Back-to-School Lunchbox Hacks

Prep and pack your way to a better lunchbox — one that will keep food fresh and kids happy.

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Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Tips to Remember

No matter how savvy a mom and cook you are, we ALL need fresh lunchtime ideas and tricks and tips to keep things fresh. Here are some to keep in your back pocket long after the initial back-to-school ambition wears off.

A System for Snacks

If you have a pantry closet or a snack drawer, put all non-refrigerated lunchbox add-on items in small bins and let the kids pick one from each bin to round out their meal. For instance, you might pack up a sandwich, and then the kids can pick one item from the beverage bin, one item from the healthy snack bin, and one item from the treat bin. No morning arguments, and you can restock the bins as needed.

Put Drinks on Ice Duty

Store your lunch beverages in the freezer and put them in the lunchbox ice-cold. They will defrost by lunchtime and do double duty by acting as an ice pack to keep the rest of the lunch chilled.

Freeze Away

And beyond beverages, other lunchbox items can be frozen to act as an ice packs to keep everything else cool, and then defrost for eating by lunch time. Try single serve containers of apple sauce, fruit cups and tubes of squeezable yogurt.

Bread Roll-Ups

If the thought of making your own sushi sounds daunting (especially for a school lunch!), try Catherine McCord of Weelicious’s advice for blending the sushi concept with the sandwich tradition: "Forget ho-hum sandwiches and instead make 'sushi sandwiches' by rolling bread out with a rolling pin (or wine bottle) and spreading with any and everything from cream cheese and tapenade, pb+j, hummus + grated carrots and more!"

No More Broken Chips

Crushed chips are a bummer, but if you put chips in a small zipper top bag and blow it full of air before sealing, those chips will have a little air pillow to protect them. Buying larger bags of snacks and creating your own single size bags is also a money saver.

Butter Defense

This one from Emily Paster of West of the Loop: "A lot of us know that when making a PB&J to smear both sides of the bread with peanut butter and then place the jelly on top of the peanut butter to prevent the bread from getting soggy. But did you know that if you smear bread with a thin layer of butter before spreading mustard or mayo, it will have the same effect?"

Little Assistants

A tried and true way to get kids excited about meals is to make them a part of the process. The night before, either have them write out what they would like in their lunchboxes, and perhaps pack anything that can be assembled the night before (you can store the whole lunchbox in the fridge).

If items need to be assembled in the morning, like a sandwich or a wrap, put the ingredients in one spot in the fridge before bed so there is no prolonged hunting and gathering during those tightly timed school mornings.

No Bread? No Problem!

Another suggestion for what to do when you’ve run out of bread from Emily Paster: "Try using toasting whole grain freezer waffles and using them instead of bread for your child’s sandwich. These work especially well with peanut or nut (or soynut or sunflower) butters." They make sandwiches more exciting, too!

Microwave-Safe Supplies

Blogger and cookbook author Heather Christo offers this nugget of advice: "I buy thick paper soup takeout containers at my local restaurant supply store and fill them with cold soup (or anything else that can be reheated.) The kids microwave them at school (so they are not microwaving food in plastic) and then the containers are compostable."

DIY Ice Packs

Katie Chin, chef, author, blogger and fortune cookie maven, has a smart ice pack hack: "Keep ice packs taped to the inside of a lunchbox so kids won't lose or throw away. You can also freeze a new kitchen sponge in a zip-top bag (saturate with clean water, place in bag and freeze flat) and use as an ice pack. This is much cheaper than an ice pack -- if they do lose it -- and also lighter."

Seal Sauces In

Those cute little compartments in a bento-style lunch box look just right for hummus and various dips, but if that box tips on its side, sometimes the dip can find its way out of its own compartment, and into the others. Erin Parker of The Speckled Palate says, "Here's what I do with the compartments so that things don't go everywhere: I like to use the sticky kind of plastic wrap to cover the dips." Press down around the edges to seal tightly.

Block Browning

Browned apple slices are a big turn off for most kids, but there are a couple of solutions for that. Opal apples, a yellow-gold variety cultivated to slow browning considerably, really do brown much more slowly than most apples.

But for any kind of apple, try this hack: Pre-slice it, then put the slices back together with rubber band so they don’t have any exposed flesh, and therefore don't brown.