It's been a long time since I've packed a school lunch for myself, and it will be a while yet before I pack one for my own future little ones (sorry, Mom -- hang in there!), but I have had a handful of nanny gigs over the years which required me to make bagged lunches, and I love to picnic nearly every weekend in my beloved Dolores Park.
In other words, I know a few things about making food that is easy to throw together and still tastes good after sitting in a bag (most likely unrefrigerated) for at least 3 hours.
So parents, kids old enough to pack their own lunches, and anyone else who brings a lunch to work or school: take a deep breath. This is easier than you think. You've got this in the bag.
Rule #1: Consider a reusable bag/box.
If you're not already doing this, you should be. Not only are reusable lunch bags and boxes better for the environment, if they are insulated, they keep your food colder (or hotter, depending on the temperature when you pack it) than a regular paper bag. Got a big kid who thinks lunch boxes are lame? Send them to school with this reusable "paper bag."
Rule #2: Leftovers, leftovers, leftovers!
The obvious first place you should look when you have the 9 p.m. "Oh damn, I forgot to pack lunch!” panic is whatever you ate for dinner. First of all, if you/your kids ate it for dinner, you/they probably enjoyed it, so it will likely go over well for lunch the next day. Secondly, it's a helpful way to clean out your fridge. Either pack leftovers in thermoses or other sealable tupperware containers, or repurpose them. If this works for you, consider planning ahead just a smidge, and make a little bit extra dinner so you have leftovers ready to go for the next day.
Slice leftover grilled or roasted meats and layer them into a sandwich (see below for notes on sandwich making) with vegetables, cheese, pesto, mayonnaise, etc. Or wrap them in flatbread, pita, or a large tortilla. Think of your leftovers as a handy shortcut to lunch-making.
Rule #3: One good sandwich.
Sandwiches tend to be the first thing we think of for school and work lunches, mostly because they are an all-encompassing meal in one handy package. But a little bit of thought is required if you want to make a really good one.
Good, sturdy bread is imperative. You want something that will be able to hold wet or semi-wet ingredients for a few hours without falling apart. Think thick sourdough, cut from a bakery loaf, dense whole wheat bread (which is also digested more slowly, which helps combat that after-lunch need for a nap), or a roll. Toasting sliced bread is also a great way to ensure it stays intact until lunch time.
And if you want to make gluten-free sandwiches, buy a rice-based gluten-free bread (they tend to be super-sturdy) and be sure to toast it before building your sandwich.
Keep sandwich ingredients minimal. I recommend sticking to 2 or 3 components, maximum. Think: salami, mozzarella, basil, or egg salad and tomato.
You might also consider a make-your-own-sandwich kit. Pack a split roll, packets of mayonnaise and mustard (grab extra the next time you are at the deli) and sandwich fillings like sliced meats, tofu, tuna salad, tomatoes, and/or lettuce. It’s fun to construct one’s own sandwiches at school/work, and the luncher can choose to eat it closed or open-faced.
Rule #4: Always pack a couple of snacks.
Depending on how hungry one gets, it’s prudent to make sure there are plenty of snacks in the bag. Sliced or cubed cheese (or packaged cheese sticks or Babybel rounds), whole or sliced fruit and vegetables (hint: if you like sliced carrots, celery, radishes, and/or jicama sticks, cut up a bunch and keep them in the fridge in an airtight container with cold water -- they'll stay crisp all week and will be ready to pack or snack on whenever you need them), raw or toasted nuts, and/or crackers (I like healthier, whole-grain or seed-based ones).
Rule #5: Don't forget something sweet.
A little something sweet is such a nice way to round out a meal. And no, it doesn't need to be super sugary. Consider a ripe piece of fruit, a small square of dark chocolate, an oatmeal cookie, or a handful of chocolate-covered almonds.
What do you like to pack for lunch? Let me know in the comments!