Lunch Prep Strategies That Work

Whether you’re packing lunch for yourself or the whole household, these streamlining strategies will get you out of the kitchen faster.
Published March 22, 2016

When you’re pressed for time, making a bagged lunch to bring to work or school is often the first thing that falls off the radar. Sure, you could send the kids off with a few dollars for the cafeteria, or pick up soup at the local deli during your lunch break. But a home-packed lunch is almost always more nutritious, tasty (it’s customized for you, by you), and cheaper than anything you’d purchase. Try one or more of these time-saving ideas and you’ll get the lunch prep done faster than you can say “I’ll take two slices and a cola.”

Prep like a pro 
After a long day, the last thing you want to do is turn off The Voice so that you can get back in the kitchen and prepare tomorrow’s lunch. But the more you get ready for the day – or week – ahead, the less hectic your mornings will be. “Wash, cut, and create zipper baggies full of fruit, veggies, or other snacks,” says Missy Chase Lapine, author of The Sneaky Chef Cookbooks. “Just make sure not to mix pre-cut fruit together, or it won’t keep.”

Maximize mealtime
Try packing lunches while you’re making dinner – use the downtime while the water is boiling or the chicken is under the broiler. That way even though you’re making two meals, you only have one clean-up. Or take it further and make a little extra dinner, and then pack leftovers into lunch containers. Tonight’s enchilada casserole will taste even better tomorrow.

Look for shortcuts
“Lunch prep is a chore, no doubt about it,” says Kerry Colburn, author of Mama’s Big Book of Little Lifesavers. “The more shortcuts you can find, the quicker it’ll be done.” Her favourites? Line up everyone’s lunch boxes and pack them assembly-line style. Use cooking scissors to cut up fruits or vegetables instead of a knife and cutting board so there’s less to clean up. Fill a reusable water bottle mostly with ice – it’ll help keep lunch cold, and eliminates the need to add an ice pack.

Put the kids to work
“I keep two Tupperware bins – one in my fridge and the other in my pantry – stocked with items for lunch,” says Chase Lapine. “That way, it’s easy for the kids to quickly assemble their own lunches – and less likely they’ll trade their food away.” Colburn gets her six-year-old to pack her next day’s lunch during dinner prep. “It can easily take her 20 minutes just to make a peanut butter sandwich,” says Colburn. “There’s no rush while I’m making dinner, plus I get the added benefit of her company while I cook.”

Buy a bento box 
It’s easy to see why these Japanese lunch boxes are the latest fad: Not only are they cute enough for both kids and grown-ups to love, but their individual compartments of varying size make packing lunch a cinch -- just dump it all in! No more wrapping food in zipper bags or aluminum foil – which makes these containers good for your wallet and the planet.

Suggest a lunch swap 
Stuck in a peanut-butter lunch rut? Ask a friend if she wants to trade off: she’ll make lunches for you (and your family) now, and in a week or two, you’ll return the favour. Sure, you have to make twice the food when it’s your turn, but only half as often. Plus, you and your family may be surprised to discover new lunch foods. “This can be hard if you’ve got a picky eater,” admits Chase Lapine. “But your kids may surprise you, especially if they love the fun of eating the same foods as their friends.”

Keep it simple 
Google 'lunch ideas' and you’ll find enough cute ways to dress up your kids’ lunches – from making egg and veggie bunny rabbits to crafting cream cheese penguins – to send your child with a daily edible zoo. But it’s not necessary, says Colburn. “School lunchtimes are noisy, chaotic, and short,” she says. “Kids don’t have time to open a bunch of different containers much less appreciate the beautifully sculpted animal you made.” Go for what’s easy – a yogurt, some bread with a few slices of cheese – and save your culinary creations for the weekend.

Outsource it, occasionally
It’s okay to give yourself a day off – especially if you plan ahead. Thanks in part to shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, many school districts are making an effort to offer more nutritious choices. “Letting your kids buy lunch once a week helps teach them how to make smart food decisions,” says Colburn. “Plus, they’re learning valuable skills like how to wait in line, ask for what they want, and pay for their lunch.” Review your school’s cafeteria menu on Sunday night and let your child decide which day to buy. As for yourself, decide which day to treat yourself to lunch at the new Thai takeout place by work.