10+ Ideas for Fun Lunches with Kids

One of my favorite things about homeschooling is that I get to have lunch with my kids everyday. I love to chat about how we think the day is going and to hear their silly jokes. I don’t always eat with them (I’m sometimes feeding the baby or getting my dinner prep out of the way while we’re all in the kitchen) and I often just have a salad or smoothie myself, but I still love making lunch together an “anchor point” of our day. (See previous post about the importance of having anchor points throughout the day.)

It occurred to me that many parents are now not only facing the task of supervising their children’s education from home, but they also have to prepare lunches for their kids who are normally eating at school. So I thought I’d share some of our favorite lunches as a homeschooling family. Although I love to cook, I’ve loathed preparing lunch for a while and only recently started coming around. This has been my struggle: it’s a disruption to the flow of our day, I’m often about to hit the “early afternoon slump”, and usually I want to serve something quick. When I started to look at lunch as another valuable chance to connect with my kids and get creative in the kitchen, it became more fun. So I asked them what some of their favorite lunches are, and we came up with this list. Some of these ideas take a little more time and planning ahead, but when I have the time, they make lunch more fun. Hopefully you can glean an idea or two for yourself!

Favorite picnic/outdoor lunches:

  1. Baguettes with cheese and meat. I’ve never liked packing a picnic lunch, even though I do it all the time. Making 5 different sandwiches assembly-line style tended to get in the way of our morning routine and letting the kids make their own meant more clean up for me when we were trying to get out of the house. But the task became easier when I was turned on to the idea of simply packing a baguette, some cheese, and some deli meat and letting the kids break apart what they wanted when we eat. When I started doing this, my kids LOVED it and I appreciate the simplicity. Now it’s a lunch they request weekly. Personally, I make my own baguettes because I enjoy pushing myself in the kitchen (it’s a hobby of mine) and if that interests you, I use the Cook’s Illustrated recipe and make them a couple times a week. There are plenty of other recipes you can find online!
  2. Chicken salad wraps. Any kind of wrap or pocket, really. I’ve found that simply switching up the vessel in which I serve a “sandwich” makes lunch more interesting and appealing to my kids, and me! We love a good turkey wrap, ham wrap, or chicken salad wrap. If we’re at home, they make it themselves. I simply put out the ingredients and let them have at it. If we’re picnicking, wraps are SUPER portable which is perfect for exploring.

Favorite FUN lunches at home:

  1. HOMEMADE PIZZA! This is always a winner, and it’s easier to make than you might think. Pizza for lunch feels really special to my kids so I love to treat them to it. I make my own dough (recipe below)*, but the Pillsbury pizza crust is also tasty. A little sauce, a little cheese, throw it in the oven at 425* for 10 minutes and it’s done. Really fast lunch, and super fun! Here’s how we like to change it up…
    • Make-Your-Own-Pizza day! If we don’t have a lot on the schedule, this is a treat. We don’t do school on Fridays so it’s a good day for this if we don’t have a field trip planned or co-op (like, you know, now in quarantine world). They each get a little dough and spread toppings as they like.
    • Taco Pizza! This was an idea I stumbled upon sort of by accident about a year ago in an experiment and it instantly became a family favorite. Randy gets jealous when he hears the kids had it for lunch! To make it, I add a little taco seasoning (half a packet) to an 8 oz can of tomato sauce and use that for my “marinara.” I use the rest of the packet to flavor the beef or ground turkey as I cook it (about a 1/4 lb for one pizza). To assemble, I spread the sauce on the dough, top with Mexican cheese, and flavored meat. Bake at 425* for about 10 minutes. Once it comes out of the oven, I let it cool 2 minutes, then spread sour cream on top and sprinkle with lettuce and tomatoes and hot sauce. So good! If you don’t have taco seasoning, a combination of cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, and paprika will do!
    • Other Topping Ideas: sausage and broccoli, sausage and peppers, pepperoni, leftover BBQ chicken, bacon/spinach/fried eggs (My kids love fried eggs on everything! Whip up a pizza with wilted spinach, bacon or pancetta, and then crack a few eggs on top with 2 minutes left of bake time. The eggs will cook in the oven and leave a runny yolk. “Breakfast” pizza!)
    • **I started making sourdough at the beginning of the year and have discovered that sourdough pizza crust is delicious and a great way to use your discarded starter. Some people have been trying this bread during the pandemic, so if that’s you, consider giving this crust a try, too! I make it once a week. First thing in the morning, I’ll separate my starter so I can feed some for a new loaf of bread and turn the rest into pizza crust for our lunch. I’ve also found recipes for sourdough pretzels (kid FAVORITE), waffles, and other goodies that are very tasty. It is such a satisfying process for a home cook and baker!
  2. Cheeseburgers and hot dogs. As the weather warms up, this is a great lunch. Even though cheeseburgers are often supper food, they’re really quick to make and the kids think they’re getting something pretty special when it’s burgers for lunch! If I’m planning on making burgers for dinner one night, I’ll often make extra patties to serve for lunch later in the week. As someone who makes 21 meals for 7 people every week, I can attest that it’s perfectly fine to repeat favorites during the same week and the buying/prepping in bulk is so economical: saves a lot of time and money!
  3. Calzones. Ask my kids if they prefer pizza or calzones and they will say “calzones.” Ask them if they prefer taco pizza or calzones and they will say they don’t want to live in a world where they have to choose. I typically make a version of Ree Drummond’s easy calzones. It’s a good amount of work for a lunch, so they can easily be prepped the night before, or just make ’em for dinner, they reheat beautifully for lunch!

