School lunch hacks, for older kids
August 18, 2018 2:40 PM   Subscribe

For those of you who make your older kid pack their own school lunch, what tips/tricks do you use to get them to actually pack a decent lunch? My kid would prefer to deal with it by not even bringing a lunch, but that's not allowed, given our circumstances. Help me help him.

The deal with my 15yo is:

-- He is not a morning eater, never has been. Getting anything into his mouth before around 10am is basically impossible (even on weekends). School starts at 8:30, so he needs food with him for morning break period and lunchtime.

-- His school schedule is long at least three days a week, until 6pm. So those days he needs a snack to eat during a short 3pm break.

-- There is literally zero food available for purchase at school -- not at all.

-- He has previously been called in for conference re: his daily energy levels. A big part of this is...he needs to eat. He needs adequate calories and nutrition. I don't want him just bumming chips off his pals.

So he needs to bring food! So how do you people handle it? I was thinking of telling him something like "You have to pack 5 things" or "You must bring at least 1 item with protein" or stuff like that.

What are your lunch hacks, when it comes to older kids?
posted by BlahLaLa to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Should have added: asking him what he wants, telling him I'll stock whatever he wants at home so he's got it ready to go -- is getting me nothing more than very stereotypical teenage responses like "I don't know" and "I don't care" which is partially why up until now I've just made his lunch myself. But he's going into 10th grade, and it's time for him to take on this responsibility, which is why I'm asking for hacks.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:41 PM on August 18, 2018

Just brainstorming here but is it possible to get a ton of granola bars and stick a few in his backpack every once in a while. A peanut butter sandwich and an apple? Maybe he would get bored of that and start thinking a little more about it? What is everyone else there eating? It sounds like he doesn’t get that hungry nor enjoy food that much. I’m not sure there is a hack for that. Will be reading all the answers!
posted by catspajammies at 2:47 PM on August 18, 2018

My kids have a chart - 1 protein, 3 fruits/veg, 1-2 carb...they don’t pick “anything” but each category.

Another hack is leftovers.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:47 PM on August 18, 2018 [13 favorites]

It's perhaps not great, but it's better than nothing - can you get him to drink his calories? Grabbing a muscle milk and a V8 in the morning may be an easier sell. Also, string cheese. My wife will run herself into the ground not eating, so I keep string cheese around to shove at her.
posted by joycehealy at 3:04 PM on August 18, 2018 [5 favorites]

Home made frozen burrito! If you go vegetarian with it you don't even need to heat them up. By lunch time they will be thawed and safe to eat. Then just buy a bag of apples/oranges/seasonal fruit each week to be added as snacks.

Get together with him and make a big batch of burrito filler together. It's easy, doesn't take that long and you can prep a month's worth of lunches in a single cooking and wrapping session. Maybe you can get him to slice the veggies while you cook the rice and/or quinoa? Then you just add beans/corn/whatever and cook it up. Roll up some tortillas and load them up with whatever your filling and other dressings you want. Last step is just to individually wrap the burritos with aluminum foil and freeze.

Then all your son needs to do is put one in his bag each day. You can even vary the burritos easily since different fillings and sauces make a big difference. Cheap. Easy to prep. Easy to eat and pretty healthy if you are clever about your fillings. Maybe he will even take an interest and start picking out specific ingredients one it comes time to make the next batch.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 3:06 PM on August 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

Oh! Another idea. Overnight oats. If you do them in a lidded container then they can just be grabbed along with a spoon and eaten when he gets hungry. They're another recipe that is easy to switch up with minor variations and it's really easy to mix in healthy bonuses like chia or flax seeds. More work than the burrito idea since you/he would have to make it each night, but night time prep is a lot easier for a teenager than morning prep.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 3:09 PM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does it all need to be cold/unheated food?
posted by Lyn Never at 3:12 PM on August 18, 2018

At 15, I would think that letting him feel some consequences from not packing a sufficient lunch would be in order.

My 2nd grader has been packing his own lunch for more than 2 years now. He's got categories he has to choose from: A) Protein -- meat, eggs, yogurt, cheese, hummus, etc (no nuts, unfortunately) B) fruit/vegetable, and C) other -- could be cookie, could be chips or crackers, or pickles or a granola bar, but I don't police this category as much, as long as he has something from both A and B. He has to bring a morning snack too, and usually his snacks come from this last category.

