Organizing 101: Organizing School Lunches {gluten-free}

Gooooooood morning! I hope you are off to a fine start this beautiful Wednesday morning.

Have you been following along so far on our Organizing 101: Back to Basics series?

I hope so because it’s been a lot of fun and a whole lotta great organizing tips!

Today is my day to share how to organize that chaos each morning that is making the children’s school lunches (and yours and the misters for that matter!).

I am by no means a professional organizer or lunch maker. I am however, a mom who’s been making school lunches each and every morning for more than 5 years. :) Before I bare all and show you my food and pantry, I just want to state the obvious. This system works well for ME, but that doesn’t mean it will work well for everyone. If you have any better tips or ideas, PLEASE share them with us at the end of the post.

I’ll start by just showing you how I keep all the food and snacks organized. Then I’ll go into detail about how I get the food from the shelf into the bag (it’s more of a process than you’d think!).

Please be aware: this is probably not the most thrifty post you’ll read from me. I choose my battles with finances, and for me, it’s worth it to pay a little more and get most lunch snacks pre-packaged in single-serving portions. I love the idea of buying in bulk and sorting them all into little ziploc bags, but in reality, I suck at that and never do it.

I reserve a shelf in the door of the fridge just for school drinks. These two types are pretty much all I ever buy. The kids can have water or a 100% juice Capri-Sun. Surprisingly, my son much prefers water over any other drink.

In the large drawer I keep all the meats and cheeses. I put the cheese slices and lunch meat next to each other so I can grab them quickly each morning to make sandwiches. I also added a dollar store plastic bin to hold all the string cheese.

I have a mini drawer that I keep individual bags of carrots and single-serving Ranch dip. Keeping them together makes it easy to grab the pair each morning.

I also bought a very inexpensive clear plastic container that I keep on the bottom shelf filled with the remainder of snacks that need to be refrigerated. For now it’s full of only fruit foods, but I’ll including pudding and the like when I buy it.

Now for the rest of the food in the pantry. I recently purchased several chicken-wire baskets from Marshall’s. They came with burlap liners but I pulled them all out. These baskets are great because they keep the food contained but still very easy to see.

I have one big basket full of snacks that I actually buy in bulk and sort out into bags. It’s a rarity, but I will sort out Pirate’s Booty and Snapea Crisps. I might sort cookies, but I don’t buy those very often.

I want to take a minute to go over the type of food I buy for the kids. Ben, our son, and myself all eat gluten-free. Our daughter is the only gluten eater around here. (Gluten-Free means you don’t eat food with gluten in it. The majority of gluten comes from WHEAT but there are a few other grains that have it as well.)

Because we just recently went gluten-free (the beginning of the summer) I was very nervous about what I would send for Travis each day. Fortunately there are lots of yummy foods that don’t contain gluten. (Many gluten-free foods do contain junk carbs though so if you are trying to lose weight you probably want to avoid those as well). Our son is too skinny, so I really don’t mind feeding him carbs, just not gluten.

Here are the main non-refrigerated snacks that I buy. Because we are all gluten-free I just pack our daughter the same food as our son, but I will give her a sandwich with wheat bread.

Of course, this is just a small sampling of gluten-free foods available. I also send the kids with applesauce (organic), whole fruit or a fruit cup, cheese, etc.

One last gluten-free tidbit. It was hard to find bread that my son would eat. After some trial and error I found this Tapioca Loaf bread at Natural Grocer. It tastes almost like real bread but the consistency is more like a Pound Cake.

When packing lunches it helps to have good supplies. One of my favorite purchases are these Sandwich Savers:

I like them much better than any other type of sandwich container that I’ve tried. The lid flips open but it’s not a separate piece, so they are easy to toss in the dishwasher and I never lose the lid! Unfortunately, I can’t find this type anywhere anymore! I found some similar Tupperware ones, but they are much more expensive.

Okay, so now that you know why our food is all “weird”, I’ll show you how I quickly and efficiently pack the lunches each morning. It helps to have all the food organized in advance in the fridge and pantry, like I showed above.

Step 1: Set out all your lunch bags and drinks on the counter. I keep them spaced away from each other and create a pile of food for each kid before I stuff it all in the bag. Hopefully it won’t take long to hunt down the lunch sacks. Some mornings it takes me longer to find the bags than to pack the whole lunch. lol

Step 2: Get out sandwich stuff and make sandwiches. Both my kids get the same type of sandwich (ie: peanut butter or ham). I will not make a PB&J for one and a ham&cheese for the other. Too much of a pain!

