This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: teacher lunch ideas that are simple, easy, and quick to prepare.
While seemingly a pleasant break from the day, lunch can actually be a big stressor for teachers: figuring out what to pack, having your lunch break scheduled at an oddly early or late, not getting a lunch break at all, and having to scarf down a whole meal in 15 minutes due to all the other tasks that cut into your time.
So, by numerous requests, I’ve created a Truth for Teachers podcast episode about ways to simplify and streamline.
I do want to give a quick warning up front that this episode could be triggering for those with a history of eating disorders or other unhealthy relationships with food. I will not talk about weight loss or restricting your nutritional intake in any way, and this is a body-neutral episode, but the topic could bring up some issues for you around your relationship with food, particularly near the end when I’m talking about intermittent fasting and simplifying how many food choices you have for the purpose of making meal prep easier and faster. Please be kind to yourself as you’re listening and focus on just the ideas that resonate with you and your body.
Also as a disclaimer, I’m not a doctor or nutritionist. I’m a former teacher who helps teachers simplify their lives, so I’m weighing in on this topic solely from that perspective. I am not an expert on what works for your body and lifestyle, I’m just going to offer different mindset shifts and ideas to try — you pick what works for you and get further guidance, if needed, from your doctor or nutritionist.
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Make convenient containers easily accessible
Mason jars are often $1 or less. Metal and glass bento boxes are fantastic if you like to have small portions of lots of different items. A thermos or insulated soup mug with a lid can be great for hot and cold foods. Dig these things out of the back of your cabinets or invest in a couple of new items so that it’s easier and faster to pack your lunches.
You might also want to consider a Crock-Pot Lunch Crock Food Warmer. It’s a small, portable crockpot with a handle, designed to let you store leftovers in it at night and carry it to school the next day. One teacher I know swears by this! She plugs it in about a half-hour before lunch, then has a hot meal ready for her. Afterward, she brings the lunch crock food warmer home with her and washes it out, to be filled again that evening with the dinner leftovers.
Keep a variety of snack choices to mix and match for lunch
Some folks don’t like to sit down to eat a big meal mid-day, especially at school. Having a choice of healthy snacks gives you options and allows you to eat when you’re most hungry. You can grab one thing during your prep time, another at lunch, and another after dismissal.
This approach works especially if your lunch break is scheduled at 10:30 in the morning and you’re not yet hungry, or if you have a late lunch and need to grab something to hold you over during your prep time.
Here are some ideas:
- Yogurt: Save money (and the planet) by purchasing a large container of yogurt and portion it into smaller, reusable single-serve containers; mix in flax seeds, fruit, or any other topping you like
- Oatmeal: Make a big pot and portion it out so you can heat each one up as you need it, or make “overnight oats,” which are eaten cold, and stir in toppings like nuts, coconut, and dried fruit
- Trail mix, nuts, and nut butter to spread on fruit or crackers: Make sure there’s no one allergic in the vicinity of where the snack is kept or consumed — check with the school nurse to be sure, as nut allergies can be life-threatening
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Granola bars or protein bars
- Cheese, such as string cheese
- Pepperoni (which doesn’t have to be refrigerated)
- Fruit leather
- Cereal (with or without milk of your choice)
- Dark chocolate
- Hummus and baby carrots or other veggies or pita chips
- Tuna kits
- Meat sticks
- Madras Lentils pouches (microwaves in just a few minutes)
Make green smoothies or protein shakes
I make a big pitcher of a green smoothie every 3-4 days. You can pour this in a thermos or metal or glass travel mug, and use that as an energy boost mid-morning (particularly if you’re not a breakfast eater), or as your drink at lunchtime, or to stave off the afternoon slump.
Right now I’m liking kale spinach, celery, carrots, beets, blueberries, chia seeds, ginger, and turmeric, but I switch it up frequently when I get bored of the taste. I also like almond milk, dates, bananas, chia seeds, and either nuts or nut butter when I need more calories to keep going, or I’ll add avocado to a green smoothie.
