Why You Should Spend Less Time Making Fancy Lunches

July 10, 2015

In Kids' Lunch, take a look into what people in the food world and the world at large pack their children (and occasionally their significant others and maybe even their pets) for lunch. 

Today, Kelsey Banfield, a.k.a. The Naptime Chef, resolves to spend less time trying to make her daughter's lunches fancy and more time reading good books. 

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Every September I get all worked up about packing lunch. After an obsessive August on Pinterest, I find myself artfully arranging perfectly chopped vegetables, sandwich bites (or roll-ups when I’m feeling fancy), and color-coordinated fruit skewers in the compartments of my 7-year-old's lunch box.

But this energy never lasts. After a couple weeks of asking my daughter how she liked her lunch (I’m looking for praise, obviously) and being met with a tired sounding, “It was fine, Mom,” it's back to reality.

And you know what? Reality is just fine. Because kids don’t need fancy lunches and I don’t need to spend hours composing them. Here is our go-to lunch strategy that keeps her happy and well-fed:

1) Carb Bomb: Slices of banana bread, zucchini bread, or cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches are real favorites. This year we also got into mini-bagels with cream cheese and jam. The carb feature is always a must so I never skimp on the portions. 

2) Dessert-ish Fruit: She likes fruit that is very sweet and ripe so I stick with berries (I freeze them in the summer and dole them out in the winter), watermelon, ripe cantaloupe, or a clementine. It is never a good idea to pack a banana. I’ve been informed they get mushy in the lunchbox and she is not amused by messages inscribed in the peel with a toothpick. (Or even messages on a Post-It note. So, no messages from Mom at all, thank you very much.)

You will not find these Homemade Cheez-Its in Kelsey's daughter's lunch.

3) Salty Crunchy Something: This is the portion of lunch I turn over to the experts. There is no homemade Pirate's Booty, Goldfish crackers, or pretzels in this house. Those experts live at BJ’s, in bulk, and make my life easier. 

4) Stand-in Smoothie: I love the idea of blending fresh smoothies every morning and packing them in stainless-steel canisters with striped paper straws. I’ve done it exactly once. She came home and told me loved the homemade smoothie because it tasted just like Stonyfield. Wha??? Why bother? Our store-bought yogurts do a beautiful job standing in for the homemade variety so I’ll stick with them. (Note: These can also be found in bulk at BJ’s.)

It has taken me five years to hammer out this strategy but I think we’ve finally got it down pat. This August, I plan to skip Pinterest and read a good novel. 

First photo by Sarah Jampel; second photo by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Beth Boyson
    Beth Boyson
  • AntoniaJames
  • ktr
  • Kelsey Banfield
    Kelsey Banfield
Home cook, food blogger, cookbook author, wine lover, avid traveler, and mother of two young children. Check out my books: The Naptime Chef: Fitting Great Food into Family Life (2012), and The Family Calendar Cookbook: From Birthdays to Bake Sales, Good Food to Carry You Through the Year (2015), Running Press.


Beth B. July 12, 2015
fascinating brain science in the comments. I will only add that, for me 53 year old person, I enjoy pulling out my one of four types of simple homemade lunches at work. Now I know why!
JESSICA S. July 10, 2015
"Signifcant"...again! :)
AntoniaJames July 10, 2015
I agree! Neuroscientists have proven quite conclusively that every decision a person must make throughout the day depletes brain function for important cognitive activities. Kids, especially when in school, are challenged over and over throughout the school day. Many children function best when aspects of their lives that could be quite variable are allowed to be routine. My sons had simple lunches that looked almost identical from day to day, because that is exactly how they wanted it. Both boys turned out just fine. They're both excellent cooks, with well stocked freezers full of homemade soups, braises, stocks, meatballs and dinner-ready staples (most courtesy of the Food52 Genius column, I might add). One bakes incredible artisanal breads. Both throw dinner parties with outstanding menus, perfectly executed, effortlessly.
One thing I'd add, which others who read the kids' lunch columns here have seen me post many times, is that we had our sons start making their own lunches, with my or their father's help only to the extent necessary, from a very early age (age 7 for my younger son and 8 1/2 for my older one). There is nothing that improves the self-esteem of a young child as much as allowing him or her to make a significant contribution to the well-being of the family. We taught planning, flexibility and perhaps best of all, accountability, in this process as well. (I was given a lot of responsibility as a child, for which I will always be grateful to my parents.) ;o)
Kelsey B. July 13, 2015
This brain science IS fascinating. It aligns with my daughter for sure - predictable, simple satisfying lunches make her happy. And that makes me happy too. I agree about preparation as well. Last year she was in charge of preparing her own snack. Next year we are moving toward lunch assembly with assistance as needed. It is always encouraging to hear stories of how this approach has worked well for other families!
ktr July 10, 2015
I love this! My sister spends more time planning out her son's lunches (he's in preschool) than she does planning the rest of the meals they eat all week. My son starts preschool this year and we've already decided most days it will be a peanut butter sandwich, some type of fruit and carrots with dip (ranch dressing). I may vary it up occasionally to include oatmeal, yogurt, raisins or dates but I'm not going to spend an hour packing his lunch full of things that he isn't going to eat. A smoothie is an excellent idea though - I make one for myself a few times a week anyway.