Musings from a Vegan Dad: School Lunch

As parents, vegan or not, we all sweat (and a lot of us dread) making our kids lunches, especially because we’ll need to do it about 180+ times per school year. That’s 1,000 lunches for elementary school alone...per kid! Just calculating that and typing it out fills me with dread, given our twin boys just started 2nd grade on August 16.  That’s right, we started school already and it’s only the middle of August.  

Anyway you slice it, it’s a lot of meals to make. And if you and your kids are vegan (like our family is), you’re not going to be able to stop anytime soon since schools don’t quite yet provide the options our families need. 

So, how do you do it? How do you give them things that are healthy, filling, and that they like? How do you create some variety and keep impressionable young eyes coveting their friends’ bologna sandwiches? How, I beg, do you not let school lunch crush your vegan soul?  

I’m not sure I have the answers to any of these questions, but, having done this for a few years, and having had some time to think back on it, I’m happy to share a few things that work for my wife and me. And by the way, some of these things started long before lunch packing; we used these steps at home from the very beginning and I think they really helped in our kids’ enjoyment of the lunches we send them off with now.

Introduce a huge variety of fruits, veggies and legumes - early and often.
The more your kids get used to these foods as a regular part of their life, the more they will enjoy them. This makes packing healthy lunches that actually get eaten much easier as time goes on. 

Make it clear we’re not running a restaurant.

For all our meals - breakfast, lunch and dinner - we make one meal and everyone eats it.  So when it comes to school lunches, it’s already expected that both boys will be getting the same thing and that’s that.

Serve really healthy breakfasts and dinners so that lunch and snacks can be a bit more “fun”.

We try to eat as many whole-food, plant-based meals as possible, so lunch can be a...shall we say...cheat? To make the brown bag or lunch box a little more fun, we definitely allow a few more processed foods into the mix.   

Include your kids in food shopping, planning and prep.

This extends to all meals but it’s especially relevant when it comes to their own lunches.  Take them to your local farmers market or natural food store, and let them choose the fruits and veggies that will be part of their lunches for the week.  Let them pick out some “treat” snacks to be included.  They can’t complain about what they picked, right? No, really, right?

Buy in bulk and have your own sets of reusable bags and containers.

Every little bit helps the environment, which is a big reason to eat vegan in the first place. We try to avoid individual packaging whenever possible and teach our kids the value of that.  And what’s better, the bulk section of natural food stores like Sprouts have some really amazing options for snacks and treats that you can use to fill a lunch box compartment or pack in reusable containers.  

Some Lunch Time Specifics

Serve it up in compartmented lunch boxes.

We like the separation of items; it helps us to think about different groupings and avoids the “But my peas are touching my pasta!!” whine-fest. Plus these bento style boxes don’t have lots of parts and pieces to lose or wash. This is what we’ve been happily using. 

Write out a list of options.

This is a HUGE help.  Start a list and keep adding to it.  And I recommend you separate your list into categories like “Mains, Fun Snacks, Healthy Snacks” or something like that.  Also engage your kids in making the list or planning the week.  When you have no idea what to make, skimming the list will usually help.

If you are in a two parent household, both parents should ideally make lunches.

In our home, it’s usually one parent makes breakfast and the other makes lunch.  We usually keep to this routine for a couple of weeks and then we switch.  This keeps things a bit less monotonous for the parents and creates a bit more variety in the meals for the kids. If you’re dividing days, know who’s making lunch the following morning.  This is not something you and your partner want to hash out at 7am with kid-ears listening in.  And if you know it’s going to be you, then take a few minutes to plan ahead the night before.

Raw fruit, nuts and veggies are your friends.

Don’t shy away from what’s simple, fresh and nutritious.  Kids love these foods.  Don’t overthink it.

Fake it till you make it.

We try to limit it but about once or twice a week, whether it’s veggie nuggets or a vegan turkey and cheese sandwich, we do include “fake” meat and/or cheese items.  This gives the kids the sense that they are eating things similar to their friends (which mine seem to appreciate), and it helps keep them from feeling left out and less curious about “real” meat and cheese.  And hey, it also lets their friends know that there are vegan versions out there of the foods they love.

In my most humble opinion, parenthood is awesome, and being a vegan parent to vegan kids is even that much greater.  You are doing your part to grow healthy, conscious and compassionate beings.  There are so many things we do each day, each week and each year in that endeavor and making lunches is one of them.  Don’t get me wrong -- it doesn’t come with a lot of rewards in the moment...often much the opposite….but I know I’m doing good for my kids and the planet. 

After the first week of school, I’ve only received one comment regarding lunch so far.  After one boy came home with basically an uneaten lunch I asked, “Why didn’t you eat your lunch? Was something wrong?” His answer, “No, I didn’t have time. I needed to play.”

That about sums it up.  About 175 lunches left to go (times two) … then do we get to play?

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