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Family Meals: Lunches And Snacks

This is part of my series, Staying On Top
of Family Meals. We’ve covered Planning Ahead, Cooking Ahead,
and Breakfast, and now we’re moving up the timeline to Lunch
and Snacks. You will quickly realize that everything comes back to
Planning Ahead and Cooking Ahead, but let’s get going.

Lunch. This is probably my least favorite meal, for a couple of
reasons. First, it’s the time of day when I’m fast
approaching my frazzle limit, and as I start to make lunch and the
little monkeys are dancing around my legs I feel as if I
can’t make that stupid peanut butter and jelly fast enough.
Second, I often make lunch early in the morning: packing school
lunches, packing picnics for the arboretum, packing poolside
lunches for swim time. I am heartily sick of slapping together a
huge assembly line of sandwiches, and I am even more heartily sick
of said sandwiches.

So how can we make our lunch lives easier?
First, of course, you Plan Ahead. When you do your weekly meal
planning and grocery shopping (which you DO do, right??) make sure
you’ve got your lunches covered – plenty of bread,
cheese, fruit, lunch meat, etc. – so you’re not stuck
sending your kid to school with a cup of ramen noodles. If
you’re more organized than I am (is it possible?) then
you’d be my friend who has an actual laminated menu for her
young children. She’s got pictures of all the food
she’s willing to offer in little columns: one column has
pretzels, chips, or carrot sticks, for example; the second has,
say, a pb&j, a grilled cheese, a ham sandwich, and yogurt; and
one column has apples and a cheese stick and strawberries. The kid
gets to use a dry-erase pen to circle one thing from each column
and knows what to look forward to, while the mom has a clear idea
of what she’s making without a lot of hemming and hawing.

I do not do this, partly because I’d feel even more like a
short-order cook than I am, and partly because I’m just not
that organized. Truthfully, I allow some feedback but mostly the
girls know they get what they get. I do enjoy throwing little
special items into Maddie’s lunch occasionally: I’ll
use a heart cookie cutter for some heart-shaped cheese bites
instead of a cheese stick, or once in a blue moon I’ll put
some of those organic graham bunnies in there. But I’ve got a
mental picture of my fridge at the beginning of the week and pretty
much know what options I’ll be offering. I do, though, have a
list of lunch ideas written down somewhere for when I get stuck in
a rut. It never hurts to be reminded that English muffins make
great little pizzas.

After I’ve planned ahead, of course, I must Cook Ahead. The
night before is my friend, and it should be yours too. Get your
fruit diced, your oranges segmented, your pretzels pre-packaged,
whatever. If it’s a sandwich the next day I’ll lay out
the sandwich wrap mat and the loaf of bread – whatever I can
do to save time in the morning. In fact, I sometimes dice and
package Sunday night so I’ve got several items already done.
When the kids aren’t underfoot it takes me mere minutes and
I’m not groggy and cranky. Then after I pick Maddie up from
school we’ll talk about what she did and didn’t like in
her meal, and I’ll know how to plan for the next one.

If your children are old enough to help pack, then doing food prep
on Sunday makes it even easier. A friend of mine packages up a
week’s worth of school snacks and sides into individual
containers – dried fruit, granola, peanut butter crackers,
nuts, goldfish, whatever – and puts them all in a huge glass
jar. When she needs the kids to pack up they get to reach in and
choose what they want from the selection, and when
something’s gone it’s gone for the week. The kids feel
in control and she saves time.

And speaking of snacks, if you still do regular toddler snacks or
if your kids are older and need an after-school snack, there are a
couple things you can do to make this easier. First, the
pre-packing thing I mentioned above, so portions are all doled out.
Second, show your kids the snack options and teach them to choose.
We’ve got one whole shelf in the pantry that’s the
“snack shelf” and the girls know they can ask for
anything from it for a snack. Goldfish, Kashi crackers, dried
fruit, Cheerios and strawberries, pistachios and cranberries
– whatever is there is fair game, though they sometimes need
help opening and getting portions out. Maddie and Cora know they
can’t open the pantry and start chowing any time they want,
but they do know that after they’ve gotten permission they
can stand and ponder for themselves.

And while we’re on the subject of snacks, the girls know that
not everything on the snack shelf is available all day long. As the
day progresses, the carbs get whittled out, and once they’ve
napped carbs are rarely an option. Occasionally they’ll get
crackers with their apples and peanut butter for a post-nap snack,
but after dinner the only foods they’re allowed are fruits,
veggies, and cheese. This helps ensure they’re snacking
because they’re hungry and not bored, and that they’ll
eat a good dinner.

I know this sounds like a lot of effort. But it saves you so much
time in the precious morning hours, and saves you a ton of money
when you’ve got that snack on hand and don’t have to
buy a box of animal crackers to quiet your crying toddler. With a
little forethought and planning, you can tame those lunches and


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