There’s really no limit to the number of combinations you can make with smoothies so it never gets boring. I feel better knowing I’ve had a couple of servings of fresh fruits and veggies early in my day.
Prep veggies when you bring them home so it’s faster to use them throughout the week
I typically make the smoothie when I’m putting away my groceries. In fact, I do just about everything related to produce-prep at that time. I find it annoying to drag everything home and stuff it in the fridge, then pull it all back out every time I want to use it. If I’m tired, I’ll end up choosing something that is easier to make and the veggies just sit in the fridge going bad.
So for me, it’s more efficient to prep the veggies as soon as I bring them home. I put away everything non-produce so the counter is clear. Then I wash and chop them and store as many as possible in one giant Pyrex bowl (celery one side, onions next to that, broccoli next to that, etc.) That way when I’m cooking dinner, I can just take out one bowl and grab a handful of however many different veggies I want. I make things like stir-fries and roasted veggies a lot, so having the variety on hand is good and it doesn’t matter if I get a couple of pieces of a stray veggie mixed in.
While I’m washing and chopping all the veggies, I will also prepare a bunch of salads. I’ll portion them out into a couple of containers, and then add some pre-packaged stuff I can just toss in there, like shredded carrots, those cabbage mixes that are intended for coleslaw, cherry tomatoes, etc. I don’t like eating the same salad every day so I’ll mix up the ingredients, putting walnuts and blueberries and feta on one salad to make it different, or some other variation like that.
This does require a time investment, of course, but I feel so good when all the groceries are put away because I also know I have grab-and-go healthy meals prepared and a huge headstart on meal prep so I won’t be spending much more time in the kitchen for a while.
If you make salads for your lunches ahead of time like this, you can keep a bottle or two of dressing in your classroom, or use spinach or shredded cabbage or something else that doesn’t wilt and pour the dressing in a corner of the salad when you’re preparing it.
You can also use mason jars and layer the salad ingredients, which keeps everything surprisingly fresh and crisp for the entire week. Starting with the dressing on the bottom, followed by tomatoes or other mushier things, then layer on cucumber, peppers, onions, carrots, and then any protein like eggs or chicken.
If you like this idea but can’t eat salad five days a week, make three salads (for M/W/F) and eat something different on Tuesday and Thursday.
Batch your lunch prep
There are lots of other ways to batch your lunch prep so you do all the work once a week and then don’t have to think about it again. Food prepping can make it so much easier to make sure you’re eating healthy and takes a lot of the stress out of the workweek. I strongly encourage you to invest the time upfront into figuring out a system that works for you, rather than standing in front of the fridge every night and every morning trying to figure out what to do. That’s really draining and takes a big toll on you over time.
I know one teacher who picks what she wants for lunch that week, makes a lot of it, then portions it out into five containers. For example, one week, she has brown rice, red beans, and tofu/squash/zucchini stir fry. She puts the beans on the left side of each container, rice in the middle, stir fry on the right. If that sounds boring, remember, it’s one meal out of probably 3 you’ll have that day, and you can spice things up with different snacks. Or, do like I do with the salads, and make a couple of them with slightly different seasonings and toppings so they don’t all taste the same.
Other teachers cook ahead of time and freeze foods. You can do this with bean burritos and breakfast burritos, for example–both freeze and thaw/reheat well. A breakfast-type casserole is another option: add eggs, veggies, maybe potatoes or meat, and bake or cook on the stovetop. Then portion out and freeze. Take a portion out of the freezer for breakfast or lunch, add cheese, and microwave for less than a minute.
You can also cook all your meat at one time, divided into meal-sized portions, and freeze it. This works with ground beef or turkey, chicken, roasts, all kinds of things.
