Back to school lunch box ideas: TikTok mom shares viral hacks to make mornings easier

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

When I was a new mom and not long out of maternity leave, I used to make sure my child always had a carefully crafted lunch. Here's what I wrote in a column when she was about a year and a half old:

"On Sunday, I will grill or saute five seasoned chicken tenders, slice a whole pineapple into manageable cubes, make a roll of sushi with vegetarian fillings (baked tofu, cream cheese and sweet potatoes work great), bake some apples and boil some whole wheat noodles to serve buttered with cheese. I'll have on-hand cheese slices, cottage cheese and yogurt, and keep frozen peas and berries in the freezer.

"If you can pull all that off in a few hours – and I promise you can – you can mix and match those things throughout the week in lunchboxes and, in some cases, early dinners, too."

OK fine. Solid advice – maybe. I'm now the mom of a 6-year-old who I dearly love. But there's no way I'm spending my Sundays doing that. Life is too short. But packing lunch for camp every day this year has turned into a daily scramble.

These are the pretty lunches I used to put together for my daughter. Now, she's eating yogurt pouches and peanut butter and jelly, and she's still perfectly happy.

How to build the perfect lunch

For ideas that actually work, I recently turned to TikTok influencer Shannon Doherty, who's gone viral for her methods for streamlining life with kids. With four children ages 2 to 8, simplifying things is practically a matter of survival for her. 

Shannon Doherty with three of her children.

Her everyday hacks, like making sandwiches in bulk for the beach and organizing kid stuff for car rides, have earned her channel, @athomewithshannon, nearly 2 million followers. Her popularity is likely due to the fact that her answers to everyday challenges are doable for just about anyone.

"So many moms are looking for easy tips and advice," she said.

Her audience also includes stay-at-home dads, babysitters, grandparents and anyone who takes care of children, she added.

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Doherty's No. 1 tip: Be prepared, but don't necessarily spend your Sundays rolling sushi and baking apples (I still can't believe I used to do that). There are plenty of tricks that won't take away an entire day of relaxation, like organizing clothes for the school week.

"On Sundays, we'll pick out our outfits for the entire week, or otherwise we'll be picking out clothes for hours in the morning," she said. 

To make meal-packing just as easy, she creates a self-serve lunch station, where she tosses food into bins marked with whether they contain grains, protein, fruit, dairy, snacks or treats. She refrigerates the bins until it's time to pack lunches, then lets her kids choose one item from each to build their perfect lunch. 

Shannon Doherty is a mother who's gained a large following on TikTok for her easy-to-follow mom hacks.

"I try to give them as much independence as I can," she said. "And in that way, I'm teaching them to make good, healthy choices – except when my son is trying to take four snacks instead of protein, then I reel it in."

Doherty's protein bins might include hardboiled eggs, turkey, ham, chicken nuggets and edamame, all pre-portioned in separate containers. Vegetables might include sliced cucumbers, baby carrots or cherry tomatoes.

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Other ideas include providing thermoses of hot soup for cold days, particularly if your kids aren't sandwich eaters, and throwing together pasta salads complete with vegetables, cheese and protein, covering a number of food groups all at once. 

Single-serving bottled smoothies and packaged yogurts, the latter of which can be frozen in advance and allowed to thaw throughout the day, are also excellent choices for lunch boxes. Protein bars, which provide energy for little ones, are also great choices. 

To avoid rummaging around for lunch boxes, containers, utensils and thermoses, Doherty makes sure to stock those items on a rack, creating a lunch box station.

"When they're goingto make their lunch, they stop by the station first," she said. "It helps with their independence and makes the morning easier because we're not searching for a lunch box, a thermos and a water bottle."

At the end of the day, put lunchboxes, fabric and all, straight in the dishwasher.

"Then just lay them out to dry," she said. "It's so easy, so clean, and you don't even have to think about it."

Will it work for you?

Does it work? Depends on your kid. I went to the store and bought bags of plums, bananas, cheese wheels, olives (yes, she loves them), crackers, turkey sticks and other elements of well-balanced meals. Yes, I've turned away from handmade everything toward prepackaged food, and she's definitely still alive.

My daughter required some coaching to not cram her lunchbox full of snacks and treats, but she loved the independence. She was thrilled to make her own lunch, and I bought myself some time to pour a glass of wine and make myself dinner. She got it done with minimal intervention. I call that a win.

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Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com