Luckily for me I live in a place where school kids with a medical necessity have to be given a lunch similar to what everyone else is eating. I speak with the Cafeteria Workers at the beginning of each school year and let them know a little about my daughter's needs and how severe her condition really is. Every time they have been very understanding and totally supportive, usually they ask for her favorites and want to know what kinds of things she'd prefer. Lucky for them my daughter likes simple things! We've also bought her a few medic alert style bracelets to wear on her right hand, just to remind people about her condition. Usually she only wears it for the first few months of school, by then everyone is aware and used to things. (I found all of her bracelets on Etsy. The one that she liked the best was silicone, but the writing wore off too quickly for my taste. Luckily she only needed it for a few months.)
My daughter was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in the Spring of her Kindergarten year. For three years I packed her school lunches. At first I didn't know about the law that she had to be given a similar lunch, and even if I'd known I don't think I would have trusted her not to eat something she shouldn't. We actually had a problem once when she tried a friend's chicken nuggets. Let that be a lesson to those with Celiac kids. You need to make them aware of their condition, don't try to hide it from them. We've always been totally honest with our daughter. She knows that if she gets gluten she'll get sick. It just took her having a couple of reactions for the message to sink in. Now she's incredibly careful.
I also pack lunches for my husband to take to work. He doesn't have Celiac Disease, but the same principles apply.
There are two ways I pack a lunch: From Scratch or Leftovers.
The easiest way is Leftovers and that's usually what my husband gets. He has access to a microwave at his office and it isn't a big deal for him to reheat things. If your kid has a microwave at their school then this way might work well for them too.
When I make dinner I rarely cook for just the five of us. Unless I'm making something expensive I always try to make at least two portions more. These left over portions become lunch the next day for my husband and I. This doesn't always work out, there are five of us so if I get a package of chicken with 6 pieces then only Hubby gets leftovers for lunch the next day. This also doesn't apply when I'm making leftovers for another meal, like when I roast an extra chicken to use the meat for soup. Other things are much easier though, and some leave us with much more than just two left over meals. Spaghetti, soup, stir fry, and other 'wet' dinners are easy to make plenty of so we can get many 'extra' meals out of one pot.
After I'm done making dinner I will immediately get the plastic containers out and put aside the portions for lunches. Then if there is any left over after dinner those get portioned out too. I've found it's easier to put the lunch portions away right away, that way if it's something really good we aren't tempted to go back and eat Tomorrow's lunch!
For foods that aren't in the 'wet' category, things like chicken breasts that are in individual portions I like to put them in divided plate containers. That way there is also a place to put sides. For example, if I make grilled chicken I'll usually have some kind of vegetables for the sides. When I'm done cooking the chicken I'll put my husband's lunch piece in the divided plate and go ahead and add veggies to the other sections. The next day he can microwave everything together, save a little time, and still have a nice hot meal.
Even though I'm a stay at home mom I find it's much easier to eat right when I've already got something I can just grab and toss in the microwave. If it's not easy to make I tend to just skip it rather than taking the time to make something. Having leftovers all ready to go really saves me. My toddler doesn't have Celiac Disease, so it isn't like when I make his lunch I can just make extra for me (right now he's at the stage where he only wants PB&J 'sammiches' for lunch.)
Now we move on to Made From Scratch Lunches. These are the lunches I'd make for the kids who didn't have access to a microwave or what I make for my husband on days when there are no leftovers.
There are a few 'rules' I like to follow:
Rule #1: Thou shall not let lunch be boring.
I have found that my family would rather have lots of little portions of different kinds of things to eat than a few larger portions, even if it's something they love. So instead of one big sandwich and two sides I'll try to put 5 or 6 different things in. If they get a sandwich I always cut it into four pieces, triangles or squares. (My husband gets two sandwiches, I just cut those in half. Don't want to embarrass the big guy!)
When my daughter was in Kindergarten and I was still figuring out this whole gluten free thing her lunch usually consisted of: a yogurt, an Envirokidz bar, sliced fruit, and baby carrots. Then she'd buy a milk at school. After I had things more in hand I would alternate the yogurt with a PB&J sandwich.
Going along with the No Boring Lunches rule I would try to alternate what went into lunches. It was always the same formula, but I could vary the pieces. When I went to the store I'd let my kids have a say in what we got. I let them pick the yogurts for their lunches, I'd let them pick the fruit, if we'd run out of jam then they'd get to decide what flavor we got next. I would choose two things (apples or pears, grape jelly or strawberry jam, baby carrots or celery) and they got to pick from there. Giving them unlimited choices would have taken forever or they'd choose something totally out of our budget. Doing it this way let them feel like they had some control without making things too difficult for me. Side note: I try to get the squeezable jam. That way I don't have to worry about cross contamination and I don't have to spend the money to buy two different jars of the same jam. If you're really ambitious you could always buy the squeeze stuff once and then just refill the bottle. I'm not that
Rule #2: Thou shalt not have treats every day.
I don't know about you, but my kids have a tendency to eat treats and not have room for the healthy stuff. I take that option off the table by not adding dessert to their lunches. I'm of the opinion that dessert is a treat, not a right. We don't have dessert after every dinner, why should the kids have dessert after every lunch.
This was especially important when my daughter was first diagnosed. She was having a hard time eating, and being malnourished from the Celiac Disease it was really important that she get as many nutrient rich foods as she could.
That isn't to say that lunch didn't have anything sweet. On the contrary, there was always at least one fruit and sometimes I'd even break down and add fruit snacks. Plus, I always added EnviroKidz bars which seem like a treat even though they are actually healthy. (I like the chocolate ones with the Koala, my kids like the peanut butter ones with a Panda and the Fruit ones with the Cheetah.)
