Saturday, February 4, 2012

Getting Your Family's Buy-In for Real Food Lunchboxes

For many of us who've resolved to do better with our eating this new year, the biggest obstacle to conquering that resolution is making packed lunches that we and our loved ones look forward to eating. This is especially true if you have a spouse or kids who are determined that lunchtime means a trip for some fast food, or a sandwich, or a slice of pizza from the cafeteria. Here's a few suggestions on dodging those pitfalls:

  • Don't be afraid to compromise sensibly, especially in the name of initial buy-in - doing this gracefully can help you to dodge protests. Learn the art of the meatza. Make some paleo bread for a die-hard sandwich fan. Find some good quality coconut wraps to make a wrap. That said, be sure to mingle your compromises with some classically paleo meals over the course of the week, which brings me to the next idea.

  • Try to do mostly "meat and veggies" lunches each week. A lunch that is predominantly high quality animal protein, with some veggies included and some healthy fat, is the kind of lunch that will satiate and keep you and your loved ones humming on even blood sugar for the whole afternoon. Remember, protein keeps you awake, sugars make you sleepy. Lots of wonderful, nourishing paleo foods are nonetheless higher in carbohydrates, so keep the lunchtime carbs low to moderate (unless you've just worked out or are just about to work out and your muscles could use them right away!). Hurdle that afternoon slump by emphasizing quality protein!

  • Involve them, if they want to be involved. This one has absolutely been key for our household. My daughter - who is almost 5 - is greatly interested in making suggestions for her lunchbox, and she always wants a sneak peek before it gets zipped up in its case before we go drop her off at preschool. Here's how to involve your kids and spouse:

    :: Solicit grocery list and grocery shopping input. Your kids and spouse are likelier to eat lunches made of ingredients they've selected themselves. The bonus here is that - if they are skimming grocery ads for produce deals and accompanying you to local markets or farmers - they become more aware of seasonal crops and prices.

    :: Discuss a quick preview before the packing starts. Tell your kids or spouse the night before what you have in mind for the next day's lunches. If they aren't up for what you're planning, you can ask them to survey the fridge and pantry and come up with a healthy plan of their own.

    :: Have them do the packing. You can preprep some ingredients or set out some options and help them along the way, but getting your family to put their own effort into packing the lunch helps them to get mentally invested in the process. Keep things age appropriate in the packing process - an adult should slice fruit and veggies ahead for younger kids, for example, but the same younger kids can possibly spoon almond butter into a dip container by themselves.

  • Serve a rainbow. No, not only for the oft-touted benefit that foods of various colors have a wide variety of phytonutrients. Packing lunches with a rainbow of color is also very appealing to kids and results in them eating more of these healthy foods.

  • Mix up a selection of leftovers, fresh foods, and nonperishables. Having a good mix of these three categories means that your packed lunch will come together faster. It also generally provides a good variety and a nice selection of textures for your lunch eaters to explore. Examples:

    :: Leftovers. Last night's chili, or slices of the beef roast. Pieces of cubed leftover chicken.

    :: Fresh foods. Cut fruit and vegetables. Boiled eggs. Sliced cheese or whole fat unsweetened yoghurt (if you do dairy).

    :: Nonperishables. Nuts and natural nut butters. Sea Snax. Freeze dried unsweetened fruits. Coconut flakes. Paleo Kits. Canned tuna or salmon. Beef jerky.

  • Make fun shapes. If you're looking for buy-in from kids, getting familiar with bento lunchbox art is a great strategy. In one case for us, I learned about a four pack of stainless steel mini bento cutters that was around $5 - and they've been so durable and versatile for us, creating all kinds of adorable flower-shaped fruits, veggies, liverwurst, and cheese pieces in my daughter's lunch.

  • Make dips and dressings available. Dips are magical in their ability to win over reluctant lunch eaters! Here are a few ideas:

    :: Read your labels and try straight mustard or mustard horseradish for dipping steak or chicken pieces.

    :: For veggies, try combining coconut cream or sour cream with a bit of tamari (wheat free soy sauce) or coconut aminos and a little onion powder - this makes an onion dip!

    :: Almond butter is a great dip for apple slices or celery sticks.

    :: Tahini dressing could be a nice change of pace, or even try a cauliflower hummus.

    :: You could also make your own ranch dressing at home and be dazzled by the taste that fresh ranch can provide.

    :: Homemade mayo is stunningly simple to make, and could be a nice addition to a BLT salad as well.

    :: For a premade option, Wholly Guacamole makes some very handy and (last I checked the ingredient label) paleo-compatible guacamole that comes in a 100 calorie pack option - presealed premade guac that isn't brown by the time your kids get to it? That's convenient.

