Every school year starts optimistically. Sure, it's hard to wake up earlier, but if you're anything like me, the start of a new routine is energizing. I return to meal planning, relish fixed hours to get work done, and even devote myself to beautiful packed lunches — for the kids and myself — that will make us all thrilled to eat well, even in the middle of a busy day.
But after a few weeks (or, uh, maybe just two of them), I find myself feeling overwhelmed by the thought of doing this all year long. As in, 180 times.
Sound familiar? That's when I reach for store-bought shortcuts to help, and you should too.
See, I'm a recovering 100-percent-scratch cook. After two kids and a career, I've come to learn that although there is a whole lot in the supermarket that is, sadly, not good for us, there are also lots of wholesome products and shortcuts that can make life for busy home cooks a lot easier. It's why I devoted a whole section of my recent cookbook, Make It Easy, to a supermarket guide that helps parents know what to look for while searching for help that can make cooking easier without sacrificing health.
These seven store-bought shortcuts are lifesavers when it comes to packing lunch. Of course, check the labels to make sure that these products are made with ingredients you're comfortable with, and if they are, rely on them with abandon.
1. The Dip-Centered Lunch
While not all store-bought dips are created equally — some are packed with fillers and artificial ingredients — the ones that are wholesome can make packing school lunch a cinch. Hummus is a go-to, which is why I included a basic (nut-free) roasted tomato version in my cookbook, but I've also found tzatziki, black bean dip, plenty of salsas, and even an artichoke dip that can be packed with pita bread or various chips to make a great main entrée for lunch.
- Round Out the Box: Add fruit or some cooked vegetables to make this a complete lunch.
2. The Veggie Tray Lunch
While it's said that pre-cut fruit and veggies can be less nutritious, they are more nutritious than no fruit and veggies at all. If buying pre-cut and pre-washed produce helps make sure that they get packed in school lunch, buy them — no guilt allowed. Both are especially helpful if your kids pack their own school lunch.
If you prefer to buy whole fruit and veggies or get your produce from the farmers market, you can be the one who pre-cuts and washes on Sunday, so that fruit and veggies are ready to pack all week long. Some lunch box-friendly options include carrots, celery, peppers, radish, apple and pear slices (tossed with lemon juice to reduce browning), mango, pineapple, and berries.
- Round Out the Box: These cut-up fruits and veggies are an easy way to round off a simple sandwich lunch.
3. The Pizza Dough Shortcut
Store-bought pizza dough is one of the most versatile, family-friendly ingredients you can find in the supermarket. You can use it make a regular pizza, pizza pinwheels (stretch it into a rectangle, top, roll, and cut just like when making cinnamon rolls), calzones, or even empanadas.
That's right, just because it's pizza dough doesn't mean that you have to stick to pizza ingredients! Use it in place of any simple, savory dough to whip up make-ahead lunch options that you can pull from the fridge or freezer at will.
- Round Out the Box: Add veggies, a small salad, and some fruit to keep this balanced.
4. The Plain Yogurt Shortcut
Yes, plain yogurt, because it's so much more than a snack. Yogurt without added flavor is incredibly versatile and can be used in both your cooking and to change up your school lunch routine.
Blend it with peanut butter and honey to make a healthy dip for apple slices; top it with granola to make a breakfast-for-lunch meal; or mix it with some grated cucumber, chopped garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and dill to make a tzatziki dip that serves as a protein-rich main with pita chips or even leftover chicken or rolled-up turkey slices.
- Round Out the Box: If packing yogurt as a dip for chips, add some rolled-up deli meat and chopped tomatoes to keep this lunch fresh and colorful.
5. The Tortilla "Sandwich" Lunch
Tortillas can be used in place of bread in so many ways that make lunch more visually interesting. And we all know that we eat with our eyes, right?
Ditch the bread to make sandwich wraps, roll ingredients in tortillas, and then cut pieces to make anything look like "sushi," or make a good old-fashioned quesadilla (because kids will eat anything melted with cheese between two golden, toasty tortillas).
- Round Out the Box: Pack some (store-bought) guac and salsa for color as well as some cut-up fruit.
6. The Canned Bean Salad Lunch
Many parents already know that beans are a lifesaver at dinnertime, but they can also save lunchtime. Many beans, including popular black beans and chickpeas, can be drained, rinsed, and used without even having to cook them.
I often toss beans into leftover rice to give it protein and heft, melt them with cheese in quesadillas, and toss them with chopped veggies and a vinaigrette to make a lunch box-friendly salad.
- Round Out the Box: Along with a quick bean salad, add rolled deli meat and an apple to make this a balanced meal.
Try this: One of my kids' favorite lunches is a quick version of fattoush salad, which is nothing more than chopped cucumber, tomato, and red bell pepper tossed with chickpeas, crunchy pita chips, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Top with crumbled feta if your kids eat it.
7. The Frozen Fruit and Veggie Lunch
Some frozen fruit and veggies can be thawed and used without cooking. I frequently use edamame and corn in lunch box "salads," and have even started layering frozen fruit with high-protein yogurt in a jar with granola on the side to make a breakfast-for-lunch option that my kids are really into. It's so much better than super-sugary fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt!
School Lunch Tips from One Hungry Mama
We asked Stacie Billis, author of Make It Easy and the writer behind the family food blog One Hungry Mama, to share her tips on putting together lunches kids actually want to eat. From grocery store hacks to thoughts on school lunch as the road to autonomy, this mini series is full of helpful tips to power you through the school year.