The Pioneer Woman Tasty Kitchen
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Packing Lunches

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Tasty Kitchen Blog: Kitchen Talk (Packing Lunches)

If you’re like me, making lunches in the morning does not represent the height of your culinary creativity. I have been known to let out a pitiful sigh while staring uninspired into the fridge, only to end up grabbing the same few items: fruit, deli meat, cheese. And then, of course, there’s the inevitable mining of the veggie drawer for items my child will actually eat. This time of year, we can really get into autopilot mode, packing the same old lunch every day. So today, we want to pick your brains for ways to pack delicious lunches (for kids or grown-ups!) while keeping the morning sane in the process. So tell us:

What are your tips for packing healthy and interesting lunches?

I’m short on lunch ideas these days, but I do have one simple one that’s tried and true. Veggies and dip! It always feels like a bit of a defeat to open the lunch box at the end of the day and find containers still full of food. Often it’s the vegetables that get left behind, so one of my reliable solutions has been to pack dressing or dip with the vegetables. I have a child who loves foods he can dip, so this encourages him to eat up the healthy stuff, too. I like to use homemade salad dressing I made for dinner the night before, or just hummus, guacamole or yogurt dip, like tzatziki.

Erika has a good system. She says: “I like packing pasta or grain salads because I can easily make them the night before and store them in the refrigerator already packed in a lunch container. Then I can just quickly heat it up in the morning as I make coffee or steep tea. I sometimes make big batch of the pasta or grain base and the protein so I can whip up different versions, like Italian, Greek, Mexican, or Asian.”

Nanci always has whole wheat tortillas handy to throw whatever leftovers from weeknight dinners into a super quick wrap (brisket, fajitas, lunch meat, Philly cheese steak, chicken Caesar salad, pinto beans, etc.). She also has a yogurt maker and makes yogurt each week. So a cup of homemade Greek yogurt with some jam in it is always on her lunch menu. Other than that, she makes big batches of whatever she makes for dinner and typically throws a small container or two of the leftovers into the freezer for a super quick toss into a lunch bag.

Now for your tips! Tell us about your favorite items to pack and/or your brilliant lunch-planning tricks below. We’re ready for our brown bag attitude adjustment!



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C. L. ( Cheryl ) "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser on 4.26.2014

Greetings Everyone! This is an interesting topic to me. The old saying goes do not eat a lot mid day or you may be sluggish the rest of the afternoon? So, true the adage for adults. Children on the other hand (if not utilizing school cafeterias’ for whatever reason) this awesome task becomes problematic. You can not nuke food every single day, can you? Who wants a cold sandwich every day. You can only eat so much ruffage in any given day/week. Eating out can get rather costly and weight gain inevitable. Have I raised enough questions in your minds yet? If you are packing for just yourself it may be an easier task, or is it? Alternating options comes to mind. Really, that is what I do. I never skip meals and I drink a lot of water. In my climate (sub-tropical) fresh fruits, seafood, salads, wraps, left-overs from home the night before all play a huge role in daily lunch packing. Let’s face it we all have our own individual favorites and we are creatures of habit. CLW

Jess McKnight on 4.24.2014

I pack for my 2 kindergarteners, my husband and myself! The boys and hubs generally get sandwiches (I make 2 of the same each evening, cut one in half for the boys and hubs gets the other). I also try to bake some kind of bulk snack over the weekend – muffins, breads, bars, etc and so I try to throw something homemade in on a daily basis. Always try to include a fruit/veg and then a “treat.” Sometimes I’ll send spaghettios w/ the boys in their thermal containers. I follow Weight Watchers, so my lunches are often different, but I bring a lot of leftovers – i have a mini crockpot that I keep at my desk, so I can leave the base here and bring the insert back and forth. Pop it in in the morning and it’s hot/reheated by lunch! I also bring a salad every day — I have a ziploc container that keeps the dressing separate until I pour it on. Salad’s the same, but my main course rotates, so I get lots of variety.

Lisa H. on 4.24.2014

I pack lunch for my hubby every day and he is on the road as a salesman, so I can’t do leftovers that need to be heated up. His favorite is chicken wraps. I buy boneless/skinless chicken breasts in bulk when it’s on sale and marinate it in Italian dressing. Then hubby grills it and I slice it thin and lay the slices out flat on a wax paper lined cookie sheet. Stick the cookie sheet in the freezer for a while (till chicken is partially frozen) and then dump it all in a big freezer bag. It’s a bit of work up front, but in the AM when I’m making his wrap, it’s all worth it! I put a layer of lettuce or spinach on the wrap, then 4 or 5 pieces of frozen chicken and drizzle it with low fat ranch dressing…wrap it all up and he’s good to go! The chicken defrosts in his lunch cooler and by the time he eats it, it’s fine. I round his lunch out with yogurt topped with homemade granola, baby carrots and some whole grain chips and maybe a small sweet :) As a variation, I sometimes put tuna in his wrap instead of chicken and in the summer when our veggie garden is going, I’ll put some sweet pepper strips and/or cucumber strips in with the chicken. I mix it up with some PB&J some days or a salad with a chopped up hard boiled egg other days…no complaints yet, so I guess he likes it :)