Step 3: While you are putting away your sandwich-making stuff (jam, mustard, cheese, etc), grab all the cold items for the day. I try to grab about 2 cold items, usually a fruit (applesauce) and a veggie (carrots and Ranch). Some days I’ll throw in a string cheese but the kids are hit-or-miss with eating them. They say the cheese gets too warm so they won’t eat it.

Step 4: Grab all your pantry items for the day. I always give them extra food because they have a snack time before lunch and they like to raid their leftovers after school while walking out to the car.

Step 5: Add a napkin and any utensils they may need. For this lunch they don’t need any but usually they will get a spoon for the fruit cup.

If you want to be a really fun mom grab a pen or sharpie and write cute notes on their napkin.

Step 6: Stuff all the food into the bag, with heaviest items on the bottom. Done!

From there I usually will hand the lunches directly to the children and make them go put them in their backpacks right away. I’ve learned my lesson after being called on the phone countless times with them saying, “Mom, I forgot my lunch. Can you bring it to me?” Like I have anything better to do, right?

There’s one more thing I keep in my pantry that I wanted to show you. I bought a picnic caddy from Costco and it fits perfectly on the pantry shelf making it very easy to grab napkins, spoons, etc for lunches. I usually keep paper goods in it as well, but I am currently out. Having all that stuff in one location together makes it very easy to find.

And there you have it. Too many tips and tricks for packing a lunch. Probably more than you ever wanted to know about my life. Ha! I hope you have gained some new tips that will help make your mornings run more smoothly. If you have any better ideas, please tell us! I am always trying to improve my morning routine.

*I purchase most of our snacks in bulk at Costco. I also shop at our local grocery store and at the “healthy” food store called Natural Grocer. If you have any questions about anything you’ve seen in this post, please ask away!


     
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Comments

  1. wow what great ideas, I hate making lunches.

  2. Good ideas, and I like your organizing tips…but I cannot even imagine how much $$ you spend buying all of those individually packaged snacks! I’m not a mom yet (currently expecting our first baby) but I’ve been a nanny for 9 years and have packed many a lunch in my day. IMO, it’s just as easy to put carrots in a baggie and ranch in a little Tupperware container that can be reused. Those little ranch cups are expensive! I grocery shop, meal plan, and cook for the family I work for, and while they don’t have any sort of grocery budget, I still don’t buy little bags of carrots, etc! Anyway, I’m definitely stealing some of your pantry organization tips! And it must be quite a challenge packing GF lunches, so kudos for that! :)

    • Liz, As a parent, you will have to weigh time vs. money. No fair to opinionate until you’ve actually had to do it! You get real ‘dumb’, real fast when faced with the real challenges of purposeful parenting!

  3. Allison, I can’t tell you how helpful this is for me!! I am such a loser mom when it comes to food (generally) and packing lunches! You have inspired me to buy more stuff, get organized, and start acting like the “Boss of Lunch” (like Junie B. Jones… anybody else love that book?) THANKS SO MUCH!!!!!

  4. I make lunches for my husband. I used to pack his lunches nightly, until I figured out a way to streamline it. I pre-package a week’s worth of everything, except the sandwiches, on Sunday night, re-using as many of the zipper bags as I can. I put all the items in gallon zipper bags labeled Monday, Tuesday, etc. (I re-use these bags, as well.), and put them in the fridge. All I have to do is add a sandwich the night before. He carries one of those freezer-packs in his lunch every day to keep it cold. Freezing the drink is also an option for keeping lunches cold.

  5. Love this post, helps to figure out how I can organize and become more efficient in the morning! :)

  6. All good tips! I’m so happy to see the quantity of things you pack, I kept thinking I was the only one who sent that many things to make it through the lunch and 2 snacks of the school day!

  7. Hi Allison! We are slowly weaning my son off of gluten (while we still have gluten containing snacks in the pantry) so this is a great resource for me. Some of the gluten-free foods that work well for him now include go-gurts, which I freeze so that by the time he eats, it is still cold, and ham and cheese (or turkey, etc) roll-ups, which he prefers rather than having it on gluten-free bread. Because he always wants a second juice, I freeze half of his capri-sun juices, and include one frozen and one refrigerated one in his lunch box, which help to keep the cold stuff cold without having to add an ice pack. Thanks for all the great ideas :)

  8. Allison I have a very similar set-up for getting lunches made and being organized. I ask my daughter the night before what she’s wanting. She is in HS now so has use of a microwave, so that has helped a lot. She often takes leftovers, easy mac, hot pockets, Hormel completes or salads. But I do buy all the snacks in bulk and single serve them myself. (Well, except chips. Cause they go stale to fast.) I also keep a bin of re-useable Fresh-Serve containers that have ice packs that go in the lids, with all my other supplies. These containers are wonderful for salsa, veggie dips, and to put those cheese sticks in. I pack bags the night before, stack all the cold stuff together in the fridge and in the morning it takes me less than 3 minutes to finish and hand it off. Oh what a blessing! Keep up the good work!! Love your blog!!

