Building a sustainable school lunchbox routine can take on the complexity of a UN treaty negotiation.
The contents need to be quick, easy, cheap, healthy and tasty – and the whole thing needs to be secured in containers that won't get sloshed all over library books at the bottom of a bag.
No wonder so many of us give up entirely and outsource the whole thing to the school canteen.
But if 2023 is the year you want to put a lunchbox system in place that actually works, the key is to be prepared.
Here, CHOICE staff and supporters share their tried-and-tested lunchbox tricks that will help you win the Battle of the Box.
If you freeze sandwiches in advance, make sure they're wrapped well to avoid freezer burn.
1. Freeze, please
Freezing sandwiches in advance is Lunchbox Hack 101, but there are a few things to consider to make sure you do it right. Mum-of-three Bek is happy to freeze her sandwiches whole, but CHOICE product designer Emily warns they have to be wrapped "really well" or they can suffer freezer burn.
Ivonne, CHOICE's member engagement manager, suggests that instead of freezing whole sandwiches, you keep your bread in the freezer for convenience and then make your sandwiches the night before using the frozen bread. "It defrosts slowly overnight in the fridge and is fresh for the day," she says.
2. Contain yourself
You could spend six hours preparing a Michelin-starred tasting menu for your preschooler's recess, but it would all be a waste of time with the wrong containers.
Bek says that bento-style boxes are a safe bet for fussy eaters because "at least you know they'll eat something". But Kathleen warns against investing too much in fancy boxes that will almost certainly end up either lost or which won't fit inside that tatty Bluey lunchbag that your preschooler simply can't live without.
"It makes sense to have a few cheaper, different-shaped boxes for when they leave [their usual one] at school and you have to cobble together odd-shaped containers to fit everything in until it miraculously returns," she says.
Another way to minimise container attrition? Invest in lunchboxes and drink bottles with attached lids. "Can you tell we lose a lot of things in our house?" Kathleen says.
3. Hit the health vs hunger sweet spot
The dilemma: your children would happily live on Twisties and chocolate bars if you'd let them, but the school health police will rap you over the knuckles unless you make them quinoa flatbreads and acai smoothies – which they'd never touch, even if you had the time and energy.
Every child is different, but there are a few store-bought snacks worth having on hand that should tick both boxes. Baby sushi is a good one, according to CHOICE whitegoods expert Ashley, and Bek says seaweed strips and baby bocconcini both pass muster.
4. Thermoses: think beyond soup
A hot lunch on a cold day is a wonderful thing, and a great way to use up last night's leftovers.
Kathleen likes to pack heat-holding thermoses with zucchini slices or leftover bolognese, which she says is a "good way to get them to eat veggies without them realising".
Parent-of-two Jess regularly packs her fifth-grader's thermos with tri-colour vegetable spiral pasta, which is much easier to eat than long strands.
5. Get half-baked
CHOICE money and travel expert Uta has a brilliant way to include fresh-baked snacks in her daughter's lunchbox. She buys frozen ricotta and spinach pastries or veggie sausage rolls. She then bakes them in advance until they're done but not quite browned, before putting them back in the freezer.
"Each night I take one portion out and put it in the fridge and in the morning I finish it in the sandwich press," she says. Fresh and fabulous.
Get children involved in menu planning and meal prepping.
6. Make a moving menu
All hail CHOICE engineering lead Andrea, who has to have one of the most comprehensive – and she says failsafe – kid-friendly lunchbox systems we've ever encountered.
"I make a lunch menu using magnet-backed lamination sheets and pre-set menu options we know they like," she says. "Usually on a Sunday afternoon I get them to pick out everything they want for the week, then I plan grocery shopping to suit.
"We're not generally very organised, but this was the one setup I felt was worth the effort, as it makes lunch prep so much smoother. They are usually more invested in eating lunches they've picked out themselves."
7. Manageable chunks
Cut, slice, prep, store. The more of that you can do in advance, the easier your mornings will be. Emily, CHOICE product designer, is a ninja on this front.
"On the day of a weekly grocery run I will prep the veg: carrots, cucumber (deseeded) and celery, all chopped into sticks and packed into old takeaway containers that I reuse," she says. "Then, when I prep the lunchboxes in the morning, it's grab and go."
8. Systemise it
CHOICE test coordinator Mostafa says the key to lunch prep for his four boys is having systems, and sticking to them with military precision.
He breaks his sons' lunches into five categories: sandwich, fruit and veg, drink, recess and special extras. Then, he has three or four options in each category that he rotates – such as a choice of pepita seeds, grated coconut or dried cranberries under the 'special extras' heading. The idea is to minimise decisions and stick to things the children like.
9. Eat and repeat
Children are simple folk, and will generally eat the same thing ad nauseum if it's something they like. The upside for you is that repetition means you can buy in bulk and cut down on both prep time and the mental load of creativity.
"Parents worry a lot more than kids about eating the same thing over and over," says Stacy. "You can easily make the same lunch for the whole week – or two, depending on the kid – and they won't care or notice."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.