My Killer School Lunch System! Lunch Decks!

The Lunch Deck System

A few years ago I was in my kitchen with all of my kids except the youngest. We were getting ready for school.  The baby comes into the kitchen, sees the activity and promptly asks me to make his lunch (his nickname, by the way, is “Elbows Up.” Clasp your hands behind your head with your elbows up and you’ll get the full picture of my little guy’s opinion of work.).

The other kids all turn around with eyebrows raised in amusement and look matter-of-factly at the little tike.

“No,” I say emphatically.

He turns to his then 8-year old sister, “Can you make my lunch for me? Mommy won’t do it and none of my friends have to make theirs.”

My 8-year-old replies, “No. You’re 6 years old and in kindergarten now, you can make your own. Here’s the bread.”

One of the things I hear so many mamas asking (and murmuring) about is school lunches!  All 5 of my kids started making their own lunches in kindergarten because I was so overwhelmed by motherhood I was desperate for the help.  However, I know many an excellent mama who makes lunches well beyond that (don’t judge!).  Over the years I have tried tons of different systems but none could handle our allergies and sheer number of people, plus they were just too much darned work, so I made up my own. My absolute favorite way to handle lunches for the Fab Five is my Lunch Deck System.

Here’s what you’ll need to pull it off:

  • Notecards
  • Sharpie
  • The lists included in this post

First, I collected non-sandwich lunch ideas from Pinterest (you can check out my board here and follow me on Pinterest here). I shared those ideas with the kids and they chose their favorites.  I then wrote each lunch idea from the form onto purple index cards and called this THE COMPLETE LUNCH IDEA DECK since each card has a complete (no-sandwich) lunch idea.

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Tired of Sandwiches?After this, I found this great idea called Pieces and Parts Lunch Guide.  I took that and ran with it.  I call this the GOOD NUTRITION DECK since they are choosing from healthy options in 3 different food groups. I didn’t need all the excellent recommendations from Pieces/Parts, though, so I chose items from each category that we enjoy: Grains, Protein and Veggies (they also do Dairy and Sweets categories but I felt like the Protein worked better for us and Lord knows my kids have no shortage of sugar in their lives so I chose to skip the Sweets category).  I then wrote each of the items for each of the categories on different colored note cards.  Feel free to use the ideas you see here or add food items in the categories that your family likes (like maybe peanut butter, almonds, granola bars, hot dogs, trail mix or edamame).  We have life-threatening nut-allergies in out house so I’m a bit limited. This deck gives even more NO-SANDWICH combinations! You’re welcome!!

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I have a list of all the ingredients for the deck in my Food Binder so when I grocery shop I know what to buy. And now I can put all those cards together to make the Lunch Deck and it is ready for use!  There are 3 ways my kiddos can use the deck:

  • Option 1: If they want a non-sandwich lunch they can choose from the Complete Lunch Idea deck only.  One of their favorites is the Lunch Box Pizzas: buttery crackers, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni and grapes.
  • Option 2: Another non-sandwich but healthy option is to choose one card from each of the other colors in the Good Nutrition Deck (Protein, Veggie, Grain).  For example, they might choose to take Crackers, Cottage Cheese and Carrots with Ranch or a Mini-Bagel and Cream Cheese with a Hard-Boiled Egg and Red Pepper Slices.
  • Option 3: Sometimes if we are having a long afternoon and they need more food they might try option 3: a sandwich with a choice from each of the colors in the Good Nutrition Deck.

The beauty of this system is that if I don’t pick up one of the ingredients or we run out of something I just take that card out of the deck.  The problem I ran into with posting menu ideas was that I usually didn’t have all the items listed for the meals.  The decks give me greater flexibility and the kids know that when they go to make their lunches after they use the deck we’ll have what they need.

Here’s why this system is hands-down my favorite:

  1. I designed it (yes, I give props to myself sometimes…)
  2. Its cheap and easy to make.
  3. THE KIDS USE IT TO MAKE THEIR OWN LUNCHES. I am not needed for this process. Kids might spell love “t-i-m-e” but mamas spell happiness “i-n-d-e-p-e-n-d-e-n-t-c-h-i-l-d-r-e-n” (ok that was a stretch but you get the idea…).
  4. You can tailor it to your family’s likes and nutritional needs.
  5. It has tons of no-sandwich options. Holla!
  6. It teaches my kids about nutrition because 5 days a week they are being reminded of the food groups and healthy, balanced options for lunch. I regularly hear them say to each other things like, “That’s not a healthy lunch bro (or sis).  You don’t have a protein.”
  7. It can be modified weekly according to what you get at the grocery store by simply taking a card away or making a new one with a new menu option.
  8. You can even make it for non-readers by using pictures on the cards instead of words!
  9. It can be tailored to any budget.  Sometimes I go over one week on my grocery budget and the amount I’m working with this week is less.  I can adjust to get cheaper lunch items and the deck still functions perfectly. I just take out cards or add cards with the new, less expensive items.
  10. IT KEEPS MY KIDS FROM GETTING BORED WITH THEIR LUNCHES. No longer do I hear the ardent cry, “I don’t know what to make for luuuuuuunch!” And if they do say that I just command them to use the Lunch Deck and keep on steppin’.
  11. My kids tend to automate their lunches out of habit which doesn’t give them much variety. If it was up to them they’d pack a sandwhich and goldfish every day. This system keeps their nutrition diverse.
  12. It’s a sneaky way to introduce some new foods.  For example, Trader Joe’s has seaweed packs with are PACKED WITH NUTRIENTS. I bought a couple and quickly made a card for them.  Turns out my youngest loves them but he wouldn’t try them when I was eating them!
  13. Having 5 kids means lots of different nutritional needs. For instance, my ADHD kids need lots of protein (learn more about what their brains need here.  I did!) and I can tailor their lunches to get what they need automatically without having to check their lunches every day.

So there it is!  Let me know what you think of this and YOU KNOW THIS JOKER IS TOTALLY SHARE-WORTHY so share away!!!  Happy Lunch Deck making!

Stay Strong Mamas!

Love, DJ

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