  9. This is my morning routine too! I have three in school at the moment, and two at home. I found some hinged sandwich containers at the $1 section at Target. I bought 3 and I should have bought more! Keep your eyes out for them, they often cycle through again. I also like the little Glad brand (or copy cat store brand) rectangle snack container and mini round containers for chips and pirates bootie. I feel so wasteful using the plastic baggies and if my kids have to bring home the containers, then I have an easier time monitoring what they have actually eaten. Another good container for stacking and storing in the pantry for an easy grab are the Ball brand plastic jars.

  10. Did you really need to pin your own post like eight times?

    • Sarah, ya, sorry about that. I was trying to put different things on different boards. I wish I could pin stuff sometimes without it getting in everyone’s feed!

  11. These are awesome ideas. My kids absolutely LOVE pirate booty and the squeezebale apple sauce pouches so we always have them on hand.

  12. Thanks for the tips! My kids have decided this year that they like packed lunches better than the school’s lunches, so I have been experimenting with a variety of lunch ideas. So far, I’ve done a rotation of yogurt, pasta salad and sandwiches. They like to bring cut and dried fruit (and one likes sunflower seeds) as extras in their lunches.

  13. This is such a great idea! My husband sometimes whines that I dont make his lunch, so maybe I should give this a try! ;)

    Is there a particular reason that you and your son are going gluten-free? I only wonder because we don’t have children yet, but we have the very high probability of having a daughter with Celiac disease. Celiac is an autoimmune disease where the body can’t digest gluten and it destroys the intestines over time, along with a lot of other awful health side effects. We plan on having our kids tested early on, and want to have them on a gluten-free diet as early as possible. If we catch it early enough the health effects wont be an issue and they will be able to have the occasional piece of birthday cake or pizza and only suffer from a little diarrhea (and who doesn’t have that occasionally ;)) It’s just comforting to me to see a mom that feeds her kids gluten-free without too much extra pain-in-the-butt work.

  14. These are some great tips. I love the picnic caddy in the pantry idea … and I’ve never tried gluten free bread, but I LOVE pound cake. :)

  15. Awesome tips! One for you…freeze the cheese sticks and they’ll still be cool at lunch! They are my daughter’s favorite lunch item! Thanks again!

  16. I do 7 lunches (6kids and 1 husband) and on a good morning I can get it done in 30min, if this happens I know that my day will be a good one and there will be rainbows and sparkles :). What helped me was to get everybody to empty their own lunch bag after school-the minute we walk in the door and they put the cooler bags and ice bricks away and I do a quick lunchbox count, beware those who do not return the containers I will hunt you down!! lol I spend more than a few $$$ at the begining of the year for sandwichboxes, little containers etc of various sizes so I can buy in bulk and portion out.

  17. Sarah Baker says:

    I bet your kids are old enough to start helping pack their own lunches, especially since all the items are already packaged and they would just need to grab and stuff. Our four-year old has started helping to make his pb&j sandwiches; of course, they’re not perfect, but it’s about the process.

  18. Hi Allison-

    My sons and I have been gluten-free for almost three years now, and I have found that bento boxes make it really easy for him.

    Another really great addition, in lieu of a sandwich, is a Larabar. It’s a perfect mix of good fat, fruit-based sugar/carbs. and protein. The cherry pie ones are to die for. I keep them in my purse.

    Also, have your tried Udi’s or Rudi’s brands of GF bread? We always toast them, but they are our go-tos. Udi’s GF bagels are great for making pizza bagels, and trump all the store-bought GF crusts out there.

    Being GF has vastly improved my health, and has helped both of my sons. I hope you and your son are doing well. Feel free to contact me if you need anything…

    Nicolette

  19. Lots if great ideas, but some cross contamination issues with using the same jars and knife And prep area with the sandwich making. If the GF is a choice then no harm, but if Celiac disease or intolerance is the problem, safety measures need to be taken. Thank you for your ideas.

