Why I Make My Kids Pack Their Own Lunches (And One Thing That Makes It Even Easier)
Once upon a time, back when I knew nothing beyond half-day preschool, I was excited at the prospect of packing my first lunch box. My social media world had gone Full Bento/Cute Food Crazy at the time, so I had visions of cozy little compartments full of tiny sandwiches, precious little fruit flowers and animal faces made of vegetables. And of course, my child would love and appreciate and totally eat all those things.
Several school years, three kids, and countless half-eaten lunches have…uh…dramatically altered my #lunchboxgoals, to put it mildly.
It quickly became clear that the lunch box was simply not the place to get daring or adventurous. My kids want the familiar during the school day, and the utilitarian. They need to eat quickly (lunch time is SHORT!) and they need to actually EAT what’s been packed (school day is LONG!). And my creative kiwi-cutting efforts would never be as appreciated as a quick note or doodle scribbled on a napkin.
And so packing lunches downshifted into a basic assembly line task, with little variation. And that’s fine, except that I was still tossing 3/4 eaten sandwiches out each night, fielding complaints that so-and-so didn’t like the yogurt I packed and wanted string cheese instead, and yeah I DO like strawberries Mom but I just wasn’t in the mood for strawberries TODAY.
(Meanwhile, those lovely, perfectly ripe strawberries spent seven un-refrigerated hours in a warm classroom cubby and were now oozing and disgusting.)
Then one day, my first grader (perhaps sensing my frustration or that I was about to pack the Wrong Granola Bar Again) asked if he could pack his own lunch. His older brother also liked that idea. And that was that. Lunch packing was officially outsourced to the lunch eater.
And it’s great! I highly recommend this particular division of responsibility. I buy the building blocks of a balanced lunch — they get to build it. They know what is and what isn’t allowed at lunch (no nut products!) and know not to go too heavy on the snacks or sweets. (We use those divided and stackable lunch container kits to keep portion sizes realistic.) Some days they just want some Goldfish crackers, other days they whip together a mini fruit salad or mix of crunchy vegetables. No one ever has to suffer the Wrong Granola Bar or That One Unacceptable Yogurt Flavor. Almost immediately, we had less wasted food coming home.
EXCEPT. There was one flaw in this glorious system of self-sufficiency:
My kids are absolutely lousy at sandwich making. And sandwich portioning.
Nine lunches out of 10, they just want a sunbutter and jelly sandwich. But like, only 3/4 of one. A full sandwich will always get abandoned so they won’t run out of time to get to their sides and snacks. I asked them to just make themselves half sandwiches, which they did, and yet we were still going through sunbutter and jelly (ESPECIALLY JELLY) at a previously unknown pace. They piled SO much on the bread (and were totally sneaking licks and unsanitary finger scoops), resulting in ripping, goopy messes in their lunch containers and all over the kitchen counters. A half sandwich wasn’t “enough,” they explained, so they wanted it “extra full.”
I kept supervising, they kept practicing. “Finish your sandwich first,” I nagged to the void. I reminded myself this was an Important Life Skill and Worth Sticking With, even as I retrieved yet another jar of jelly from the pantry three days after I opened the last one.
Then one day, Jason went grocery shopping and came home with a box of what was basically Super Fancy Gourmet Uncrustables, made with school-friendly sunbutter and a more acceptable jelly and bread combo (no HFCS or partially hydrogenated oils). There were only four in the entire box, and when I asked how much they cost he wouldn’t even tell me.
“Why in the world did you…” I sputtered.
“Because I bet you can hack them,” he interrupted, with an I dare you look in his eyes.
Sure enough, my kids lovvvvvvvvved those sandwiches, both the convenience and the novelty and the perfect not-full-not-half size. They were fun! They made lunch packing so easy! They begged us to buy them again.
I did not buy them again. I got this instead: A sandwich sealer and decruster, a weird thing that exists that is also legitimately awesome and lunch-life changing.
Grab a loaf of bread (the Arnold variety pictured here works GREAT, but otherwise look for something generously-sized that’s also a bit stretchy/pliable that won’t crumble or crack too easily) and whip up a weeks’ worth of sandwiches in no time at all. I’ll usually power through two loaves at a time, since we go through so many and it’s easy to just stay in the groove.
Spread your fillings. (The proper amount can take a little trial-and-error, depending on your choice of bread.)
Press down on the outer square to cut and separate the crust, then press on the inner square to seal the edges. For a better seal, flip the sandwich over, realign and press the inner square down again.
Arrange in single layers between wax paper in a plastic container or freezer bag and freeze. Sandwiches defrost fairly quickly in a lunch box, or overnight in the refrigerator, if you pack the night before. Toasting or warming up is completely optional.
I admit we’ve never tested exactly how long they’ll keep in the freezer before taste/texture problems, because we go through them at such a rapid-fire pace. If these sandwiches exist in our freezer, they are the #1 go-to choice for all three boys for lunch — even on pizza day!
As for the crusts, I freeze them and use for bread crumbs (hiiiiii double cauliflower turkey nuggets) or casseroles. Or my kids join me at the kitchen counter and eat them for a snack. Because again, we’re a weird house.
So I suppose there’s one con, which is that I’m back at the ol’ sandwich assembly line, but this is easily outweighed by the pros: I’m making a super convenient lunch option out of high-quality ingredients, at a fraction of the cost of a processed version, my kids LOVE them, and we’re eliminating wasted food in both the prep and consumption departments. I make these on Sundays and then the kids are fully in the driver’s seat the rest of the week when it comes to lunch packing, which they can do super quickly, with less grumbling or unhygienic jelly licking.
Which leaves me plenty of time to sneak those little napkin notes and doodles into their lunch boxes afterwards.
Photos by Jen Tilley