Favorite Ways to Use Leftovers

  1. Rice Bowls. For a family of 7, rice is a staple. Some dinner favorites around here include arroz con pollo, pork fried rice (any Asian rice dish, really), and risotto either as a side or a main dish. When I make rice for dinner, I always make a big batch so we have leftovers for lunch. I will take the leftover rice and fry it in a large saute pan with some frozen corn or peas (and maybe some ham if I have it and there isn’t already meat in the leftover rice), and fry eggs in another pan. Everyone gets a big bowl of the prepared rice and a fried egg or two on top. They love to use the runny yolk as a “sauce” in their rice. This is seriously a lunch my kids get excited about. I turn into the “BEST mom ever!” when this is on their placemats. And all I did was reheat dinner and fry some eggs…
  2. “Anything goes” pockets. Store bought pastry dough can turn any leftover dish into a fun “pocket” or “turnover” or whatever you want to call it. Here’s a go-to example we use:
    • Take leftover mashed potatoes and mix in a bowl with leftover ham (or turkey or chicken).
    • Add some frozen vegetables (peas or corn are what I use)
    • Add some shredded cheese and season with salt and pepper. Mix well.
    • Unfold the pastry dough and cut into squares. Fill each square with the potato mixture and brush with an egg wash to help seal in the shape of a triangle. Poke a few holes in the top of the pocket to allow steam to escape while baking.
    • Place stuffed “pockets” on a baking sheet and bake at 400* for 12-15 minutes, or until dough is golden brown and cooked all the way through. Let cool! The filling will be hot, so allow time to cool before serving. These are great dipped in ranch dressing or chutney.
  3. Leftover chicken can become chicken salad. Turn it into a wrap or serve it on a salad (this might be a more favorable lunch for Mom, but my oldest will have a salad like this any day).
  4. When I make a big batch of spaghetti sauce and meatballs, some meatballs and sauce can be reserved for meatball subs at lunch. That’s a rare and therefore special occurrence around here.
  5. Crockpot meals make excellent lunch re-heaters. Some of our favorites are slow-cooker barbeque pork for pulled pork sandwiches or tacos, pulled chicken, or even slow cooker pot roast. All great next-day lunches!
  6. Tacos. I mean, either make a huge batch the night before for dinner and then leftover lunch, or just make them for lunch… tacos are amazingly easy and delicious. Enough said.