I don’t eat a lot of meat and I hate cooking it because of the grease, so one thing that helps is to prepare a whole pack of something and then portion it out throughout the week. So maybe I’ll make some turkey bacon, and then I can add a bit to salads, pasta, eggs, etc. throughout the week instead of having to make it every time. This also let me put more in my husband’s portion than mine. I’ll do the same with ground turkey: some goes in the soup, some in a rice dish, some in a pasta dish.
Make (almost) every dinner give you two days’ worth of lunches
It’s rare that I make dinners that won’t result in at least two full meals of leftovers because I pick foods that taste better the next day. For example, I like to make a huge pot of vegetarian chili for dinner, and then eat the leftovers over salad (like a taco salad) or over a baked potato.
I often cook two similar dinners at once to make four separate meals. So, I’ll make a big pot of soup, for example (maybe with spicy sausage, sweet potato, and kale) and also make pasta with the spicy sausage and kale stirred in and fresh parmesan on top. These two meals have very different flavors, so it doesn’t feel like I’m eating the same thing over and over, but the meals use a lot of the same ingredients as cooking them both at the same time is pretty easy.
We’ll have the pasta that night while the soup flavors simmer a bit more in the soup, have the soup the next night, the leftover pasta the third night, and then the soup leftovers the fourth night. You could do the same things with lunches.
Create a set of go-to meals for dinner to be used as leftovers
In the June materials of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, we talk a lot about simplifying meal prep and other tasks at home. And one of the things that I highly recommend to teachers is to create a meal rotation that you repeat, instead of continually trying to find new things to make. The idea is to stop reinventing the wheel every day. Find a few ideas that you like and feel easy for you, and stick with that, and make enough for dinner to repurpose as leftovers for lunch so you’re getting full hot meals without having to cook so often.
Some people like to follow the same plan every week. For example, one member of the club shared that in her household, Monday is a stir fry with rice or noodles, Taco Tuesday, Wednesday Soup/sandwich, Thursday Breakfast for supper, Friday Salad bar and pizza, Saturday Grill, Sunday Brunch and Crockpot meal. She also rotates in black bean tacos, tamales, and hot dogs. These are all favorites in her family, so she’s not always trying to find stuff that everyone likes. Shopping and cooking, as well as mealtime, became super easy when she switched to this plan.
If the same meals every week feels too repetitive, make a plan for the month, so you’re not repeating meals until after 30 days have passed. You can also create seasonal menus, where certain dishes are in rotation on a weekly basis every week until the seasons change. So maybe a simple gazpacho makes an appearance regularly in the summer and is replaced with roasted veggies in the fall.
This might sound daunting, but don’t overcomplicate it: pick 3-4 meals everyone in your household likes and write them on a list next to week 1. Choose a few more, write that next to week 2. You’ll have 4 weeks of meal ideas in no time, especially if you’re using Pinterest or an online recipe site to help give you ideas.
As you get good at this, you’ll recognize which meals should come in the same week to repurpose ingredients and save money. For example, if you know you’re buying a roast chicken, you can grill it and serve with barbeque sauce, portion out some to make chicken salad for lunch the next day, or chicken tacos.
Eat the same lunch daily or eliminate it altogether
Part of what we’re trying to do here is to reduce the load on your executive function with unnecessary making. In the evenings when you are already exhausted and mentally depleted, you are not going to do your best creative thinking and problem-solving. You want to do the majority of decision making at a different time — maybe on the weekend when you have a bit more mental bandwidth — so that you’re not having to think about this very much on a day to day basis.
Often we overcomplicate meal prep because we live in a society with so much abundance and choice that our bodies get accustomed to a lot of variety. In many parts of the world, this is not the case. When I went to Costa Rica, for example, I ate some variation of rice and beans three meals a day, seven days a week. That might sound boring to American ears, but there’s a simplicity there that I think we can learn from. You can eat the same thing every morning for breakfast or every afternoon for lunch and your body will grow used to that and adapt to it.
