pears, kiwi or stone fruits. This makes it easier on you when prepping and also stops them from going bad too early.
When buying bigger fruits like apples and pears – it’s a good idea to buy smaller sizes if you have smaller kids. A teenager may be able to eat a large apple but I know my kids would struggle.
If you want to be a total organisational nerd, you can also go ahead and purchase/collect a lot of extra water bottles so you have enough for everyone. Filling a bottle with water each day is not a big ask – but when you are short on time, ANY time saved is helpful.
Now the fun starts!
You need to decide what you are going to cook.
As a general rule of thumb, I normally provide each day (for kids) a fruit break, main lunch item, snack, and a sweet treat. Adults just get the main lunch item and fruit (unless of course, you need more food, then go for your life).
You will need to figure out how much food each person will need, so be sure to adjust the portion size appropriately. Focus on the main lunch items, snacks and sweet treats as these can be cooked in bulk and stored. Just ensure you have enough fruits on hand at the start of the school week to last till Friday.
Now I don’t always make every single item from scratch. I do try to avoid processed foods as much as possible, however, some things I do buy as it’s quicker and easier to do so and to be honest, some weeks I just can’t be stuffed.
As an example, at our place:
Z will eat double what her sister does but she’s a snacker, so things have to be in small portion sizes. She likes variety. (She also has a bad habit of breaking open the lunchbox before school starts, hence why I add extra..).
N would be happy with a vegemite sandwich and a snack TBH but since she doesn’t eat a lot, I need to ensure she eats proteins and veggies before carbs and snacks.
For the grown-ups, I tend to make hot lunches as we have access to kitchens and microwaves. Curries & rice, pasta, lean meats with vegies or salads.
If this sounds similar to your house, the bulks amount of things you make will last longer and we can go a week or two extra when bulk cooking. If you have teenage boys you may have to cook double batches to be sure to last a few weeks!
I also do try and have a good variety of food in each lunchbox. There is normally some carbs (bread, pizza, scrolls or muffins) as well as proteins (cold cuts, chicken drumsticks or sausages) as well as some fresh fruits and vegies (strawberries, grapes, cherry tomatoes, salad, carrot & celery sticks) as well as some dairy (cheeses, milk, yoghurt). The sweet treat is always small as I find the lunch doesn’t get eaten if the sweets are too big.
I’ve listed some ideas that I add to lunchboxes, to give you an idea of what you can use.
I serve a lot of things cold as my kids don’t have kitchen facilities to use at school. The only things I really serve hot and put in a thermos might be soups, dinner leftovers, mini pies/sausage rolls or meatballs for subs (as you can see in the picture below, we are having this week).
- Mini Pizzas/pizza scrolls
- potato patties
- cold cuts
- chicken drumsticks/mini drums – with some sort of flavour/honey soy, etc.
- corn fritters – Thai style
- boiled eggs
- falafel (served with hummus, pitta bread, and salad
- veggie muffins with cream cheese
- pork pies
- chinese chicken wraps (iceberg leaf, chicken, spring onions hoisin sauce to dip)
- cucumber subs
- ham and cheese rollups
- mini ploughman’s lunch
- tuna mornay muffin cups
- quinoa cakes – pizza style with tomato chutney/sauce to dip
- potato, sausage, cheese & veg in a muffin tin
- Mac & Cheese
- potato bake
- curry & rice
- pies, sausage rolls or pasties
- roast dinner, veg & gravy
- vegie sticks and dips (hummus, baba ganouj, cream cheese, ranch dressing, etc.)
- squeezies of custard, fruit puree or yoghurt (these make a perfect added ice brick during the summer months if you freeze them)
- Muffins (fruit, choc chip or veggie)
- pikelets or pancakes
- homemade puffed wheat bars/balls
- homemade trail mix
- popcorn & pretzels
- Mini cupcakes (pipe the icing inside the cake to avoid icing smoosh!)
- bliss balls
- popped quinoa bars
- muesli bars
- pocky sticks
- cinnamon rolls
Once you have decided on what to cook, write a list of everything you need, do your shopping then and put aside a specific time & day each week for cooking & prep. I tend to do my menu plan Fri night (in front of the TV) groceries on Sat mornings and then spend an hour or two on Sun arvo with a process line of chopping and packing.
If you are cooking items to pack, as every batch is cooked – flash freeze on trays then store in airtight containers or zip-lock bags and freeze. This will stop them from sticking together in the freezer.
Now its time for the assembly line
Arrange all your lunchboxes on your bench and start filling.
Note that fresh items like bread, crackers, cookies, pretzels, popcorn, etc. will need to be added to the lunchbox first thing in the morning so they do not stale. I do not keep stuff like this in the fridge ( yes, it’s in the photo, but just so you can see what I pack.. I’ll take this out!).
If I am making popcorn or trail mix I will keep it in a large airtight container in the pantry and just scoop out what I need in the morning.
So for a quick overview, this week as you can see above, the kids are having the following:
- Pizza Scrolls
- Tuna Sushi
- Meatball Subs (meatballs hot in the thermos)
- BBQ Chicken & Coleslaw
- Ploughmans Lunch (ham, blue cheese, olives, pickles, and a pizza scroll)
Each day also has a cinnamon roll, strawberries and a selection of fresh veg, this week its grape tomatoes, snow peas, and baby cucumbers.
The sushi is made fresh Sunday afternoon/evening (if the kids have this for lunch, normally we are having sushi for dinner the night before). It doesn’t keep longer than overnight. This is normally Monday lunch. Each day thereafter I will tell the girls to take things that will tend to spoil earlier in the week, so Tues will be the chicken & coleslaw, Wed the ploughman’s, Thurs the meatball subs and Fri the pizza scrolls as they keep for ages.
So. If you want to save yourself a bit of time, a lot of hassle and loads of stress, have a try at this system. It’s good and it works!
You won’t be cooking all weekend and if you want to start by buying all the things from the shops to go inside then do so. Start simple!
Make things you (or the kids) love to eat and then if you want to get creative you can.
Remember, it’s not hard, it just takes a bit of planning!
Just Be You, Everyday