  • Finger foods! Who doesn't love a hands-on lunch? Roll quality lunchmeat (additive and preservative free when possible) around a pickle, or a piece of cheese if you do dairy. Serve up fresh snow peas, sliced up sticks of squash, cucumber coins, and baby carrots (don't forget the dip!). Stuff mini peppers with tuna salad (use the homemade mayo!) or another protein filling. Make muffin-size quiches with meat and colorful veggies added in.

  • Treats can facilitate buy-in. Yes, as mentioned above, conscientious carb consumption can keep you from plotzing mid-afternoon, but it's also true that a small treat can make a surprisingly big difference, especially to family members who are not totally sold on a lunchbox overhaul. Some ideas here:

    :: A trail mix with your spouse's favorite nuts, dried fruits, and unsweetened coconut flakes,

    :: A square of high quality dark chocolate,

    :: A coconut manna cup,

    :: A honey straw. These hold a teeny amount - about 1 tsp. - of honey, so they're more about the novelty factor,

    :: A lightly-honey-sweetened grain free coconut macaroon, or

    :: A delicious chocolate mousse made with (yes!) overripe avocado.

Relearning lunch-packing can be challenging - there's no question about that. But be encouraged - it does have a learning curve, and before long the practice of doing it adds up and lets you pull together lunches very efficiently.

How have you changed the lunches that you and your family are eating these days?

This post originally appeared as a January 18, 2012 guest post at Paleo Parents. Big thanks go to Stacy and Matt for giving me the opportunity!


  1. Thank you for the creative ideas and beautiful, inspirational photos.
    We cannot use many of these ideas because of food allergies... sounds like you guys do fine with dairy and eggs but we are Highly Allergic to these as well as to gluten. (what a mess eh?)
    I'd love to see more Paleo type recipes which also avoid these fairly common allergens.

  2. Hi, SumMom,

    There is still a wealth of non-egg non-dairy options featured in my series of packed lunchboxes (well over 160 so far!). Check them out - I encourage you to think of each lunchbox as being four interchangeable compartments - just ignore the compartments that have your allergens and look for other compartments from my other lunches that you could sub instead.

    I also have a dairy free tag on my dairy free recipes, so maybe you can also check those out to see if there might not be something useful for you.

    Good luck!

  3. I am a long time lurker...but I want to say Thanks! for your lunch box series. It has been a long time inspiration for me. We have that exact lunch box and you have really helped me get away from sandwich rut. I appreciate your blog and all the work you put in. Your photos are lovely.


  4. Hey, there, Athena!! Woo hoo! I'm so glad that you've found useful stuff here. :) THANKS so much for the fords of encouragement!

  5. I am so glad I stumbled onto this site! I just started the Paleo diet (down 5lbs this first week!), but I've been "bentoing" for about a year. I want my kids to benefit from eating this way too, and my search led me here. There are so many things I don't think my boys will want to try, but you've inspired me to try a little at a time - thanks so much!

  6. Can I ask you what you do about keeping food cold/warm? Will your preschooler eat the meat/leftovers that you pack cold (with an icepack in the lunch, which is what I usually do)? Or does it end up at room temp, and is that safe? My 9 yr old has been buying lunch at school and is finally sick of it after 8 months. :) She's willing to try mom's crazy paleo diet ;), but the temperature/safety thing is stumping me as I look at the bento-style lunchboxes.

  7. Hi, Jennifer,

    Sorry to get back to you so late on this. My daughter's bento was usually from chilled or just-prepared foods, then packed in an insulated lunchbox until she was able to eat it about three hours later at preschool.

    I'd say if lunchtime was further off than 3 hours, it'd be worth using ice packs to ensure food safety. If your daughter wants the ability to reheat/microwave foods and has that access at school, I'd recommend that she keep and clean a ceramic bowl, or find a ceramic bento set - though that's a tall order for a 9 year old. Otherwise, warming at home and storing in a non-plastic thermos could work well, too!

  8. Hi! Love this post!!
    I recently had sort of an epiphany (don't laugh!). I had been letting my kids buy lunch thinking it was cheap and I knew they were only eating some of it anyway and I would feed them (basically an entire meal) when they got home anyway.
    But then I started thinking about what they like to eat and how even if it costs me more $, it will help them have a better schoolday (maybe *rolls eyes*), might make them less ravenous when they get home (so the cost would balance out, right?) and *i* know what they eat (and that the food pyramid is wrong).
    So, I vowed that this year we are doing lunchboxes instead of buying.(My husband says he'll believe it when he sees it).

    Drinks are my question. I would really like them to drink milk (with homemade chocolate sauce) but hate thermoses. I have experimented with several drink holders but they are leaky or hard to clean, etc. Reused disposable water bottles seem to be the way to go for us at the moment but do you have other ideas?

  9. It is an awesome article.Great food recipes and ideas.Very Nice and Interesting. Thanks for sharing it!!


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