Easy tray lunch for kids (and adults!)

September has been a hectic month for our family, which would explain why I haven’t posted in a while.  I’ve returned to work after an 8 month maternity leave, Brad The Dad is holding it down over here, rocking the stay-at-home dad life, one of the girls started Kindergarten and another one started pre-school.

One thing I wasn’t really looking forward to with going back to work and having another one in school for full days, every other day, was making lunches!  I know I’m not the only one who is totally annoyed with making lunches. I don’t know what it is, but it’s just such a daunting task.  I decided that I’d tackle lunches this year with my favorite stay-at-home mom lunch trick: Tray lunch! (It’s actually muffin tin lunch but my kids call it tray lunch.)

Now, my friend Karen gave me this idea a few years ago, and I’ve been overusing it ever since!

Food + muffin tin = your kids will love you

All tray lunch is, is a muffin tin with food in it.  Anything you have in your fridge or pantry. That small amount of cereal left in the bag that isn’t enough for a full bowl, four crackers, one cheese string. (Cut it in half and you’re feeding two kids!) It’s perfect for cleaning out the fridge and pantry and finishing off small amounts of food.

tray lunch
A typical tray lunch at our house

80% healthy, 20% fun (and healthy-ish)

Here is a list of things that we like to put in our tray lunch.  I usually go for 80% healthy and 20% fun, but still (mostly) healthy treats. I know you probably think it’s hard to think of twelve items, but I just start in the fridge with all the healthy foods and keep filling until I run out. Plus, if you don’t want to do twelve items, use a jumbo muffin tin that only has 6 spots to fill.  The fun part is seeing all the food in individual compartments and getting to choose what to eat.  I have no idea why this is any different than having foods laid out on a plate but it works. So do it.

What to put in your tray lunch

  • Ham
  • Salami
  • Chicken
  • Pepperoni sticks
  • Cheese
  • Carrots
  • Snap peas
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Cucumbers
  • Pickles
  • Apple slices
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • 1/3 of a banana
  • Mandarin orange
  • Frozen raspberries
  • Applesauce
  • Baguette slices
  • Mini croissants
  • Crackers
  • Mini rice cakes
  • Dry cereal
  • Peanuts
  • Raisins
  • Dried blueberries
  • Dried cherries
  • Dried apricots
  • Trail mix
  • Mini marshmallows
  • Popcorn
  • Chocolate chips
  • Cookies
  • Mini muffin or half of a small muffin
  • Mini yogurt or 1/2 yogurt tube
  • 1/2 granola bar
  • Jelly beans
  • Fruit snacks
  • Mini peanut butter Ritz sandwiches
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Pretzels
  • Tortilla chips

Always serve picnic style

The other thing about tray lunch is that my kids insist on eating it on the floor. They always get a blanket set up while I’m making it, we put on a movie and they just sit and eat quietly. It’s glorious.  A good trick to have in your back pocket when the day isn’t going so smoothly.  I try not to do tray lunch too often, so that the novelty doesn’t wear off but if the kids ask for it, I’ll always say yes.

Modify it for taking it on the go

I’ve applied this concept to our daily lunches and it’s actually quite amazing. A bunch of random snacky stuff. Instead of twelve items, I go with six, and there is no muffin tin involved. It may be a bit less fun, presentation-wise, but it’s still food. And it’s still food that my kid preemptively said she would eat. And now that I think about it, you can get those disposable aluminum muffin tins that come with a lid, so you could try that for a lunch box if you were really hung up on sticking with the muffin tin.

Adults can have tray lunch too!

I also love this for myself, particularly when I have a meeting at lunch and don’t have a lot of time to wait to use the microwave. Plus, I can just graze all day, which on occasion compliments my schedule quite well. My daughter loves it because she can rattle off a bunch of random foods she wants in her lunch and be 100% happy with it the next day.

Pros and cons

I’m trying to think of all the cons, but other than thinking of twelve items to put in the trays, there really aren’t any. Here are some pros:

  • Cleans out the fridge and pantry by finishing off small amounts of food;
  • Offers variety of healthy foods (plus a few treats) and lets kids choose what they want to eat and when;
  • Makes clean-up a breeze: roll up the blanket and shake it out outside;
  • Engages kids in mealtime.

What are you going to put in your tray lunch? Show us on Instagram using #tbltraylunch