I hate doing it, but I take my kids grocery shopping with me, and I make them pick out things for the coming week for their lunches. I buy a lot of single-serving chip bags and individual yogurt cups during the school year.
posted by fancyoats at 3:30 PM on August 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

It needs to be cold or room temp - there's no option for reheating anything.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:40 PM on August 18, 2018

Snack bars have been mentioned, but to be more precise and just FYI, if you happen to belong to a Costco, my gosh, they are snack heaven. You've got Cliff Bars, Pure Protein Bars, cashews, craisins, protein shakes, ad nauseum (either in large boxes of individually wrapped servings, or easily enough apportioned in sandwich bags which of course are also available at Costco). And that's just the healthy stuff. I am not associated with Costco except in so far as I am a member and spend a LOT of money there.
posted by forthright at 3:44 PM on August 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have one kid that likes to eat and 2 that would live what ever happen to fall in front of them - and if nothing did, no big deal, they'd wait till the next meal.

This is one task I'd take off his plate. Food is important (but it's not that important to him at this point) and these are important years. I'd make a lunch for him. My 10 year old has been helping do the house laundry and making my bed since second grade but eating just isn't that important to him. He's super health conscious and doesn't eat junk, but just isn't food motivated like some. This doesn't need to be THE thing we do to make our kids self-sufficient -there's plenty of other opportunities for those lessons.

I'd make him a big lunch/snack bag with lots of choices.
posted by beccaj at 3:48 PM on August 18, 2018 [27 favorites]

It does not appear as if the consequences of not packing a lunch matter to your son. If you want him to be self sufficient, let him be self sufficient. If you are telling him he has to eat a healthy meal (he may just ditch it), then I gently suggest you make it for him. This is coming from someone who made his kids be self sufficient from a very young age.

The way I saw it, the only two things my kids had a real say in, is what goes into their mouths and their haircuts. If they did not want to eat, they did not eat. No substitutes. All three are either in college or post college and all three make very balanced meals for dinner. One, not as much as the other two, but... He was the one with the mohawk when he was in middle school.

Make him go to the grocery with you. Let him pick out what he wants. Then make it for him or he will not eat it.
posted by AugustWest at 3:56 PM on August 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

Make a list of, like, fifteen possible items that you could pack - different fruits, veggies, lunch meats, chips, crackers, nuts, hard boiled eggs, cheese, popcorn, beef Jerky. Tell him to pick at least five. You will buy them, he is responsible for packing them and eating them.

Also: is your son depressed? Not to over-interpret from limited info but not eating can be a symptom.
posted by mai at 4:09 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also leftover cold pizza is actually pretty good.
posted by mai at 4:11 PM on August 18, 2018

I was just discussing the care and feeding of teenagers with my sister in law. Apparently they send my nephew to school with a bunch of those energy balls that people make from peanut butter, oats, coconut, etc. (There are a billion recipes online) he eats them between school and practice or whenever he gets hungry. Again.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:36 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Deli pepperoni (the big, round thin slices) and white American cheese, rolled up and in zip lock bags.

Nuts, peanuts... Cashews... Pistachios, In baggies.

PB&J (crusts cut off!)

Seconding V-8. Also carnation breakfast shakes.

Good whole wheat bread, toasted and topped with mashed avocado and siracha, fold into a sandwich and wrap tightly in plastic wrap.
posted by kiwi-epitome at 4:36 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think the best way to start here is extremely simple. On Sunday afternoons, the two of you make 3* sandwiches - set a timer for 15 minutes and get it done - and on Wednesday night you make 2 more sandwiches. Put 'em in ziplocs, in a brown bag with a granola bar or protein shake and a single-serving bag of chips and a big cookie or brownie or another granola bar, keep the whole deal in the fridge. Kid grabs bag on way out door. If you want to use ice pack/fancy lunch bag put the brown bag into that, but a sandwich will keep for 4-5 hours without killing anyone.

*If he is one of those hollow-legged 15-year-olds who could eat two sandwiches then make double. He might end up eating one sandwich for snack and the rest for lunch.

He's said he doesn't care, this is a lunch for someone who doesn't care and just needs to put calories in face. Don't go crazy with the sandwich-makin's, just get ham and turkey and a sliced cheese product and his preferred condiments and a decently sturdy bread that he likes and will survive the travel. Lightly toasting the bread will keep the second- and third-day sandwiches from being maybe a little too soft, but so will wrapping them in one sheet of paper towel before bagging. After a few months of this he may learn to have opinions, and he's the one making the sandwiches so if he wants to change them that's great.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:02 PM on August 18, 2018 [12 favorites]

Could he have sensory issues? It can really interfere with food motivation and if that's possible it might be worth researching how to accommodate it.
posted by crunchy potato at 5:08 PM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Apple, Polly-o cheese sticks (2-3), fig newtons, something salty (Chex mix, bags of nuts, etc).

