Anyone responsible for preparing a lunch box for a little human in their lives, please take a moment to give yourself a pat on the back. (Go on, I'm serious!)
It's one thing to have the best intentions at the start of the week for yourself or your adult partner (only to get lackadaisical as the work week powers on... but that's another post), it's yet another to be solely responsible for the Monday to Friday lunchtime sustenance of a small being with changing, ever-evolving tastes.
Sure, kids' lunch boxes take effort and some pre-planning, but mostly, they benefit from new sources of inspiration—especially this time of year, as the school year really settles in and routines start taking hold. For me, there's no greater joy than perusing different lunch box ideas from parents across the country and around the world. And of course, reading through some of Amanda and Merrill's greatest hits for their respective kids is always a motivating start.
My 4-year-old daughter Lana largely ends up getting a reformed version of the previous night's dinner: a rice or pasta base (that's easily microwavable in the classroom—no cafeteria in her preschool) with fresh vegetables and maybe some added protein on the side (both components which can be enjoyed at room temperature or even cold). I usually pack the lunch the night before, with the exception of components like rolled egg omelettes and warm grilled sandwiches, which we'll make in the morning. Total time to pack a lunch box is usually five to 15 minutes, depending on whether anything need cooking or heating up.
For the most part, she prefers warm savory meals like these over cold sandwiches (though she does love to start her day with a good PB&J toast for breakfast). If we do pack a sandwich, we'll make a warm grilled version in the morning; by the time lunch comes around, it's still tasty for room temp consumption.
Browse through a sample week of actual lunches I prepared for my daughter (truth be told, I had to set a calendar reminder to snap these, otherwise I definitely would have forgotten in my too-tired post-dinner state and the melee that is the morning rush)—along with added ideas and tweaks to suit your tastes—and please make sure to share your own kid- and adult-favorite lunch box ideas in the comments section below.
First things first, the tools: There are so many wonderful containers and tools on the market right now, and the variety only seems to be growing. For a preschool-aged child, I think the basics are all you need: a sturdy container (some include their own utensils); a cutlery set (many come with their own carrying case); dividers like silicone cupcake/muffin molds in various size to create compartments (also handy if your family actually does bake) in larger containers; reusable and washable picks for smaller cut fruit and vegetables.
As I mentioned, there are almost too many fun accessories out there for great bento-making, so don't be surprised if you find yourself browsing for a while. (As you'll soon see, I'm prioritizing function over form at the moment.)
As for Lana's lunch box: We have a couple of bento-style boxes in rotation, but for most days of the week, a cute pig lunch box we picked up in Korea last year does the heavy-lifting (a very similar version here). It has two compartments and a sturdy, wide rubber band to keep it all together. After more than a full year of use, it's still going strong after daily washing (mostly by hand, but often by dishwasher). I would recommend hand washing the clear plastic lid to prevent any chances of warping, though.
Shredded roast chicken (from dinner the night before); cherry tomatoes; lentil and brown rice balls seasoned with sesame oil, coated in crushed seasoned seaweed snack, or Korean gim.
Udon with stir-fried ground beef, black bean sauce, and scallions; cherry tomatoes and cucumbers.
Sliced pan-fried Italian sweet sausages; steamed broccoli; mixed grain rice topped with savory bonito and sesame rice seasoning (Japanese furikake).
More ideas: Any grilled sausage of your choice, with fried rice (the end of the week is a great time for this, as you'll probably have some and leftover produce rolling around the fridge) or plain white rice.
Swedish meatballs with boiled potatoes pan-fried in some butter; crab and scallion omelette; sliced bell peppers. (Please forgive the low light; I took this photo the night before because I knew I wouldn't have time the following morning.)
More ideas: Any meatball or vegetable ball or patty of your choice; wedges of roasted sweet potato or steamed acorn or kabocha squash (another favorite; here's a handy squash cooking guide); cut-up savory pancakes.
Mixed brown and white rice with nori and sesame furikake. Egg and nori rolled omelette, steamed edamame pods. (If there were ever a "baseline" bento box for Lana, this would be it—we always have rice, eggs, nori, and frozen edamame on hand)
Update: Lana's class now gets to enjoy pizza delivery every Friday. A treat for us both, if you ask me!
Grilled cheese sandwich with aged cheddar and lingonberry jam on whole grain bread; cherry tomatoes; sliced cucumbers.
More ideas: Honestly, a world of sweet and savory ideas can be heated through in a warm, cheesy sandwich, wrap, or quesadilla. Long live the sandwich!
What are your kids' Monday through Friday stalwarts? I'm all ears!