I’ve been making school lunches for a decade and have a system now (read about it here). I have staples I fall back on and I also like to try different foods because I think variety is important (find a list of 100 ideas here). I started testing hot/chilled foods in the lunch box to see how they go. I’ve done chilled meats/proteins before (you can read the post about it here) and I wanted to focus on hot food this time.
What I’ve learned about lunch box preparation over the years is the importance of stepping back and looking at food for the family as a whole, rather than just breakfast food/lunch box food/dinner food. So as an example, when I’m thinking about dinner meals, I’ll see if I can extend them to lunch box food. Right now I have left over corn beef which I will put on a sandwich for my daughter tomorrow. It does depends on the child too. Some of my kids would just prefer a hummus, ham and cheese sandwich, but as they get older, they are open to more variety.
You need the right sort of product to keep food at safe temperatures and there are many on the market. I use Thermos® Brand products. The Foogo® Food Jar ranges are designed to keep food hot for up to 5 hours, and cold for up to 7 hours which is perfect for a typical school day. The insulated stainless steel drink bottles keep liquids cold for up to 12 hours. I use the stainless steel drink bottle for gym, and if I want to send a really cold drink on a hot day for the kids, but I’m still partial to Contigo drink bottles as regular school drink bottles.
I’m sure there are other brands out there too that do similar things too.
Safety – Keeping Food Hot
I’ve done my own research about lunch box food and safety, and I’ve pulled out some points about hot food and danger zones (source).
- Keep high-risk foods out of the ‘temperature danger zone’ of between 5 °C and 60 °C.
- If high-risk foods have been left in the temperature danger zone for up to two hours the food should be reheated, refrigerated or consumed.
- If high-risk foods have been left in the temperature danger zone for longer than two hours, but less than four hours, they should be consumed immediately.
- Throw out any high-risk foods that have been left in the temperature danger zone for more than four hours.
Safety – Keeping Food Cool
I chatted to dietician Kate Di Prima about keeping food cold, and these are her tips:
As weather warms up parents fret about keeping lunch boxes cool:
- Freeze a low fat milk drink, low fat yoghurt tub or freeze fruit cubes – along with an ice brick – this will keep contents chilled
- Make sandwiches, muffins, scrolls etc a week ahead and freeze. They will be deliciously fresh at lunchtime and will help keep contents cold
- Invest in an insulated lunch boxes – with zip
- keep food fresh and protected in reusable plastic containers
Each container would have its own instructions, but below is what I do with my food jars.
- Boil the jug, and pour it into the container and allow it to sit for 5-10 minutes.
- When I’m ready to pack the hot food, I microwave (or heat it on the stove depending on what it is) the food until it’s steaming hot and completely cooked through.
- Tip out the hot water, and pour the hot food into the food jar, then seal.
Cold food is easier and I don’t tend to worry about using cold water to make the container cold, but you can do the same process as above but with chilled water, for example, before you put fruit salad in there. I often put frozen food in the jars, and that stays frozen FOR AGES (without any prep).
Food Ideas – Hot
- Left over dinner: noodles, spaghetti bolognese, meatballs, stews, fried rice, soups
- Hot chocolate (a rare thing but a nice treat once in a blue moon)
Make your own wrap (recipe here) with left over mince. I add salad and a wrap in the lunch box so the kids put it together fresh.
Heat stews, casseroles, spaghetti bolognese, noodles, soup and other such leftovers from dinner in the morning.
Food Ideas – Cold
- Frozen berries/other fruit
- Frozen smoothies
- Fruit salad
- Freshly squeezed fruit juice
- For other general cold food, I just put it in the lunch box, which I place in an insulated case with an ice brick.
My kids love frozen stuff, and if I put berries or other frozen fruit in a food jar, it’s still frozen at lunch time.
Fresh fruit salad.
A huge hit was smoothie cubes. I made a smoothie, froze it into ice cubes, and added to a food container. It’s still frozen at lunch time, and my kids love it. Great for those summer months and you can add a lot of nutritious things to the smoothie, like spinach.
Ice cold water on a hot day.
One challenging thing about doing litter free lunches is all the packing items. The same goes with packing an insulated container because they do take up space. The best thing I have found is the buy a bigger insulated case (than the lunch box) and I pack it like this. Details on the lunch box I use here.
- My kids are older now, and so I feel confident about giving them hot food, but I wouldn’t send it to school with young school kids because they might scald themselves.
- The lids can be a bit tough to open so I just remember not to seal it too tight. The containers I use are vacuum sealed so they don’t need to be screwed really tight.
- In my hot lunch food test, I found soup worked the best and the kids enjoyed that.
- The kids love wraps too, but are happy to have the meat either hot or cold.
- Frozen foods are a big win so I’ll be doing a lot more of that during the warmer months.
- It’s not hard, but there is a bit of organisation involved and
- Great for the kids who aren’t into sandwiches.
- Good way to add extra protein and vegetables into kids lunch boxes.
Since I’ve been in New Zealand this year, and I don’t have my regular cooking items around me, I’ve found packing heathy lunches more challenging. It’s amazing how familiar things help with daily tasks. I’ve been thinking about reducing the refined carb content, and continuing to think about reducing the refined sugar content in all our foods. I’ll hopefully have more posts about it next year. But all in all, doing little challenges is about trying new things to give me more food options up my sleeve to feed the family.
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