I personally function better and feel better with no breakfast, and consuming all my food between the hours of 11 am and 7 pm. This started when I created a cut-off time for food at 7 pm, because I noticed that I tend to eat healthy and make good choices all day, then stuff myself full of junk food after dinner while watching TV. When I stopped eating after seven, I realized that not only did I not need more food in the evening in order to feel comfortable and sleep well — which was something I was worried about — but I would also not wake up hungry. I could easily go until 10, 11, or 12 o’clock without eating anything, which was a huge confirmation that all that late-night snacking had nothing to do with what my body actually needed and was actually just a habit.
I wasn’t sure if this was healthy because I’ve always heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and you should eat small frequent meals. But this system worked for me. I felt much more in control of my eating, was consuming a healthy amount of food, and my cravings were reduced. I discovered after some online research that this is basically intermittent fasting, where you eat all your food within an 8-hour period and are fasting the other 16 (half of which you’re asleep during). There are a lot of nutritionists and doctors who highly recommend this approach to eating.
I share all of that here because this approach to eating greatly simplified my meal prep and grocery shopping. I spend so little time thinking about and preparing my food now.
I don’t have to figure out breakfast at all, and for lunch, I eat the same basic thing every day — either a veggie burger with avocado or an egg and avocado sandwich. I keep a handful of healthy snacks and a few not-so-healthy ones around at all times, and purposefully don’t give myself too many choices because the variety makes it tempting to eat more than I need to.
So, it’s only dinner that I ever really need to think about planning, and that’s where I tend to get more creative and do more interesting things. I typically make enough to have leftovers, and since I don’t eat breakfast and have the same lunch daily, that means those dinner leftovers won’t get eaten until the next night, and therefore I’m only having to think about and plan out one meal every other day.
Granted, I am not in a school every day, I do not have kids, and my husband doesn’t keep any consistent meal schedule because his work hours are all over the place, so I’m mostly fending for myself and that simplifies it. However, something like this could work for you, too — not eating breakfast if that’s something you don’t like to do, or having a green smoothie or protein bar — something simple and easy that’s the same every day, and then choosing one or two lunches which you never really get tired of and have those every day. That would leave you with only dinner that you have to think about.
I do know teachers who find that intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating works for them. One does an 18/6: she eats from about 3 to 9 pm. And guess what — that means she doesn’t have to worry about making or packing a lunch! She was really surprised how easy it was — she never really had time to eat or enjoy her food at school anyway, so this works better for her.
Try to reduce the additional lunch prep that you handle for family members
If you have a partner whom you always pack a lunch for, make sure they’re okay with having the same lunch as you so that you’re not always doing the emotional labor of finding out what they want and preparing something completely separate for them. You can also take turns packing lunches (maybe switching off every other week), have your partner pack their own lunch, or ask your partner to take over a different task with the kids that can be done while you’re packing lunches so there’s one less thing to do and you’re undistracted when lunch prepping.
Children can also be responsible for packing their own lunches, often as young as age five. Kids can make their sandwiches which can be made at the beginning of the week so all five are ready to go. Designate a special low shelf for kids that are full of approved snack choices, and they can just pick two “sides” and a juice to go with their sandwich. That’s it — lunch is done.
So, if you feel like you’re having to pack lunches for a bunch of other people who each have their own dietary preferences and that requires a lot of mental bandwidth to figure out, I encourage you to find ways to share that load so not everything falls on you.
Invest time in making lunch decision-free. Lunch is a little thing that can consume a lot of time and energy on a daily basis if there is no plan, schedule, or routine. Taking a half-hour on the weekend to figure out a better way and prep some lunches in advance can make your workweek remarkably less stressful.
Head over to the Truth for Teachers Podcast Community on Facebook — I have a post set up there about this topic, where you can see photos of what other teachers do and get more ideas. I’d also love to hear what is working for you, and how you handle lunch prep.
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