School lunch

The week before my son started kindergarten, I tearfully called a friend asking for advice.

We had been through a lot that summer — including transitions related to the trials of divorce, new schedules and split parenting time — so I could have been crying about any number of real issues. But the reason I was sobbing on the phone was because I didn't know how to pack a good enough school lunch for my son.

I had purchased three Bento boxes and spent weeks scrolling through Pinterest pages of nut-butter sandwich faces, animals made out of quinoa, organic berries and homemade flax cookies. As I stared down my new reality of being a working, divorced mom with a kid who I was sure would never eat hot lunch, these cute pictures taunted me as yet another way I was sure to fail as my son started his journey into elementary school.

Today, my son is about to enter third grade. I have now packed hundreds of lunches and none of them have been Instagram-worthy. My son has also eaten hot lunch and liked it.

The lesson my friend taught me that day — which I have remembered ever since — was letting go of the idea that packing social-media-worthy lunches and snacks is part of our job description. It's nearly impossible to live up to and, quite frankly, I can't imagine my 8-year-old son sitting at the lunch table marveling at the cuteness of an owl-shaped sandwich. I'm pretty sure he's more focused on how quickly he can go to recess — and maybe whether or not I packed him chips.

Recently, my oldest step-daughter asked me to pack her lunch some days, too — which I am happy to do. I then overheard my son give her this wise advice: "Here's the thing you have to understand. Mom's really excited about packing lunches the first few weeks of school, and they're pretty good. But by the end of the year, it's all peanut butter sandwiches and applesauce squeeze packs."

I burst out laughing. Long gone are the days of tears over packed lunches.

If you find yourself stuck in a lunch-packing rut, or pinning too many lunchroom masterpieces online, here are a few easy ideas that will do the trick.

  • Leftovers. Did you have biscuits, pizza, cornbread or pasta last night? What about chicken breast, ham or roast beef? These can all be packed with an ice-pack and offered deliciously cold the next day. Throw in a little container of ranch or mustard and you are a hero.
  • Deconstructed tacos. Pack a flour tortilla, shredded cheese and small container of toppings your kids like. Maybe, if you're adventurous, you can throw in some salsa or guacamole.
  • A DIY Lunchable. You could buy the real deal, or you could buy crackers, deli meat, cheese and carrot sticks, and have an easy-to-please substitute on hand all the time. Plus there are a million variations to this idea. You can switch up the crackers, change the meat and throw in apples and nut butter instead of cheese.
  • Breakfast for lunch. Yes, you can have a toaster waffle in your lunch box! Additionally, granola or a mini-box of cereal with yogurt and fruit on the side makes for a great lunch.

I also always keep substantial sides on hand. They include yogurt, carrot sticks, applesauce squeeze packs, beef jerky, dried cranberries, almonds, pistachios, grapes, strawberries and cheese sticks. (There's also nothing wrong with Goldfish or chips in my opinion!)

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Jessica Janssen Wolford is a mom and stepmom raising three kiddos with her husband, Eric, in Elkhorn. You can read more about her experiences on her blog, “A Step in the Right Direction.” You can also follow her on Twitter @jessljwolford.

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