8 ways to make school-at-home lunches easier

Genevieve Ko / Los Angeles Times

I love cooking — that’s why I don’t like packing school lunches. It’s no fun making food that inevitably tastes subpar after hanging out in a brown bag for hours. Online schooling eliminates that issue but invites countless other mealtime problems, so I’m approaching “school lunch” the same way I always have: as a chore, not a joy. (And yes, I’m writing less as a professional cook and more as a working mother of three who is very, very tired.)

The tips below come from years of optimizing efficiency in restaurant and test kitchens and in my kitchen at home as well. They also address the cooking questions mom friends have asked me since quarantine started and the challenges they’ve shared. Feeding children is as much a mental and emotional struggle as it is a logistical one. Here are some ways to make it easier:

Go easy on yourself

You don’t need to stack artisanal sandwiches or fashion Hello Kitty faces on onigiri rice balls concocted from ham and seaweed. If you have the desire and energy for that next-level lunch-making, go for it. If not, don’t feel bad about it.

There have been days when I’m so exhausted from work (ironically, cooking) that I’ve simply popped open a can of beans, cut up a pepper and tossed string cheese packs on the table for a “meal.” My kids are still alive.

Don’t make three meals a day; batch cook for future meals

In April, one of my friends told me how wiped out she was from cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner — and doing all the dishes in between. My response: That’s crazy. Unless you actively want to be doing all that, don’t.

Instead, cook a lot when you feel like it and save leftovers for the times you lack kitchen motivation. Morning people can make huge breakfasts that last until lunch; folks with evening meetings can prep enough lunch to stretch to dinner. If you’d rather not eat the same thing for two meals in a row, refrigerate or freeze leftovers to reheat for future meals.

If you don’t want to do breakfast, buy cereal or make a big pot of oatmeal to last all week. If your kids insist on eggs every day, teach them to fry or scramble their own if they’re old enough to deal with the stove. Otherwise, boil half a dozen at once and keep them in a grab-bowl in the fridge. To streamline daily lunch prep, prepare big batches of building blocks, such as grains and beans, and keep them ready-to-scoop in refrigerated airtight containers.