Favorite ways to re-imagine “classics”…

  1. Homemade mac & cheese. This is actually not much harder to make than a boxed mac & cheese. The longest part of either process is waiting for the water to boil and the pasta to cook. The rest is a piece of cake! And when you make it yourself, you can change up the cheese, flavoring, and additions. To make the cheese part, I start with a couple TBs of butter, melting in a pot. Once melted, add about 1/4 cup of flour. Whisk together and cook until flour is completely mixed in with the butter. I then add about 1 TB of dijon mustard, and a dollop of sour cream (not necessary, if you don’t have sour cream, no biggie, I don’t always use it, but it adds good depth to flavor). Then I quickly whisk in about 1 1/2 cups of milk and continue whisking over high heat until thickened. (The higher the fat content of the milk, the faster this will go. Whole milk is a great option.) Then I turn off the heat and add my cheese, anywhere from 1-2 cups of shredded cheese, depending on how cheesy you like it. Season liberally with salt and pepper and add in the cooked pasta (I always use a whole pound of shells, or 2 cups of elbows pasta). Done! If you want “plain” mac and cheese, use shredded cheddar jack. You can add some frozen peas or chopped spinach to get those veggies in. OR use a sharp white cheddar cheese and add in some broccoli and cooked chicken or ham. Changing up the cheese and pasta on occasion is a fun surprise for the kids!
  2. Grilled cheese and tomato soup. I have ordered grilled cheese for my kids from restaurants only to get a barely melted piece of cheese between two barely toasted pieces of bread. Forget that. This grilled cheese is ooey, gooey, and oh, so flavorful. I make this when I want a “gourmet” lunch for myself! And the kids love it because… it’s grilled cheese! In the food processor, I put whatever cheese I have left on hand (a bag of shredded cheddar is a great option, but cheese in multiple forms is a staple in this house–blocks of cheddar, gruyere, and parmesan are usually in the fridge so I often add those to the mix), half a stick of butter, a handful of spinach, a pinch of salt, and some fresh basil. Pulse until well combined. Scoop a spoonful or two between two pieces of bread (sourdough or white) and grill until melted and the bread is toasted. I also add a little shredded parmesan and chopped basil to our tomato soup–we buy the organic Imagine brand. It is so smooth and “creamy”, but no dairy. This is truly a “gourmet” soup and sandwich lunch.
  3. Instead of PB&Js, try... Peanut butter and jelly (or fluff) Ritz crackers. I also love to spread Nutella or cream cheese on these and top them with fruit. And of course, cheese and pepperoni make great cracker “sandwiches.” A variety of crackers with creative toppings is always a crowd pleaser and fills them up.

In a hurry but no leftovers…

  1. If I need to get lunch on the table fast but don’t have leftovers in the fridge, I often just put out a sampling of veggie sticks with dressing, fruit, cheese, and crackers. Separately these all make great appetizers, but served together, it can be a healthy, filling, and easy lunch!
  2. Yogurt, fruit, and granola. This is a super easy lunch and satisfies my kids, especially if they’ve had a big breakfast or a snack mid-morning.
  3. If I don’t have time to make sandwiches, it’s often better if I simply put out the deli meats, condiments, and bread. They love making their own sandwiches and they often eat the whole thing when they’ve made it themselves (ownership of creation and everything). 🙂

Next up, Fuel-Filled Breakfasts for “Homeschool” Days, stay tuned!

*Here’s my pizza dough recipe (not sourdough):

  1. Mix 1 TB sugar and 1 tsp of dry, active yeast in 1 1/2 cups warm water. Set aside.
  2. Combine 3 cups of flour, 1 tsp salt, and about 1/4 – 1/3 cup olive oil in a large bowl.
  3. Stir the water/yeast mixture into the flour mixture until well combined. Add up to another cup of flour (slowly) if needed. Knead into a ball and place in a bowl with olive oil and roll the dough in the oil. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise 1-2 hours. This should make enough dough for 2 pizzas.
Cheese pizza on sourdough crust!

When Will Daddy Be Home? (Finding Strength When Dad Works Long Hours)

It’s Friday night, our typical “date night”, but like this Friday night, we don’t always get to enjoy it. And like every other night this week, I put the kids to bed alone as they asked if they’d still be awake when Daddy gets home. (They won’t be.) Yes, it’s “peak season” at UPS which means while everyone else is trying to get more family time in for the holidays, we’re getting less of it. But though I’m no “newbie” to having a husband work long, odd hours; I’m still a work-in-progress when it comes to dealing with it graciously. (Mercy is not my strongest quality, you may know.)

So before I dive a little into my journey with this issue, I just want to say that…

  1. This post is not a way for me to put down my husband. I hope that will be clear. He works really hard for our family and I’m proud of him!
  2. I’m not seeking sympathy, and I know I’m not alone. In fact, most of my friends have husbands who work LONG hours or odd hours which leads them to manage their homes accordingly. I know there are many husbands out there who work longer than mine or are away from home for longer periods of time. I don’t want to compare. All moms have hard things they deal with. Period.

