I thought it would be useful to explain how I plan my packed lunches, and how I strive to achieve a 'balanced' meal in every lunch that I pack. I don't always manage it of course, and it isn't the end of the world if I miss out one of the food groups, but I find that it helps to have something to aim for!
When I pack a lunchbox I try to include at least one item from each of the following food groups; starchy food, non-dairy protein, dairy, vegetables and fruit. This is based loosely on the 'Eatwell Plate', as recommended by the NHS. I'll often include more than one item from a food group, particularly vegetables and fruit, in my quest to make sure Small Child gets his recommended five a day, but it all depends on what I have available at the time.
I have a list of food ideas stuck to the fridge (you can download a copy from here), with suggestions for each food group, which really helps me to cover them all. It also helps me plan a good variety of foods, although of course there are certain favourite foods that crop up again and again; ham and carrots in Small Child's case for example.
At the beginning of the week, I plan out all of the family meals, and after surveying the contents of the fridge and cupboards, try to ensure that I have a good variety of foods to hand that are suitable for lunches too. When I have the time, I try to plan out a weeks worth of lunches, using a chart that I made to make sure that I cover all of the food groups. This not only helps me to bring variety to the week's food, it also saves a huge amount of time in the mornings. I am not a morning person at all; my brain barely seems to function till I've been up a good hour at least, so having to decide what to make for lunch can be a struggle! If I've planned it in advance however, then it's just a matter of throwing it all in a lunchbox with very little thought required. I've found from experience that it takes a lot longer to pack lunch if I'm also trying to decide what to put in it at the same time.
Since having a small baby on my hands too it all feels a lot more of a balancing act, so planning in advance is crucial to the success of our morning routine. I could pack lunch the night before of course, and sometimes do, particularly if I'm packing leftovers, but I think that things like sandwiches and raw vegetables are generally much more appetising if they are freshly prepared on the day they are being eaten. Some elements work well when they are prepared in advance - boiled eggs, for example, so I'll often part-pack a lunch, and have a plan at hand for what needs to be prepared in the morning.
As I mentioned before, I created a chart to help me with the planning process. I've jazzed it up a bit and turned it into a PDF file, so that you can download your own free copy to use yourself. If you are feeling extra organised, you could even laminate it and use a non permanent marker to make yourself a re-usable copy!
I hope this post has proved to be useful, but do please comment if you have any other suggestions for helping to make packing lunches easier.
Happy planning and lunch making!