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

Bacon cheddar stuffed jalapeno halves

I know I haven’t posted in a bit but I’ve really been trying to soak up this last bit of summer before I have to go back to work.  I wanted to get this post up asap so you could make these out of all those glorious jalapenos you have in your garden right now.  This recipe is so easy and so quick, the only measurement you need to remember is 1/2. Continue reading

Back to school lunch bowls

Last week, I headed to a friend’s cottage for a couple days to catch up with some friends and their kids.  I was on lunch duty so I wanted to make something that everyone would be into, something healthy and something that could be made into a second meal or snack if there were leftovers.

The four of us met in the Faculty of Education, so I thought it was fitting to use this as an example of a easy back to school lunch. While the four of us are all using our education degrees in different capacities, we can all agree that a quick, healthy lunch works for everyone, no matter what they’re up to.

I decided on a “bowl bar” so that we could accommodate any food allergies or dietary restrictions. Each person can customize their own meal, which the occasionally still picky eater in me loves.

I’m sure you’ve heard different names for these bowls before today: Buddha bowl, Nourish bowl, Grain bowl. Any way you label it, it’s food in a bowl. I didn’t want to overdo it with the ingredients, but I wanted enough ingredients that people could pick and choose from.

Bowl basics

These are the main categories I used to set up my bowl bar. I went with 2-3 items per category. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • Grains (Quinoa, brown rice, bulgur)
  • Greens (Kale, arugula, fresh herbs)
  • Crunchy veggies (carrots, tomatoes, snap peas, red cabbage, cucumber)
  • Soft/roasted veggies (cauliflower, sweet potato, red peppers, edamame, black beans, corn, olives)
  • Sauces (maple tahini, basil pesto, coconut peanut sauce, fresh lemons and limes) You can also just use any salad dressing you have on hand or one of these Five salad dressings you should make from scratch
  • Toppings (nuts/seeds, cheese, roasted chick peas, coconut chips)Salad bowl grain bowl Lunch bowls are a combination of greens, grains, soft veggies, crunchy veggies, dressing or sauce and a crunchy topping.

Okay, I may have overdone it a bit for this particular event, but I’ll also show you how to tone it down to meal prep your lunches for a whole week. The great part about this is that you can use ANYTHING you have in your pantry or fridge.

Bowls to try

Morrocan inspired: kale, quinoa, cauliflower, sweet potato, carrot, maple tahini sauce, roasted chick peas and pumpkin seeds.

Caprese: arugula, bulgur, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, pine nuts, bocconcini, pesto, fresh lemon.

Asian inspired: Brown rice, red cabbage, carrots, edamame,  peanut sauce, coconut chips, peanuts.

Bowls to take for lunch: A step-by-step guide

Taking this for lunch can be super simple and you can even have a different bowl each day.

Step one: Wash and dry greens of your choice and divide into 5 large containers.  I like to use kale because it will last the whole week without browning or getting soggy.

Shortcut: Use pre-washed greens. 

Step two: Cook your grains and let cool.  I like quinoa, because nobody else in my household does, so I take advantage and have it for lunch. You’re going to put your grains in a smaller container or jar.  You can add your sauces to the grains if you want to have that all prepped ahead of time, or you can just bring the sauce in your lunch bag and add it at lunch time.

Shortcut: Don’t bother cooking grains if you have them planned for dinner this week. Cook extra at dinner and portion them then.

Step three: Make fun sauces. Portion them in small 125 ml mason jars so you can just take one on the way out. You can decide in the morning which sauce you’re feeling that day.

Shortcut: Use sauces or salad dressings you already have in the fridge. Think Sriracha, lemon juice, lime juice, soy sauce.

Step four: Add your veggies.  This is where you can mix it up.  You can prep these all at once, or you can add to your green container on a daily basis if you want to use dinner leftovers.

Shortcut: Use pre-cut or ready to serve veggies such as shredded carrots or beets, cherry tomatoes or olives. 

Step five: When you get to work, mix it up and eat it. Done and done.

Sauces for your bowls

I made a few sauces for our lunch and this one was hands down everyone’s favorite.

Maple tahini sauce

  • 1/2 cup tahini
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • juice of one lemon
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp paprika
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil

Shake all the ingredients together in a jar.  Store in the fridge.  Sauce will thicken in the fridge.  To loosen, leave out at room temperature or stir in a bit more olive oil before serving.

Well, this will have your lunches covered, at least for the first week back at school.  For more back to school posts, check out my teacher friend Lauren’s blog for her three part back to school series on her blog Everything in progress.