Not only does September mean back to work and school, it means many of us are back to packing lunches to go — which can be an added challenge during time-crunched mornings.

Most parents have a clear idea about what constitutes lunch. There is added pressure to make packed school lunches innovative and interesting, but kids tend to be more relaxed about it. One of the best ways to take the stress out of a homemade lunch is to be more open-minded about what should go into lunchboxes. Expanding your horizons can make morning rush hour that much easier.

  1. Think outside the lunchbox. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have sandwich fixings — your kids might be just as happy with a mishmash of items from the fridge and pantry, such as a Thermos of spaghetti, a leftover pancake, a cold piece of pizza or veggie sushi from last night’s takeout.

  2. Consider appetizers. Finger foods make ideal school lunches, especially for kids who tend to nibble as they socialize and can be overwhelmed by a large item. A charcuterie is easy to put together: sliced meats, pepperoni sticks, cubes of cheese, baby grape tomatoes and crackers. Or pick up a small tackle or craft box and put something small inside each compartment. Kids tend to be grazers and may do well noshing through lunch bite by bite rather than only eating half a sandwich.

  3. Send breakfast for lunch. Making a big batch of pancakes, waffles, scones or muffins on the weekend can provide a freezer full of lunchable eats during the week. Make your own using whole grains, eggs, yogurt, berries or other fruit. Freeze individually wrapped to pop into lunchbags on harried mornings.

  4. Let them decide. If your kids make their own lunches, provide a few guidelines and let them handle the rest. They may come up with creations you’ve never thought of.

  5. Start a lunch club. If your child has a few friends he or she hangs out with every noon hour, co-ordinate with other parents to take turns making lunch for the group. It’s not much more work to assemble three or four lunches than just one, and you won’t have to worry about it when it’s not your turn. When you’re only on lunch duty once in awhile, whomever is in charge of brown bagging it will likely make lunch extra special.

  6. Plan for leftovers. Let dinner do double duty and roast two chickens, make an extra large lasagna, extra noodles or a big batch of hoisin pork for lettuce wraps (it also makes a great salad, if you tear your lettuce up rather than use it to wrap the filling). Some things are just as tasty cold, or you can fill a Thermos or reheat it at work or school.

Hoisin Pork (or Chicken, Turkey or Beef) Lettuce Wraps 

Lettuce wraps make a quick meal you can eat with your fingers. Dinner one night can mean leftovers for lunch on another day. The filling doubles (or even triples) easily for a large batch to stash in the fridge or freezer.

  • Canola or olive oil, for cooking
  • Sesame oil, for cooking (optional)
  • 1 lb. ground pork, chicken, turkey or beef
  • 1 small red, yellow or orange pepper, chopped
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro stems
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger (optional)
  • salt
  • ¼-½ cup hoisin sauce (or to taste)
  • butter or leaf lettuce leaves

In a large, heavy skillet, heat a drizzle of canola and sesame oil (if you’re using it) over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook, breaking the meat up with a spoon, until no longer pink. Add the pepper, onions, cilantro, garlic and ginger. Cook until the vegetables soften, the excess moisture cooks off and the meat starts to turn brown and crisp.

Season with salt and hoisin sauce to taste. Serve warm, with lettuce leaves to fill, wrap and eat.

Serves 4-6.

Hoisin Pork Lettuce Wraps

(Julie VanRosendall)