Like many moms with school-aged kids, my weekday mornings have been about as fun as a barrel of monkeys. Not because a barrel of monkeys are something to enjoy, but because weekday mornings feel a lot like you’ve opened an actual barrel of real live monkeys, and you are now trying to wrangle them into the car with clean clothes, full bellies, and a house that has survived the process.
Yes, I only have two children.
Rushing to get everyone fed, rushing to get lunches packed, rushing to make sure backpacks are ready, water bottles are filled and so-and-so has socks on and the other one has pants on and has remembered the minor detail of facing them the right direction. (We’ve worked hard at setting new trends in this house. It hasn’t stuck yet. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, can someone please tell me how one child doesn’t notice when undies and pants are on backwards or socks are twisted with the heel on top, and the other child can have a pre-mature-mid-life crisis over the feeling of a shirt after it has been washed or a sock line that doesn’t sit in the exact right spot atop the toe? How were these children raised in the same house?)
I get tired of the same battles.
I get tired of repeating the same list of morning jobs.
I get tired of them acting shocked every time I ask them to do a job they’ve been asked to do every day for the last 6 years.
But I am mostly tired of sending my most precious little bundles off into a crazy world after a morning of hurriedness and harping. No one enjoys it, and it certainly isn’t starting any of our hearts in the right place.
This year, I was determined we would not succumb to the morning madness. We made several changes that helped assure a morning of peace and time spent together that we actually enjoy. The minutes together go so quickly; I want to cherish them.
Some of the changes we made were simple and obvious, like clothes being set out the night before, backpacks and folders ready to go before bed. This was part of our plan before, so the next change we made was actually following through on that plan.
Other changes involved a little more preparation, but the result has been better than I ever imagined. The biggest of these changes was on packing lunches.
After just 2 years of packing lunches for just one child, I can not tell you how much I was so over it. And now it would be lunches for two kids with very different tastes: one a backwards-clothes-wearing-vegetarian, the other prefers filet mignon or thinly sliced pickles on tuna that has been mixed just so.
Don’t get me wrong, I love serving my family. I just don’t love throwing away uneaten sandwiches, fighting the urge to buy processed garbage that is convenient and also kids’ favorites… but still processed garbage, throwing away uneaten veggies, kids getting tired of the same thing every day, throwing away ALL OF THE WASTED THINGS, running out of important lunch items and not realizing until the moment I’m packing them. Which is almost never 5 minutes after we are supposed to be leaving.
My first thought was to have the kids pack their own lunches. Then I remembered I like my kitchen clean and don’t so much love mayonnaise on the cabinets or children bleeding because they’ve been accidentally pierced with a knife by a sibling who is trying to slice apples.
Not that that has ever happened. But it most likely would if I gave my barrel of monkeys sharp objects. So no, they would NOT be making their own lunches.
Then I saw a post on Facebook of someone’s idea for pre-made lunch bins where kids pick what they want from each bin and pack their own lunch. I liked the thought, but I noticed the bins were full of lots of processed or pre-packaged foods. So, I decided to make my own version of pre-made lunch bins.
Because I spend the last two weeks of summer in my classroom, and because my kids are lucky teacher’s kids and get to end their summer early to come with me, we started packing lunches 2 weeks before school started. That means the lunch bin plan started a week before that, in mid August. The three of us sat down together, and I asked them what kinds of foods they liked and would be willing to eat in each of the following 5 categories: fruits, veggies, dairy/protein, grains, snacks/treats.
I decided to keep fruits and veggies separate, because one child in particular would never eat a veggie in his life if given the choice. (Ironically, this is the same child who is a vegetarian. Maybe a fruitatarian would be a more fitting name?) I wanted him to have both fruits and veggies, so they each get their own category and bin. I combined dairy/protein for the same child who does not eat meat, but gets protein in other ways, including lots of Greek yogurt.
This first sit-down meeting with the kids was crucial in starting our new routine. If I was going to take the time to fill a bunch of bins with food, I was not about to throw that food away later. It needed to be food they would be willing to eat. We even spent some time roaming through the produce aisle to find more veggies that could be added to our list of options.
Next, I bought 5 shoe-box bins from the Dollar Tree and did some grocery shopping. Also on my list, snack size bags, sandwich size bags, and mini plastic containers for peanut butter and other dips (thanks, Tana, for that idea!) On that first Sunday, and every Sunday since, I’ve spent a bit of time (anywhere from 20 -40 minutes depending on what’s in bins that week), cleaning and chopping food, filling bags, and filling bins. There is a bit of prep involved, but the payoff has been so worth it.