On very rare occasions I'd add a real life treat, cookies or maybe a piece of their Halloween candy. This was the exception though.
Rule #3: Thou shalt bring back any uneaten food.
This one was a rule for my kids. If they didn't eat it at school then they were supposed to put it back in their lunch bag and bring it home. This did two things for me. One, it let me see what and how much they were eating. With my daughter it was important to know that she got enough food. If she hadn't eaten all her lunch I knew I needed to give her a bigger afternoon snack or more at dinner. Two, it let me see what my kids preferred. This is how I learned that my kids didn't like apple slices because they turned brown and therefore 'icky', so I'd save those for an after school snack when they could eat them fresh. It's also how I learned that sandwiches cut in quarters got eaten while sandwiches only cut in half never seemed to be finished.
I never got upset with my kids for bringing something home. I thought that if I yelled at them for not eating something it would just encourage them to throw things away instead of bringing it home. I'd ask why they didn't eat something, but only in an "I'm curious" way.
Rule #4 Thou shalt prepare as much as possible ahead of time.
This is the rule that made the most difference. Once a week (usually Sunday for freshness sake) I get as much ready as possible. I clean, cut, and separate veggies, portion out fruit, cube cheese, whatever can be done in advance. Everything goes into individual sandwich or snack sized bags (if you are environmentally conscious you make or buy reusable bags. Etsy has a lot of options.) I have two places just for lunch stuff, a basket in the cupboard and one in the fridge. The family knows not to touch the stuff in those baskets. (I also have baskets for snacks, so it isn't like I'm teasing them!)
I also do anything I can the night before. This is when the leftovers are sectioned out and the sandwiches get made.
Then in the morning I just have to assemble the pieces. I set the lunch bags out on the counter and toss in what's needed. It's super easy to just grab things out of the cupboard and fridge baskets. I also keep those blue freezer pouches ready in the freezer for days where there are things that are perishable. It's just another thing to grab and toss in the bag. Then the lunch bags go right by the door so we don't forget them on our way out.
Here are some other things that I've found made popular lunches:
We do something at our house called Homemade Lunchables. Instead of paying through the nose for those tiny packages of meat, cheese, and crackers we have a DIY version. I buy meat and cheese from the deli and cut it up during my Sunday prep. Then I separate it into individual portions and put it in baggies in the fridge basket. I'll get nut crackers for my daughter and regular Ritz crackers for my husband and sons, they go in baggies in the cupboard (be careful with the crackers, they can be manufactured with wheat stuff. You'll need to watch out for reactions.) Super easy to grab and go in the morning. Another thing that goes good with this style of lunch is that Summer Sausage that comes in a big ol' club.
De-constructed Salads. This only works for my husband, and it only works if I send the pieces and let him assemble it at work. I'll put a spinach salad mix in one large bowl, then lots of toppings in smaller bowls. Popular toppings are: chickpeas, ham pieces, kidney beans, and grape tomatoes. (Salads like this are also something we do in the Summertime for dinner.)
Other ideas for lunches:
Sandwiches. I mention PB&J a lot because that's my kids' favorite. My husband prefers deli meat and cheese. I tend to get whatever's on sale but not the cheap stuff (that stuff is just gross.) We also like tuna salad and egg salad.
Hard boiled eggs. Again an easy Sunday prep item. I boil a dozen eggs and then draw funny faces on the shells. This does double duty of entertaining my kids and letting me know which carton of eggs was boiled and which is raw. The eggs destined for my husband's lunch only get a small HB (for hard boiled) written on it. (Again, wouldn't want to embarrass him!)
Cheese. If you aren't lactose intolerant then cheese can be an easy way to get a little protein. I buy a big block and slice it up (again on Sunday) in interesting ways. My family really only likes mild cheddar, so to vary things I alternate between slices, cubes, and sticks. String cheese is also very popular with my kids, but it's kind of pricey so we don't do that too often.
Ranch dressing. My husband is kind of a baby when it comes to his vegetables. He likes them, but only if he has Ranch to dip them in. Rather than spend a ton of money on those individual cups of Hidden Valley I bought a bunch of condiment containers and fill it with generic Ranch.
Apple sauce and fruit cups. The slightly larger condiment cups are great for making these yourself too, just make sure your kids can take the lid off without making a mess. Some cups are easier than others.
Okay, that's it! I know this was super long but I hope it was somewhat helpful! I'd love to hear what other people do for lunches as well.
MICROWAVE DIVIDED PLATES WITH VENTED LIDS - (SET OF 4 IN ASSORTED COLORS) These aren't the ones I have. Mine are a few years old and this is as close as I could find.
Rubbermaid 50-Piece Easy Find Lids Food Storage Set
Rubbermaid 7J55 Easy Find Lid Square 1/2-Cup Food Storage Container, 2 pack (I have lots of these. They're great for feeding my toddler and carrying snacks for him in my bag.)
Techni Ice HDR 4 Ply Reusable Ice Packs / Hot Packs (5 Sheets) (These are also great to have in the freezer for bumps and ouches. Especially if your kids are as accident prone as mine are.)
EnviroKidz Organic Cheetah Crispy Rice Berry Bars, 6-Count Bars (Pack of 6)
EnviroKidz Organic Panda Crispy Rice Bars, Peanut Butter, 6-Count Bars (Pack of 6) (Those two are the ones my kids like.)
EnviroKidz Organic Koala Crispy Rice Bars, Chocolate, 6-Count Bars (Pack of 6) (These are the ones I like!)
Smucker's Strawberry Squeeze Fruit Spread - 20 oz
Blue Diamond Nut-Thins Cracker Snacks, Almond, 4.25-Ounce Boxes (Pack of 12)