5 Tips for the Perfect Packed Lunch

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Monkey starts school next week and I’m panicking! Not so much about getting everyone ready and out of the house in time, despite the fact that we have almost never been on time for anything in our lives.  Not even about dropping him off on his first day, although that will be heart-wrenchingly difficult for both of us. I am panicking about the school lunches!!

Monkey’s nursery provided healthy snacks and cooked meals for all the kids, catering to their specific dietary requirements, so that’s been one less thing to worry about for the last year (before that he would come home for lunch).  I’ve been trying to expand his range of acceptable sandwich fillings through our DIY Sandwiches but in an ideal world I would like to include more variety in his packed lunches, both in terms of sandwich fillings and sandwich alternatives. I will also need to pack a lunch for Missy once she starts nursery in a couple of weeks so this is something I need to figure out pretty quickly.

Luckily for me, as part of Dubai Summer Surprises, La Fayette Gourmet put on an expert talk this week with their Culinary Director, Chef Russell Impiazzi. As a father of two school aged girls himself, Chef Russell has lots of practical real life experience of packing lunches for school and this, together with his obvious skill and culinary expertise, made for an excellent session full of great recipe ideas and top tips.

Some of the key messages I took away from the session are below:

  1. Variety is important. A sandwich and a piece of fruit every day every week will quickly get boring for any child. Try to mix up the food items and get creative with how you tick off each food group. For example, a sandwich can be made with bread but also with wraps, rolls, pita bread and even pancakes. You don’t even have to have a sandwich as your main tummy filler – sausage rolls, chicken nuggets, pasta salads and breadsticks, crostinis or vegetable chips with dips like hummus or tzatziki are a few alternative ideas. Fruit can also come in many forms – there is fresh fruit but don’t forget dried fruits like dates and raisins which can be used to make yummy date balls (you can also sneak in lots of other nutritional heavy weights like chia and flaxseeds, goji berries etc). Another great idea which we got to sample at the session was jelly made from fresh watermelon or pineapple juice with some gelatine.  There are also lots of options for the dairy component such as yoghurt, cheese, rice pudding, smoothies or milkshakes. If you are adding cheese to the lunch box don’t just use chedder or babybel, try to introduce lots of different cheeses to the kids such as parmesan, halloumi and feta. Pinterest is full of imaginative ideas and recipes for packed lunches and I will definitely be having a good look and pinning away over the next few weeks and months. One thing to always bear in mind when preparing your child’s packed lunch is any restrictions the school has in place, for example nuts are often banned to protect children suffering from nut allergies and KHDA regulations on packed lunches have also led to stricter enforcement of healthy lunches.
  2. Get the kids involved with preparing their packed lunch. Kids are often more receptive to trying new things if they have had a hand in the process. Where possible try to involve them in the preparations for their lunch. It also sets up good habits for the future (and is the first step on the road to self sufficiency!) Depending on their age there are so many things kids can help with. They can fill their own water bottles from the water dispenser, help in batch making flapjacks/muffins/sausage rolls etc at the weekend, wash and prepare fruit, help blend up smoothies, pack items into the lunch box and so much more.
  3. Persevere with new flavours. Following on from number 2 above, don’t give up on new lunch items or flavours if they aren’t a success the first time.  It may take 20 or more exposures to a new food before a child will accept it so keep trying. Just be careful about when you try a new food, if your little one is feeling tired or under the weather they will just want familiar and easy food during that time so don’t push the new flavours then. One tip I’ve been given previously and that I have found helpful is to always introduce one new food with one food item the child likes. That way they won’t completely reject the plate or go completely hungry when they don’t want to try the new food and may even be encouraged to try a little bit of it. In a packed lunch they may be willing to try the same kinds of things other kids are bringing in thanks to subconscious peer pressure.
  4. Prepare in advance. Between getting everyone up, dressed and breakfasted, there is enough to get done in the mornings in a house with school children and one or more working parents without having to do a full packed lunch from scratch each morning. To try to ease the morning chaos, aim to get as much preparation done in advance as you can. This includes batch cooking items for the fridge or freezer on a Saturday and packing what you can into the lunchbox the night before. It is also a good idea to start preparing your child for packed lunches in advance of the start of school, particularly if they have not previously had packed lunches on a daily basis. The week before school starts give them packed lunches as a trial run so you can show them how it all works and they can feel familiar with the process.
  5. Have the right gear. There is an overwhelming choice of equipment out there, from lunchboxes, waterbottles, tupperware and containers to icepacks, chiller bags and thermos flasks.  Before spending money buying new items, think about what kind of foods you will be sending in, how the school will be storing the lunches until lunchtime and what your child will find easy to use. Ideally let your child try it out in the store before buying so you can make sure they can open lids, unscrew tops, open zips etc as they are likely to be expected to be independent at lunchtime. Another must have item is name labels, after spending a small fortune getting the right equipment you want to make sure it all comes back home at the end of the day so LABEL EVERYTHING! I’ll admit to having gone a little crazy buying more packed lunch equipment to add to our existing stash and I will share my top buys on this blog in a follow up post.

I hope the above tips are helpful as you prepare for the new school year ahead. I certainly found the expert talk at La Fayette Gourmet very useful and wanted to share what I had picked up with you all. I have it on good authority that there may be a full write up from the Chef in a future issue of Good Magazine (who hosted the event), so I will certainly be keeping an eye out for that and hoping for some recipes for all the delicious food we tasted on the day.

2 clever ways with water:

While juices and smoothies have their place, in a packed lunch they should be limited to only once or twice a week. Kids should be encouraged to have water as their main drink and source of hydration. If your kids struggle with drinking water, the following may help:

1. Flavour the water – add a couple of slices of cucumber or strawberries or raspberries or a slice of lemon to the water bottle to flavour the water and hopefully make it a bit more interesting to drink.

2. Instead of using a fancy water bottle, for older kids use a regular bottle of water and freeze it the night before, just remember to pour a little out the top to make room for expansion. This will then slowly melt during the course of the day providing cold water ready to drink. It also doubles up as an ice pack to keep the rest of the lunch cool.

What will you be packing in your school lunches this year? Do you have any other top tips to share? Leave me a comment below, I would love to hear from you.


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