Week 1 of The Lunch Box Challenge – a success!

are you in?

Phew! Our first week of school – and the first week of the Lunch Box Challenge – is over. All in all it went much better than I’d expected, probably because I took care to keep it really easy (no super-creative lunches for me this week).

But, of course, it didn’t run completely smoothly. Here are a few challenges I’ve already run into this week, which have been the same four lunch-packing obstacles I’ve run in to every year since my kids started school:

  • Creating (and sticking to) a lunch-packing routine so I’m not trying to fit it in at the end of the night (when I’m exhausted) or first thing in the morning (when I feel rushed)
  • Coming up with a streamlined process for packing the lunches so that it doesn’t seem to take forever
  • Finding things each child will and can eat, and packing them in the correct amounts
  • Organizing all the containers and foods so that they’re easy to get at when I need them

I’m going to be addressing one topic each week for the rest of the challenge. Since this was the week I focused on re-establishing our school-year routines, that’s where I’m focusing first.

We’ve all heard the advice to “pack lunch the night before,” just as we’ve all heard the advice to “lay out clothes the night before” and “sign permission slips the night before.” But that advice has just never been specific enough for me. Exactly when the night before? Before dinner? After the dishes are done? After you’ve already gone to bed, realize you forgot, and get back up again? (Hasn’t this ever happened to you?)

An identity-confused PBJ - homemade organic strawberry jam...and not-so-organic Jif

While it seems logical to slip in lunch-packing and the like in the afternoon, when my energy levels are still high, I never used to set aside specific time for it, and would just put it off until “after”…you know, “after” I go grocery shopping, “after” this TV show is over, “after” bathtime and lights out… And then I’d find myself trying to perform all of these “night before” tasks the last few moments before I went to bed, when I was so tired that all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and read until my eyes crossed and I couldn’t hold the book up any longer (for the record, that usually takes about 7 minutes.)

Routines keep you from “putting off” things you want to do and give you a framework for making sure important things get done. So often we try to perfect a process before we even get used to doing it. But when you give a new activity time to become a habit, you don’t have to think so hard to make sure it happens every day. So this time, I decided to focus all my energy the first week on just making sure lunch happened, no matter how boring the end result.

As a result, this week every lunch looked, more or less, like this one.

Substitute the carrots for a hard-boiled egg one day, or whole-wheat crackers and cheese for the sandwich another day, and you have my basic formula.

I made some tweaks, like when my sixth-grader told me he can’t bring peanut butter to school because he wants to sit by a peanut-allergic classmate (switched to turkey and lettuce for him, packed inside the EZ Freeze sandwich container,) or when my 8th grade son and 10th grade niece suggested that their insulated lunch bags were a bit babyish for their liking and they’d really rather just put food containers loose-leaf in their backpacks (the grocery store had some snap-seal containers on sale that did the trick nicely). What saved me every time one of the kids threw my a planning curveball? My routine.

So, if you’re already feeling challenged by getting this challenge off the ground, for the first week you might want to just focus on creating and reinforcing a routine. Don’t worry about elaborate lunches or stocking your pantry with eighteen different kinds of containers just yet – instead, choose a time of day that works (really works) for you, and keep it simple until packing a lunch seems as natural as brushing your teeth. Pretty soon you’ll be ready to start experimenting with new lunchboxes and foods.

Some ideas for creating a smooth and enjoyable routine:

  • Deal with your child’s lunch leftovers as soon as he or she gets home from school. Not only can you get plastic containers in the dishwasher right away if you’ll need them tonight, but you may even be able to salvage some of the leftovers (like, say, crackers or grapes) if you get to them quicker.
  • Re-packing the lunch right after school can also be a good option. You’ll get it out of the way fast! This works best if you have a couple of sets of containers, or if today’s lunch was dry enough that all you need to do is shake out some crumbs and re-use the same ones.
  • Peg your routine to a relaxed, enjoyable time of day when you’d like to be in or around the kitchen anyway. Consider joining some of us in the Kitchen Hour, pack lunches after dinner while your kids are unloading the dishwasher, or do it in the morning, after they’ve left for school and the house is quiet, while you’re sipping your morning tea or coffee and listening to the radio.
  • If you don’t have enough room in your fridge for lunch boxes, just pack up some of the containers ahead of time and leave the boxes/bags on the counter or dining-room table, ready for a quick stuff in the morning.
  • If weeknights are busy for your family, maybe your lunch-packing routine happens all at once on Sunday night. Cut up a bunch of cheese at once, package crackers in individual bags, or make sandwiches ahead of time (they can be frozen!). If you go this route, dedicate a shelf in your fridge to a basket or shallow box full of lunchbox supplies to keep everything together – and to keep it from getting pilfered during the week!
  • Get your kids to help! This helps “seal” the routine and also gives it additional value as family time, too. If your little ones are too small to cut sandwiches or slice apples, you can hand them filled containers/baggies to store in the lunchbox.

Ready? Set? We’re on to week 2! Next week I’ll be sharing time-saving and streamlining tips and tricks. I hope you’ll tune in!

UPDATE on last week’s post: Winners have been chosen and announced on the giveaway post from last week. Congratulations, Martha and Christina!

Feeling bad that you didn’t win? Don’t worry, we’ve got more great prizes coming up. This week I’m giving away two copies of the beautiful (and not-yet-available-in-stores) book The Lunch Box, by Kate McMillian and Sarah Putman Clegg, from Weldon Owen (my publisher for The Happiest Mom.) Just leave a comment by Friday, September 16 at 5 PM EST, and you’ll be entered to win. The books will be sent out the following week – just in time to perk things up when you might be getting a little tired of making endless PBJ.

Need even more inspiration? In a couple of weeks I’ll be giving away subscriptions to MOMables, a fabulous online lunchbox menu subscription that will help you take the mystery out of planning, shopping for, and making your child’s lunches. So keep tuning in!

How did your first week of the Lunch Box Challenge go? Got any routine-building ideas to share? We’d love to hear them!

Also, if you want to join the challenge feel free to grab the code from my sidebar and put it on your own blog. Let us know about your posts in the comments!

A few school-lunch organizers and employees commented here last week, and I want to make it clear that this challenge is NOT an attack on the work they do. I have the utmost respect for the people who work to make school lunches as healthy as possible and deliver them to children, especially considering school lunches are the only regular meals some kids can look forward to. I’m also very impressed by some of the changes I hear about daily from districts doing their best to make healthier changes.

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