With the school year about to start, my partner and I are looking for ways to get our three kids to pack their own lunches. Do you have any secret tips to get them on the right path? Any good lunch recipes?
– Sick of Being the Lunch Lady
Before I get started on lunch packing tips, I think it's important to acknowledge that we live in a city that's home to one of the better public school meal systems in the state, with in-classroom breakfasts for all students, and a new garden-to-cafe program teaching kids the horticultural basics through school gardens, where they'll grow ingredients for lunchtime meals. AISD high school students have two roaming Nacho Average Food Trucks, providing them with plant-based, whole food meals of breakfast tacos in the morning, and a rotating slate of globally themed burgers at lunch. All of these programs are taxpayer subsidized, offering low-income students access to healthy, reliable meals during the school year.
Even so, the prospect of a school lunch can be pretty grim. Any food cooked for a mass audience tends to be bland, overcooked from the steam table, and generally unappealing. Instead of cafeteria food, students will often resort to cobbling together vending machine meals using spare change. Ramen is always popular, and the hot trend in my middle school was skipping out on the cafeteria for Hot Cheetos and chocolate milk, which, to be fair, does cover three of the major food groups if you count the spicy chili dust as both a cheese and a vegetable.
If your family's finances and access to spare time make it possible, having your kids make their own lunches can be a great option, both because it encourages them to take responsibility for what they eat, and because learning your way around the kitchen at a young age, or any age, really, is a great way to expand your palate. I find that even picky eaters are much more likely to eat vegetables they prepared themselves, a rule which seems to be true of both kids and adults, if my fully grown friends are any indication.
So if you're on board with the idea of making lunch, and your kids are on board too, why is it so hard to get anyone to actually, you know, DO it? And how can you get them to start? One effective method is to have an awards system in place, so kids get some incentive for cooking. Another is to let them come to the store with you, and pick out what they want to make for lunch that week, cooking together as a family, with the kids packing their own lunches as you and your partner make dinner. Austin is home to more restaurants than I can count where you can buy premade, good-tasting picnic foods, any of which would be the perfect thing to put in a lunch box.
The prepared food section at Hana World Market is a great place to start. They have a whole cooler full of banchan, the delicious vegetable side dishes that make going out for Korean barbecue such a compelling experience, including my personal favorite, kimbap, the tightly packed Korean sushi rolls stuffed with daikon radish, spinach, and bulgogi, perfect for keeping in the fridge for easy lunch access. Throw in some carrot sticks and a plum, and you've got yourself a good time. While you're there, you can even pick up a few packages of frozen dumplings and steamed buns, which your kids can heat up in the microwave and pop in their lunch boxes in the mornings before school. They'll be making you lunch to take to work in no time.