Kathryn in Texas on 4.23.2014

My picky young teen likes the same lunch everyday. A ham wrap with lots of lettuce, an apple, 2 oreos, a little bag of Lays and a bottle of water. If I deviate from the schedule he goes hungry :)

Bethany on 4.23.2014

I love the salad-in-a-mason-jar tip! My husband and I usually just take leftovers, but I get a little more creative with lunches for my toddler to take to preschool. One of my favorite things to pack for her is a take on antipasto – olives, cherry tomatoes, diced up mozzarella, salami, and pepperoni. Also, if you send components for things (like sandwiches or a salad) instead of pre-assembling it, you can avoid that unappetizing mushy-bag-lunch flavor and texture and it’s less time to put together in the morning (although it does tend to generate more containers).

Mags on 4.23.2014

I don’t pack lunch for a child, only for myself because I despise office food. So obviously I’m coming at it from a “I love healthy yum food” and don’t need to be cajoled into eating any of it. That said, I enjoy my lunchbox more if there is plenty of colour (in the beginning I set myself a vague target of using red, yellow, green, white and black at least), different textures, and a mix of preparation methods. Usually it’s 4 parts carb (either leftover from a big pasta/rice dinner or a fresh sandwich), 3 parts veg (fresh, pickled, (leftover) cooked, whatever), 2 parts protein ((leftover) meat, cheese, a pot of yogurt), an optional 1 part fruit.

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AngAk on 4.23.2014

my goodness Shawna, where are you? I’ve never heard of so many food restrictions in a school before. no wonder you have trouble coming up with lunches or get in a rut. I’m deathly allergic to apples, but would I expect a school to ban apples. no. good luck, and it sounds like you have a good handle on it already.

Rebecca on 4.23.2014

No brilliance here. I generally rotate between Greek yogurt, PBJs and deli/cheese rollups (the sandwiches never got eaten). I do try and include something fruity: bananas have been hot lately, but applesauce gets its time too, The red pepper or the snow peas enjoyed a good run too, The “less time for lunch” thing has been hitting here. Am I the only one who thinks lunch should be a little down time for socialization and de-stressing as well as eating time?

Janet on 4.23.2014

I just discovered, via Pinterest (what did we do before this was invented?), the magic of the salad in a pint jar. Not practical for school lunches maybe, but great for work. Put your dressing in first, add whatever “fun” stuff you want, leftover chicken bites, dried cranberries etc., then pack your lettuce in on top. At lunch time, shake it up, pour it out on a plate, ta-done. I fix them up each Sunday for the week ahead.

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Shawna C on 4.23.2014

I am eager to see more comments as packing lunches isn’t a favourite activity of anyone in our house, and it’s made even harder by school allergy restrictions (no nuts or peanuts in both kids’ classes, no egg (which means mayo and most baking) or kiwi or blueberries in my son’s class, no sesame (which means hummus) or pumpkin/squash in my daughter’s class), and kid food quirks (no dips, no dressings, no spreadable or funky cheeses, no yogurt with “bits”, etc. etc.), not to mention the fact that there are two 20-minute “nutrition breaks” instead of a full lunch break so everything has be fast to access and eat, plus absolutely everything has to be packed into reusable containers… sigh. It’s hard not to get into a rut.

Our lunches are not adventurous (meat, cheese and lettuce on or in some type of bread, grapes/apple slices/bananas, + one of crackers/granola bar/mini-muffin/yogurt without bits), so the only tip I can offer is to pack everything the night before and store it in a dedicated space in the fridge so it’s easy to find and throw in the insulated bag with a cold pack in the morning.

I’ve heard that it’s also a good idea to give kids food parameters and let them pack their own lunches so they’ll eat them, but with time so short in the evenings that we sometimes have to skip homework I don’t see this happening for us this year. I have to rely on threats to get everything eaten instead. ;)

Lindsay HH on 4.23.2014

Salads! Sort of the same as the wrap concept, but low-carb for slowing metabolisms and no chance of soggy tortillas. I keep salad greens and veg cut up in the fridge, then just assemble a quick salad in the morning (or the night before if things are going well) using leftovers as toppers – cheese, pickly things, leftover protein, even roasted veggies are great cold with salad dressing! I use mason jars to store homemade salad dressings so I don’t have to mess with small containers – they don’t spill in lunch bags, so I just toss the whole jar in and whoever’s eating the salad can add as much or as little dressing as they like when it’s time to eat.

CathyM on 4.23.2014

My hubby and I have found a quick lunch for the week is to pre-pack individual salads. We buy a nice spring mix and top it with assorted berries, feta or goat cheese, rotisserie chicken (it’s quick). Nuts, craisins, and green onions are optional. I can pack 2 or 3 containers with dressing on the side – pulling out one each day. And I like the idea that you can change up the salads to your liking: Chef Salad, Mexican, etc.