Each morning, the kids do their morning jobs using another system I implemented last spring (post to follow). One of those jobs is to pack their own lunches. They get out the 5 bins – 3 from the fridge, 2 from the pantry. (The fruit bin could possibly be stored in the pantry as well if you didn’t have enough fridge space.) They also set out a basket of cheap spoons and forks I don’t mind losing to the school trash can if they forget to bring them back.
They then choose the designated number of items from each bin to fill their lunch bag and put the bins away. Angels sing the hallelujah chorus, and a beam of glorious light from the heavens shines upon our kitchen. Meanwhile, I’m sitting with my feet up, enjoying an extra cup of coffee that is still steaming hot, basking in the realization that I have trained my little monkeys so well.
Actually, I’m usually in the kitchen enjoying the pleasant morning conversation – because there really is a morning calmness – while I empty the dishwasher. There have been a number of days where the entire process happens while I’m in the shower, and I come downstairs to a clean kitchen and packed lunches. No one is bleeding, either. Bonus.
Last week, another miracle happened. We were all tired and moving a bit slow. I told the kids I’d help them out by packing their lunches for them. Near panic ensued, and my 5 and 8 year old kicked their pace into high gear so they’d have time to pack their lunches themselves. Because they love it.
Did you just see that? My kids love packing their own lunches.
I didn’t believe it myself at first. I thought maybe the excitement would wear off after a week or two. Matt bet we’d make it to Halloween at the latest. We are now nearing the end of week 11. Halloween is in 2 days, and we are still going strong. Do you know what that means? I have managed to avoid packing lunches for FIFTY-THREE days! (Yes, I am yelling that, because 53 days of lunches packed NOT BY ME is worth shouting about!) And the only complaint that I’ve heard was the one time I OFFERED TO MAKE THEM. (More celebratory shouting. Angels singing.)
As if the deal wasn’t already good enough, there have been some unexpected benefits of the lunch bins:
- Both kids are eating healthier lunches than ever. Less sugar, lots of produce variety, healthy choices in all food categories.
- Some bins have a range of items. You can choose 1 or 2 veggies and 2 or 3 protein/dairy items. Most days, they choose the lower amount. But if they end up hungry, they know they can pick more the next day from any of those bins. However, they also know that if they waste food by not eating their veggies or other healthy options, they won’t be picking from the snack/treat bin the next day.
- Because they are motivated to get a snack tomorrow, they are motivated to finish their healthy foods today. There have been a few times where the snack was not allowed for one child, and there were no arguments. The rule was understood clearly. In fact, the un-named child didn’t even ask, but packed the lunch sans snack, without a reminder.
- By picking 1-2 items from the fruit, veggie, and protein/dairy bins, the kids have enough food left in their lunch to eat a snack after school. I’m no longer packing lunches, AND I don’t have to worry about an after school snack.
- We’ve had really good conversations about healthy eating. For example, the kids wanted to add juice as an option to the fruit bin. We talked about that nearly all the juice choices were made up of mostly sugar and other things they didn’t need. So they asked if juice could be a choice once in a while in the treat bin. Also, those fruit snacks they loved so much? Not actually fruit. Gasp.
- I’ve never once heard a complaint about lunches being boring or someone getting tired of a certain food.
- Food is not being wasted. No more 1/2 eaten sandwiches in the garbage.
- On the weekends, if someone is hungry, they may grab a snack – or even an entire lunch – from the leftovers in the bins. i.e. MOM ISN’T MAKING YET ANOTHER MEAL.
- We’ve had several evenings where we had to head out last minute. Instead of going through a drive-thru, I had the kids grab something from each bin before we hopped in the car.
- On the days where I am running late and don’t have a chance to eat at home, I grab my lunch from the bins too. Quick, easy, and healthier than other fast options.
If you’re curious what kinds of things are going in the bins, I’ve included pictures and the lists my kids and I came up with below. Below that, I listed a few tips and things I’ve learned in the last 11 weeks, like what size olive is the right size to fit at least 5 into a plastic container (to fill one hand of course, which is a must when eating olives), or why the container is better than a baggie for olives.