That’s my go-to “I don’t want to prep” lunch. It holds you over pretty dang well and enough can be swapped in and out (pbj for fig newtons, orange for apples, etc) that it doesn’t get horribly boring for me.
posted by raccoon409 at 5:14 PM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't know about hacks but easy things - chocolate milk (costco sells tetrapaks that don't require refrigeration), trail mix, cliff bars, a meal replacement drink like ensure (my boyfriend's breakfast of choice as he's also not a morning eater), babybel cheese, fruit leather, a bagel with cream cheese are pretty easy to put together and aren't super perishable. Does he like meat? If so pepperettes or beef jerky could be good too.

I'd start by trying to get him into the habit of eating regularly and worry about it looking like a proper meal later. That has worked the best with my picky eater son and used to not eating regularly boyfriend.
posted by lafemma at 5:21 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite] has wonderful prepackaged snacks, fruit and nut choices. He wouldn't have to think much about choices. Plus, items will stay fresh in his backpack day after day
posted by crw at 5:46 PM on August 18, 2018

Here's what we do:
No 1 best idea is double dinners so that the leftovers can quickly be put in a thermos the next morning
Always have bread/cheese/sliced meat/veg ready to go
Bagels and cream cheese always ready to go
Buy snacks they actually want to take in bulk from Costco (for us baby carrots, apples, yoghurt, fruit leather, dried mango, seaweed and nut free granola bars are the big winners but ymmv)
Cliff bars for emergencies (me too)
Overnight oats in the fridge (this only works for one of my kids though, the other doesn't like them)

One of my kids also really likes the ready made tuna and cracker meals but I don't buy them often because they are pricey and also create a lot of waste. But if he likes tuna that one is ridiculously easy.
posted by Cuke at 5:55 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

My teens boys will always eat a Clif bar as long as it isn’t one of the gross ones, so I keep a few in my bags for whenever I think the boys are running down.

My kids make their own lunches and have since junior high. Sandwich of deli meat, some kind of fruit that won’t destroy their braces, a sweet for after, maybe some crackers of some kind. (Leftovers are a non-starter because of a lack of microwaves.) They know I will keep an eye on the proceedings and veto the All-Candy Diet, plus they are active enough to want & need real food. They are starting to want to learn more about proteins and fats and carbs, and the need to balance that out. A new coach at school is also providing info from the other direction, and suggesting that the boys “eat a rainbow” each day.

Does Son do an activity where the adults could help guide all of the kids about decent nutrition and its effect on frelings and results?

Is there a food he likes to eat that could be swapped in for lunch? I freeze ahead breakfast burritos that one of my sons likes to steal.

If he honest-to-God doesn’t care, then give him wheat bread with cheese and turkey, with an apple. Send along a Clif bar every day, and maybe something he can use to trade for food that he does like.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:57 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

One more idea: I mix up local honey and uncooked oatmeal and chopped nuts and salt and peanut butter and chopped dates, and I press it into a bowl. After chilling it overnight, I take a square of the stuff with me on my drive to work.

My sons are split on it, but for the one who likes it, it’s a good way to give a “treat” that also contains at least a little protein and less-awful sugar and fat. This makes him less hungry and also bumps up his mood.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:00 PM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm a uni student, who sometimes spends long days at uni with nowhere (affordable) to buy food. This is what I eat:

- Cold pizza
- Those little snack balls someone above mentioned
- Dinner leftovers
- sandwiches I made the night before (PbJ you can eat while walking!)
- Higher quality muesli bars (less sugar, more protein etc.)
- Those little bags of mixed nuts and fruit
- random cheap carby things from the supermarket bakery (savoury scrolls, pesto twists)

I tend to avoid fruit because it gets squished in my bag and I don't have enough room for a traditional lunch box, so anything I take has to be ok bouncing around in a backpack. Some of these things can be eaten while walking, some while in lectures/the library, dinner leftovers can be tricky but I usually find at least 5 minutes to shove them down. I also hate eating breakfast so I have meal replacement drinks on those days where I absolutely must eat before leaving the house. Agree with a poster up above that bagels would work well because they are super energy dense but also can handle the brutality of a backpack environment.