When Randy and I first got married, he was working third shift (11pm-7am) and had Thursday/Friday nights off. He was “emergency staff” which meant that he didn’t get any holidays off unless they happened to fall on his normal “weekend” and if someone called out sick for the day shift, he would sometimes get forced to stay and work a double. About six months into our marriage he also went back to school full time. And I got pregnant with our first child while working full time myself. We thought we were busy then! I longed for a time when he would work a “typical” 9-5 job. I dreamed we’d have family dinners, put the kids to bed, and then snuggle up on the couch to watch our favorite show, and then go to bed TOGETHER. And for a brief period after he graduated and we had two then three kids, he did work a “9-5” job. But he also worked part-time Mon-Thurs from 7-11 pm. No enjoying the evenings together. No going to bed together. A little over three years ago, for good and necessary reasons (that I didn’t understand then and won’t get into here) he gave up his two jobs and began working for UPS. His 8-hour days quickly turned into 10-hour days minimum, 12-14 hour days during busy seasons or difficult weather. And while yes, he was now home “more” in the evenings, he wasn’t home for dinner or bedtime–probably the most trying and tiring time of day for any mom. And then we had a fourth child. And now we have five. And I have accepted that I will not get the “typical 9-5” schedule I thought I wanted. And honestly, I’m okay with it. But it doesn’t mean that it feels normal when a week goes by and he hasn’t come home earlier than 10:00 p.m. or when he has to start working Saturdays during the already busiest season of the year.

When the long weeks hit and I’m forced to be “it”–responsible for all decisions, scheduling, planning, in addition to my regular tasks–I quickly realize from where I’m trying to pull my strength. Sure, I could last one day. I would get the text that it was going to be a “late one” and I would feel sorry for him. I would put on a brave face, tell the kids Daddy would be late, and I would take care of everything myself and make sure his plate was saved (if he even wanted to eat that late at night) in a clean kitchen. I would shut down the house stoically. Then the next day when the same text arrived, I would explode. Surely more than one day of this was too much to ask! I’ve been home with these kids all day and I need help! It felt personal. I knew he wasn’t doing it on purpose, but it still hurt. I didn’t remember signing up for this. And because I wanted to hurt him back, I would respond in anger. And then there were the Saturdays. Tell me you’re working a Saturday and I will accuse you of not putting your family first. I mean, they can’t make you, right…?

I remember listening to a podcast a couple years ago on this topic and one of the hosts described wanting to hurt her husband “back” for working long hours by giving him the silent treatment, willing him to cross her so she could explode. I thought I was listening to myself for a second. (Seriously, check out Risen Motherhood if you haven’t already. I can’t say enough good things about their book or podcast!)

But wait. The reason I take it personally when he works so much is because I believe that I am “owed” a certain amount of time by my partner. My teammate. My co-parent. Isn’t he “supposed” to be putting in a certain number of hours with us, too? But the reality is, my identity is not a mother or a wife, but a daughter and servant of God FIRST. And yes, He has given me the joy of being a wife and mother next and those are roles I take very seriously. But within them, whatever comes my way day to day, are really between God and me. My job is to do my best with it. Just as Randy takes what comes his way each day and does his best. God never promised I would have a “working 9-5” husband, but He did promise that He would take care of me and my needs. And that He would always be there for me, even 9-5, when I’m “supposed” to be running the house myself. And even in the middle of the night, when I’m getting up again with the baby/toddler/child.

And consider this: though it isn’t a personal attack on me when my husband works late, my sin really is an attack on Christ. And his response is not to hurt me back, but quite the opposite. And that’s the way I’m called to love my husband.

The truth is, I can only love him well when I’m rooting my identity and strength in the Lord and letting Him satisfy me fully. When I do that, He helps me show love and mercy, even when it’s hard.