If you try the lunch bins too, I encourage you to come up with your own list with your kids’ input. I’d love to hear what you put in them. My friend Tana started doing the bins a few weeks ago (her kids love it, too), and it’s been great to be able to get ideas from each other.
So go ahead. Make your bins.
Then marvel at your independent little monkeys and your new found freedom.
In a clean kitchen.
FRUIT BIN (Choose 1)
Currently holds: apples, bananas, cutie oranges, no-sugar added applesauce cups, no-sugar or artificial sweetener fruit cups, raisins that have been in the bin for 11 weeks. (Looks like they prefer the fresh fruit.)
Other fruits we’ve included: grapes, sliced melon, pears, peaches dried fruit, berries, 100% juice (We actually haven’t used that one, but they suggested it. So far, no one has asked. They take water to school.)
VEGGIE BIN (Choose 1-2)
Currently holds: sliced celery, mini pickles, baby carrots, grape tomatoes, mini sweet peppers (2 or 3 to a bag – whole), sliced cucumbers, olives (which are only available as an extra) and ranch (a recently added extra)
Other veggies we’ve included: sugar snap peas, green beans, sliced bell peppers, broccoli, 1/2 an avocado.
DAIRY/PROTEIN BIN (Choose 2-3)
Currently holds: Mini Babybel cheese wheels, string cheese, sliced cheddar cheese (a couple slices in a baggie), Greek yogurt, baggies of almonds, mini cups of peanut butter, baggie with salami and provolone slices
Other dairy/proteins we’ve included: hard boiled egg, tuna in a cup (mixed just so with thinly sliced pickles), cream cheese (for bagels), sliced meats, diced leftover chicken, bags of mixed nuts, pistachios, mini milk containers, egg salad in a bowl
GRAIN BIN (Choose 1) My toughest bin! I need ideas.
Currently holds: crackers (Triscuits), rice cakes, tortillas, granola (for the yogurt), peanut butter cracker sandwiches – which feel like more of a treat/snack than a grain, but sometimes we like to live on the edge, and sandwich boxes in case someone decides they’d like a sandwich. Which has happened exactly never. They’d rather eat the peanut butter with apples or celery, and she prefers her tuna out of a bowl.
Other grains we’ve tried: Pretzels, cups of rice, bagels, baggies of stove-popped popcorn
SNACK/TREAT BIN (Choose 1)
Currently holds: pudding, granola bars, Grandma’s banana bread, pumpkin cookies we just made (one in each baggie), fruit snacks that have been there for 11 weeks with the raisins, pre-packaged mini graham crackers, fruit by the foot
Other items we’ve included: jello, peaches in Jell-O, dipped pretzels, fish crackers, yogurt covered raisins, Pirates Booty, Nutella for dipping pretzels or crackers, Costco trail mix with m&ms (or “enemas,” if you’re Jacob. Personally, I prefer the former.)
Tips/Things I’ve Learned
- My kids aren’t as picky as I thought. Not a tip, just a new development.
- Add a little water in the baggie of carrot slices/baby carrots, and they aren’t yucky and dry by the end of the week.
- 5 Medium sized olives fit perfectly in a small plastic container. 6 is usually too much and results in at least one squished olive. Large olives are too big, so you can’t get 5. Olive travesty.
- Olives in a baggie “get smushy” and are not appetizing. Small containers are best.
- Whole fruits in the fruit bin are great, but since whole apples and pears are hard to eat for kids who have super loose or missing front teeth, we slice them the morning they are chosen.
- When slicing celery on a Sunday, wrap them tightly in foil or a paper towel before putting them in a baggie to keep them fresh for lunches on Friday or snacking on Saturday. Notice how I didn’t do that this week.
- Triscuits (original flavor) have exactly 3 ingredients. Whole grain wheat, oil, and salt. Lots better than other crackers’ ingredient lists.
- I mix tuna and a bit of mayo on Sundays and put it into 3 small containers per 1 can. I do this every other week so she doesn’t get tired of this option.
- Mixing up the bins week to week helps keep the excitement.
- Annalise loves avocado. 1/2 an avocado sliced while still in the peel is easy to scoop out with a spoon in a lunch. Squeeze a little lemon on it to keep it fresh for lunch time.
- Avocado slices freeze well and thaw great by lunch time, but they are a bit messier than scooping fresh chunks out of the peel.
- You can buy a few hundred mini plastic cups with lids at Cash and Carry for super cheap. (They have a great price on snack size or sandwich size bags, too.)