    • Elika, great point! People with Celiac need to make sure to not cross-contaminate. Fortunately we aren’t celiac, so it’s okay for us. I’m glad you pointed it out though. :)

  20. Hey Allison, why no sandwich saver for Ben? One photo shows his sandwich in a regular sandwich bag.

  21. Allison, I love the little bin and drawers that you have in your refrigerator. You organized Olga you! Thanks for sharing all of your tips. Would love it if you would share this at my Make it Pretty Monday party at The Dedicated House. http://thededicatedhouse.blogspot.com/2012/09/make-it-pretty-monday-week-14.html Hope to see you at the bash! Toodles, Kathryn @TheDedicatedHouse

  22. I love all the little individual pre-packaged stuff, but I don’t think I could justify the cost. Do you tell the kids to stay out of those things when they’re home and wanting a snack?
    I have two tips:
    #1: have your kids make their own lunches the night before. My kids have done it from the first grade on. I just ok what’s in their bags.
    #2 : I bought a Press n’ Seal that I make my own uncrustables from. I buy two loaves of bread, PB &J…I line up the slices from one loaf, put PB, J (or nutella) on each slice, then top with the slices from the other loaf, then cut them out and freeze. I let the kids use them for lunch twice a week so they won’t have to actually fix a sandwich those days.

  23. Great post! I love your see through chicken wire baskets. I hope I can find some! I also love that you write notes. I do the very same thing. :-)

  24. Great post! My only suggestion is that you should have your kids pack their own lunches. My daughter who is in 5th grade this year started making her lunches in 1st grade. I didn’t “make” her, she just decided one day that she wanted to do it. Now my son has just started kindergarten and I’m “making” (aka training) him to make his lunches. I make the sandwich for him but he does everything else and so far no complaints from him. The kids know what food is lunch box approved and I check what they put in before they zip up the lunchbox and put it in their backpack. I love it because we have had no lunch making or lunch eating issues because it’s just something they do so it’s no big deal and since they put their lunch together they eat everything and nothing is thrown away. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  25. great tips, but just curious, how long is your kids lunch? Looks like they each have a sandwich plus 5 “sides” and a drink? I think my kids lunch is 20min, and they usually can’t even eat their sandwich drink and a few bites of their side (crackers, cheez its, etc) within that time! That seems like a lot of food for a kids lunch.

    thanks to those that posted the freezing cheese tip! Never thought of that, will have to try it. I was sending string cheese occasionally but they’d usually end up coming home uneaten.

  26. Wow Allison! I love this post ~ thank you for all of the great tips!!! Ummm… I want your fridge {just sayin’}.
    xo
    Heather

  27. Is anyone else appalled at the crap they serve the kids in those school lunches? My last school district had a nationally acclaimed lunch program with a fairly healthy, tasty selection (high school only — the rest of the district did not offer the same fare — go figure!)

    However, we’ve recently moved to a new district with no such aspirations and my youngest son wouldn’t eat that swill if he was starving. What a waste of tax dollars – most of it gets thrown out!!

    Hence, I am a lunch-packer. Boy, do I hate making lunches. My only tip is to pack it all the night before in one of those insulated lunch totes — I have NO time in the morning to scramble around!!

    Thanks for sharing!

  28. Thanks for these great ideas. My daughter (7) just started eating gluten-free a week ago. I actually prepare her lunch on a separate counter so that I don’t get bread crumbs in her stuff by mistake. I’m excited to see a few more gluten-free snack ideas!

    I’ve started a Gluten-Free Share Page on OneCreativeMommy.com. Monday was my first post. I would love it if you visited and linked up some of your great gluten-free ideas. I don’t mind if they are free or if they are items to buy. We’re all looking for ideas! I hope to see you there.

    It’s funny. I link up at your site every week, but I never noticed the gluten-free stuff until it became important to me! Now I notice it all over!

  29. Go plastic free! says:

    Have you considered using reusable products instead of generating so much waste with all the disposable stuff? It is craaaaazy how much waste we all generate when we actually think about it and how much we are hurting the environment every single day. Check out http://plasticfreeguide.com/ for lots of plastic alternatives. For example, for the apple sauce pouches, why not buy a reusable Sili Squeeze (http://thesilico.com/) and fill it with your own homemade or even store bought applesauce? What’s the purpose of buying plastic one-time-use water bottles & juice pouches when you can buy your kids a stainless steel reusable, safe for the planet water bottle like this one: http://www.kleankanteen.com/products/classic/klean-kanteen-12oz-classic.php. Plastic bottled water is nothing more than bottled tap water (it’s true, research it) and more than likely, the bottles wont get recycled. Plastic leaches toxic chemicals into the beverages/foods it touches and is not healthy for our bodies or for the planet. Do you have Netflix? If so, I highly recommend watching the documentary Bag It. I promise you you will learn SO much and realize how easy making a couple simple changes will literally help prevent TONS of one-time-use plastic end up in the landfills & oceans. Plus, it will help save money in the long run too! I’d love to see a blog post showcasing any changes you make in the future. Take care :)

    • Great suggestions! I hope people here take them. I was really shocked at the amount of disposable snacks that go into these lunches. Our school practices waste-free lunches—it’s not that much harder and will save money and be much better for the environment. All important lessons to teach children!