So how do we make it work? Here are some practical things that we do in our house to keep our marriage and family strong, and help me maintain my sanity when the long hours hit…

  1. Find a routine that works and keep it up. It doesn’t mean it has to be a strict “schedule”, but a routine that becomes familiar to everyone is helpful so that whenever Dad gets home, he can easily recognize where we are in the routine and jump in if needed. For us, this means I’ve had to let go of the dream of family dinners for a while. We get them on the weekends, and they are a priority! But during the week, it’s family breakfast. We are now a family of early risers so that we get meaningful morning time together because we never really know what the evening will look like. I can remember when Randy first started this job and he would tell me when he “thought” he’d be home. If it sounded early enough to have dinner together (like, 7:00) I’d try desperately to keep the kids up and happy so we could eat together. But 7:00 would soon turn to 7:30, then 8:00. He didn’t quite know how long things took yet and whether he was going to be sent out to handle an emergency somewhere. And then I’d be left with hungry, tired children who I had to feed, bathe, brush teeth, and put to bed all alone. Much later than I wanted. So we decided that for my sanity, we had to maintain a decent bedtime, which meant dinner had to happen by 6/6:30 no matter what. We save a heaping plate for Daddy every night.
  2. My personal time with the Lord is vital and our time as a couple with Him is that way, too. We both have our quiet times in the morning. I get my workout in, and then we do devotions together at 6:30. (I told you we’re early risers.) Breakfast and family devotions are at 7:30 and then he supervises the older kids cleaning the kitchen so that by the time he leaves for work at 8:30, we can start our school day or whatever we’re doing all dressed and clean and ready to go.
  3. Family time is the best time! We have family movie night, family game night, family nature walks, family book club. Everything we do as a family is a big deal and it’s super fun. If we have to clean the house one Saturday, we play loud music and make it a big family affair. We take family day trips and overnight trips. We make the most of our time together because we know how precious it is.
  4. We save things for Daddy. Whatever happens during the day or whatever we discover, we make it a point to share with Daddy when we see him. (The kids recently saved him 2 pieces of origami paper so he could discover just how fun they think it is to make paper animals.) We save him what we bake, and save the biggest, best portions of supper for him. We video call him when we can and if possible, bring him a latte if his route is close to where we are. We do our best to include him in our day.
  5. Likewise, if Randy happens to come home early and I’m still preparing dinner or the house is (just a little) chaotic, his first words are always, “Hello, beautiful. How can I help?” When Randy is home, he’s PRESENT. He makes it a point to participate in our day when he’s able to.
  6. I don’t allow myself (anymore) to dwell on the negative. It was so easy to feel sorry for myself when day in and day out I was doing everything alone. But I’ve realized it does no good. And when we go to events without him, I smile politely and answer the “where’s Randy” questions quickly. It doesn’t do any good to try to garner sympathy from others by emphasizing his absence or trying to explain why he needs to be at work (or sleeping when he worked nights). I know he’d rather be with me than at work. My goal is to make him look good in public and especially in front of my children. (I do have my good friends who “get it” because they’re in the same boat. We vent every once in a while in a healthy way, trust me! Just because we know it’s necessary, doesn’t mean it’s always easy.)

Some verses that serve as good reminders for me:

  1. Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns anger away. But mean words stir up anger.”
  2. Romans 15:5-7 “Our God is a God who strengthens and encourages you. May he give you the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had. Then you can give glory to God with one mind and voice. He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ has accepted you. So accept one another in order to bring praise to God.
  3. Philippians 2:13 “God is working in you. He wants your plans and your acts to fulfill his good purpose.”
  4. Psalm 62:5 “Yes, I must find my rest in God. He is the God who gives me hope.”
  5. Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you who are tired and carrying heavy loads. I will give you rest. Become my servants and learn from me. I am gentle and free of pride. You will find rest for your souls. Serving me is easy, and my load is light.”
  6. James 1:12 “Blessed is the person who keeps on going when times are hard. After they have come through hard times, this person will receive a crown. The crown is life itself. The Lord has promised it to those who love him.”

I wish I could say I no longer get disappointed or have hopes and expectations of shorter days at times and that my reactions are always gentle. I’m working on it. God is helping me. And while mercy may not be my strongest suit, He’s blessed me with a husband who is very quick to forgive.

When the days are long, we tire quickly. It’s a good thing I have two laps even though I’m only one person.

Left: Randy helping with our Resurrection cookies last Easter. Right: Noah practicing his reading with Daddy. You can tell he jumps into our family life as soon as he gets home.