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There are 180 school days and the same number of school lunches to prepare. It’s daunting and can overwhelm the most creative of chefs. Oftentimes I browse through Websites and see animal figure sandwiches and elaborate recipes that take me even longer to read than I’d want to spend preparing lunch.

Don’t despair with the age-old question, “What did you pack for my lunch today?” There are quick, healthy, inexpensive ways to gear up for the next 180 days of lunches without going crazy!

Here are 9 tips to keep lunchtime healthy and interesting.

  1. Make a grocery shopping plan: Over the weekend, take stock of what’s in the pantry, go grocery shopping accordingly. This will help reduce having to throw away food and help save you money. Shop with intention, knowing which lunches you’ll prepare for which days. And remember to shop the perimeter first – produce, dairy, meats and the bakery – before entering the aisles of packaged and processed madness.
  2. Cut, slice and store! Save time by preparing things ahead of time. On Sunday evening, wash, cut up in-season fruits and vegetables for the week (with the exception of apples, pears, and bananas!). In-season foods are less expensive and more eco-friendly. Put cut up fruits and vegetables in separate containers. It’s super easy to mix and match fruits and vegetables when they’re already cut up and clean. (Even at 5:30 in the morning.)
  3. Cube cheese and roasted chicken like you cut up your fruits. Have them in containers and ready to put in sandwiches, salads, and other yummy lunches. Finger foods are always a hit, and here’s a healthy way to do it.
  4. pita sandwichThink outside the bread box: Pita bread, bagels, whole-grain tortillas, crispy lettuce (for wraps), crepes, banana pancakes … are all great bread substitutes for sliced bread to keep things interesting. Pepper-roasted hummus to dip pita bread is a big favorite. Wrap shredded roasted chicken or tuna fish with cheese in a tortilla. Give kids a bit of Elvis with peanut butter, raisins, and crunchy bacon on a bagel. Have breakfast for lunch with banana pancakes and cut up strawberries. Instead of a cheese sandwich on bread, put a slice of cheese on an apple – the sweet, savory combo is a winner.
  5. Go retro: Make sub sandwiches every now and again with your kids’ favorite flavors. Keeping processed meats to a minimum is important, but indulging every now and again in a salami and cheese sandwich, or a classic ham isn’t a problem. Dress it up with crunchy vegetables (cucumber and carrots) and a splash of vinegar and oil, just the way they like them.
  6. pasta saladLeftovers are the best! Pasta or quinoa salad, bean salad, fried chicken, even pizza – all those delicious meals that taste better the next day – are great options for a quick and easy lunch.  You’re clearing out the fridge and kids are eating more variety.
  7. Take a dip! Kids love finger foods. So prepare their favorite dips: guacamole, peanut butter, hummus with sliced up crunchy fruits and vegetables. This is a healthy, favorite lunch and keeps things interesting and easy-to-eat.
  8. Get kids involved: If kids have a say in what they want for lunch, they’re more likely to eat their lunches. Have your kids grocery shop with you. Have your kids help cut up fruits and vegetables, cheese and chicken. They can learn to prepare their own lunches.
  9. avocadoWater, water, water: Steer clear of boxed juices. Water is the best way to hydrate, and least expensive! Freeze water bottles overnight to keep kids cool and refreshed.

There are mornings we’ll be running behind … many mornings. But by preparing food ahead of time and having a plan, we’ll save time and money when getting school lunches ready. Keeping lunches fresh and interesting also insures kids are getting the variety of nutrients their bodies need. So take the stress out of, “What’s for lunch?” and look forward to lots of delicious meals to share throughout the year.