Like the majority of other parents, my world took a complete 180-degree turn last March due to schools closing and COVID-19 precautions. Nowadays, I'm coming up with midday meal ideas on top of learning how to homeschool and maintaining my job. It's a lot, so needless to say, lunchtime hacks were desperately needed.
As a registered dietitian, I try to feed my daughter nourishing foods that will help keep her focused and satisfied through the day. I don't feed her supersugary foods that will lead to a midday crash or overly heavy foods that will make her feel sluggish. However, by day two of trying to make flower-shaped sandwiches and kitten-faced fruit snacks, I was over it.
I grew up in a home where we were always offered healthy meals. But I also was raised by a mom who is the queen of cooking hacks. To this day, I have visions of her scooping store-bought mashed potatoes into her mother's serving dish before hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Her "homemade" pasta sauce was a jarred store brand with her addition of chopped veggies and ground beef — with one bay leaf added for the extra homemade touch. She would rather spend her time doing literally anything other than cooking, so she embraces the semi-homemade concept.
Taking a cue from my mama, I quickly realized there was an easier way to do school lunchtime. There is a luxury in not having to pack a portable lunchbox and being able to have access to a microwave, freezer, and stove in the middle of the day. I figured I should use that benefit to my advantage.
Thankfully, there are a slew of frozen kid-friendly meals and foods offered at the grocery store. Many are loaded with salt, preservatives, and low-quality ingredients. But some are a gem and honestly a lifesaver.
Now, when lunchtime rolls around, I lean on frozen meals as my base. Again, as many frozen food brands can be loaded with ingredients that I do not want my child to eat, I am very selective of the brands that I allow in my freezer. Brands like KidFresh make classic "kid" food like chicken nuggets and mozzarella sticks, but they are made with whole-wheat breading and contain hidden veggies like cauliflower. Pasta dishes are made with "sneaky" veggies as well, and the breakfast options are free from anything artificial. The meals are ready in minutes, I don't have tons of dishes to clean once mealtime is over, and my daughter will actually eat what is offered.
Most of the frozen options do not meet my criteria of being a complete and balanced meal, so I make additions to the frozen food when it is served — pairing the nuggets with a piece of fruit and glass of milk or topping the mac and cheese with some leftover protein from the night before and adding sliced apples and carrots on the side. But the time commitment to create a balanced meal is minimal. Since kids tend to eat with their eyes first, I plate the meal to look visually appealing, and lunch is now easy-breezy.
I do meal plan each Sunday to make sure my fridge and freezer are well-stocked for the week. That way, I know what I am going to have on hand to piecemeal a lunch that I feel good feeding my daughter while maintaining my own sanity.
Am I proud that I feed my daughter frozen premade food most days of the week for lunch? Absolutely not. I wish I were able to create those fresh and gorgeous meals that make perfect Instagrams. But my reality is that I am doing my best and cooking is not my forte. After a morning of homeschooling, both mama and kiddo need a little breather, and only having to slice a peach, pour a glass of milk, and hit some buttons on a microwave when lunchtime rolls around is quite nice in my book.