If it helps, my mum was really hands off in my high school years and if I couldn't sort out my lunch it was a 'tough shit, I guess you'll go hungry' situation. Sometimes I did go hungry, but I figured it out eventually.
posted by BeeJiddy at 6:36 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

My coworker and I as teachers literally ate peanut butter and jelly (I ate peanut butter and honey) together every day for least 2 years. Add in a yogurt or an apple, and a back up Cliff Bar or two, and a frozen bottle of water. Maybe buy a banana when possible...although I see it's not. He doesn't care, it's filling, easy, portable and relatively healthy, so just make the minimal effort and have the sandwich, apple and cliff bars ready.
posted by bquarters at 6:56 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I still make, and will for one more year, my seventeen year old's lunch. Mainly it is because I was not parented appropriately, and I need to overcompensate for that. It is also true that they are a mess when they don't eat, and get all hangry. I gave up on making nice lunches a while ago- I buy a huge bag of individual sized chips, a huge box of treats (cookies, or gummy treats, or cliff bar) a package of individual shelf stable juice pouches, and then I make a sandwich- could be deli meats, or deli tuna or egg salad, or a bagel with cream cheese, or just hummus on bread (this is actually her favorite.) I also put a piece of fruit in if there are good options- like a clementine or apple. What I do is I prepack all of the non perishables in plastic grocery bags, or a brown paper bags when I buy them- so 24, or 18 bags, all set up and filled with the chips, juice and treat, and I put these in a cabinet, then depending on how together I am, I either make a sandwich the night before,or the morning of when I make them their breakfast (yes, totally indulging my teen, but I am fine with that) and add that and a piece of fruit to the pre-filled bags.
posted by momochan at 7:13 PM on August 18, 2018 [8 favorites]

My kids are five and six and pack their own lunch. When we go shopping, they have a say in the snacks, lunch and fruit we choose (within reason). We select a variety that I know they’ll eat, and then, like warriorqueen, they have a choice of two pieces of fruit, one serve of vegetables, something like a hard boiled egg or Greek yoghurt, one treat and one lunch selection (eg sushi, ham and cheese scroll, savoury muffin, whatever.) So I know they’ll have a reasonably balanced lunchbox that they’ll actually eat. They’re welcome to have as much fruit and veg as they want, but they have to have a minimum. Plus if they don’t eat it but still want to gorge on snacks when they get home, they have to finish their lunchbox first.
posted by Jubey at 9:15 PM on August 18, 2018

A family I know created a list of menus for their kids, 8 or 10 of them, and the kids make their own lunches but they pick a complete menu. So one might be "Turkey Sandwich, Fruit, Goldfish Crackers" and another might be "Hummus, Pita Chips, Carrot Sticks."

I'd sit down with him (and some nutrition guidelines) and come up with five nutritionally-adequate lunches that he can make on his own that can be eaten cold; a few healthy morning snacks with some protein; and a few afternoon snacks for his long days. Tape it up to the kitchen cabinet. Then he doesn't have to think about it, but he can pick what sounds good that day, mix and match his snacks, and you'll both know he has enough food and it's healthy and filling.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:57 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Like others, having a sort of menu of various options that constitute a meal that can be put together into lunch/snack worked best for me. Protein stuff like hard boiled eggs, Tanka bars, string cheese sticks (Trader Joe's organic are really tasty), a cold baked piece of chicken, Greek yogurt, packets of stuff like Late July mini cheese crackers or mini peanut butter crackers, hummus, carrot sticks, snacky bits like chocolate covered almonds (Trader Joe's is a good source for this as well if you have one nearby), fruit like clementines, apples, grapes in a container. I was picky about sandwiches (hated even a hint of sogginess), though did like pb&j and blt sandwiches (very light on the mayo), and tuna with a binder of some mild olive oil and lemon juice instead of mayo. Toasting a substantial type of bread and then letting it cool prior to making a sandwich really helped with the sogginess issue.
posted by gudrun at 10:19 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I tend to avoid fruit because it gets squished in my bag and I don't have enough room for a traditional lunch box, so anything I take has to be ok bouncing around in a backpack. Some of these things can be eaten while walking, some while in lectures/the library, dinner leftovers can be tricky but I usually find at least 5 minutes to shove them down. I also hate eating breakfast so I have meal replacement drinks on those days where I absolutely must eat before leaving the house. Agree with a poster up above that bagels would work well because they are super energy dense but also can handle the brutality of a backpack environment.

I put fruit in little rubbermaid container every day. I pre-peel a clementine or two, pull about 15 grapes of the vine and pour in blueberries. All that fits in one three inch by two inch Tupperware. That's a pretty good start on the daily recommended fruits and veg. Plus it is delicious. If I am feeling crazy I also put a banana in a banana holder.
posted by srboisvert at 3:38 PM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

How adventurous is he? He may be bored with conventional food but may be more into food from other cultures or more unusual ingredients. Having some variety may entice him to get engaged with his lunch.

Also I'm sometimes the sort of person who forgoes food if I feel too tired to function (and I like food). Could it be an executive disorder thing? You mention long schedules - could he just feel too worn out to even think about trying to prep food?
posted by divabat at 7:41 PM on August 20, 2018

I make lunches in the AM. At least I know he'll eat if I do, and won't be a hangry nightmare by 5th period.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 10:43 AM on August 26, 2018

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