  30. Hi! Great post! I’m in love with your Marshall’s wire baskets. I’ve been scouring the internet for just such baskets, but anything I’ve found is $25 EACH! How long ago did you find them? I recently bought a shelf of compartments (There are EIGHTEEN COMPARTMENTS!) from a vintage marketplace and the wire baskets would be perfect to complete the vintage look!

    Thanks!!! :)

  31. Thanks for sharing your tips! When we all went back to school this year {we’ve been homeschooling the last two years} I was determined to find a way to get it all organized!! It’s such a stinkin’ hassle isn’t it?!!
    Once I had categories organized in the pantry, I taught my 4th grader that she could pick what she wanted as long as she picked one thing from the sweet category, one from salty, and one from the fruit.
    Another thing that REALLY helps, is that on the weekends, she also makes ALL her sandwiches for the week and puts them in the freezer. I prep my dinners for the week so this step just made sense to me! She does either pb&j or ham/cheese and they both have tasted fine and have been thawed by lunch time.
    So each night before bed, she packs her lunch box with everything but the sandwich so it’s all ready to go. Then in the morning, she just has to remember to put her sandwich in! It makes the mornings MUCH less of a hassle since 99% of it is done ahead of time!
    I can’t imagine having to tackle gluten free lunches but you seem to have found lots of great options for your kiddos!

  32. Elizabeth utley says:

    I am gluten free too. Have you tried Rudi’s bread? It is a dead ringer for normal white bread. We keep it frozen (so it stays good forever) and then pop it in the toaster while we get our lunch meat out.

    • I just discovered this brand and we love it! Finally, my son has stopped complaining about having to be gluten-free because this bread is so similar to regular bread.

  33. Thanks so much for the great post. I laughed at how similar your routine is to ours although I did get a couple of new ideas. Each mom (or dad) has to decide what to do for her family with the resources available i.e. buying prepacked foods or packaging it yourself or eating gluten free or not. Don’t listen to anyone tell you how to do something when you are doing such a great job getting it done every single day. I recently learned that at one school in town the kids can get free breakfast, lunch and they’ll pack them a sack dinner every day. While I wouldn’t deny any child food, I see a huge lack of parental responsibility there. You are taking care of your kids and that is what matters. Thanks for the informative post and keep up the great work.

    • Thanks for your nice comment! Everyone has a way that works for them, and the prepackaged chips are the only way I keep my sanity in the mornings. You have to pick your battles. I already have to prepare gluten-free which is harder than non gluten-free, plus it makes breakfast harder because they have to have a hot meal each morning, so by the time I’m packing lunches I just need something quick and easy.

  34. This is obviously an older post, but I just saw it linked on Facebook. I love your organization. I thought I would let you know that my daughter also eats bread from Ener-G Foods. She liked the Tapioca loaf, but it was always kind of yellowish & smelly. I purchased the Light Tapioca loaf, and she loved it. It’s the only bread she’s eaten for years, now. We buy it buy the case (2 at a time) directly from the Ener-G Foods website, which costs less than retail in-store. https://www.ener-g.com/

    • Good to know. I have never heard of Ener-G Foods, I’ll have to check them out! We have since also discovered Udi’s gluten free bread which is amazing and is almost like flour bread.

  35. Jessica Alexander says:

    Greg gets the kids to school most mornings, he will make sandwiches while they eat breakfast and then they pack the rest and go. Sometimes he will make several sandwiches ahead of time and put them in the freezer, then pop into lunchboxes. They are thawed by the time the kids are eating. I don’t know if it would work for peanut butter and jelly though, we do meat & cheese sandwiches due to our peanut/tree nut allergies and our school district is completely nut free.

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  1. [...] like this.  :) NOW, it’s time to see how Allison keeps organized with school lunches at House of Hepworths! Hopefully you’re enjoying the Organizing 101: Back to Basics series … it has totally [...]

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