Lunch is the mid-day reset.

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

-Helmuth van Moltke

The perfect plan- set out in the morning, in the early hours before the house wakes up and the day rolls away from the station- never unfolds quite as I’d hoped.

The lessons aren’t finished as early as I’d have liked, the house is a bigger mess. The phone calls I intended to make still linger in my mind and the laundry sits, complaining quietly about being ignored, its attitude souring by the minute.

It is at this time- when the frazzled, frayed parts of my mind threaten to overthrow the confused and overwhelmed leadership, that we need to have lunch.  

In this small haven in the middle of the day, I sit down with my plans and re-negotiate. What will not fit, after all? What will need to fit, even if it is has to be squeezed in the margins? I need this break. I need this re-set to pause and re-calibrate after the morning, and to make sure I am headed in the right direction for the afternoon and evening.

The problem with lunch

There were days when my lunch plans, with one two year old boy- could be cheese and crackers with a few slices of apples. He would barely breeze by to take a few bites before he was off and running again. I could snack on last night’s leftovers or not, depending on how gnawing my own tummy was- or if I was engrossed in some project or other and could care less about food.

But as my little people have grown in number and in calorie intake, my own time has become limited, my attention squeezed and pulled.

We need lunch maybe more than ever, and yet, come midday, my time and attention is scarce.

Lunchtime Strategy – Design a System

It was two years ago when my husband started working with one of our close family friends, Jason. Each day, he would come to work with a lunch box, filled with good food, complete with homemade pie. For years and years I had struggled to make daily lunches for my husband as he went to work. Some days I could come up with great things to pack, and other days, just the thought of it weighed me down. I was already making three meals a day, and adding one more, unique lunch was just too much.

One day I pulled Jason’s wife, Kathy, aside, and asked her for her secret. She, too, is a homeschooling mom of many. She, too, had a busy, full kitchen life. How did they do it? My haphazard on and off lunches were expensive and discouraging, adding just that little bit of extra stress to my day.

She told me her secret was just having a simple system.

Every day, his lunch contained really the same basic items:

Two sandwiches, (made with store-bought hamburger buns, lunch meat, and cheese), chips, an apple, and a slice of pie.

Each week, she would make a pie. It might be apple one week, chocolate cream the next. She kept a little recipe file of his favorites and had a Pinterest board going, too. Each week the flavors of lunch meat, cheese, and chips changed, keeping the simple lunch feeling fresh and updated, but the slots were well defined and easy to fill.

If she had made a large salad and had leftovers, she might switch that out for the chips, or if there was some other kind of dessert, she might substitute that for the pie. Sometimes she had homemade bread. But in busy times or on low-energy days, this simple system was one she could fall back on. She said that homemade pie, which she made once each week, added that touch of homeyness- the little bit of “I care about you” hug, but could be made with a jar of homemade apple pie filling and store bought crust when time ran short.

This wonderful little revelation was such an eye-opener for me. And it shouldn’t have been- what with following the Simplified Pantry model for all of these years. But the simplicity of the overall slots, punctuated with the homemade fresh pie each week- that was something I could do. I could add that into my weekly routine.  Suddenly, regularly packed lunches for my husband became a doable thing.

But what about home? We have six kids- seven people to feed when I include myself. The number of pies alone, well…this was not really a system I could bring into my daily at-home lunches. But the principles, I could.

Scaling up the simple system

As I looked closer at Kathy’s system, I realized she has done a couple of things. First, she has a basic system that reduces her decisions. She knows what slots she needs to fill each week. Secondly, she takes what decisions she does have to make and squeezes them all up to the front of the week. As she grocery shops, she decides on lunch meat, cheese, and chips for the week. Lastly, she prepares ahead of time. The pie is made on Saturday, and even portioned out into daily containers, tucked in the back of the fridge. The rest of the days are just easy assembly.

We can take those same principles – scaled down choices, early decision making and preparation, and apply them to our everyday lunches.

Step 1: Define your slots

Sometimes, with the luxury of having everyone at home, with access to a modern, well-stocked kitchen, we can get bogged down in the sheer amount of options available.  

The most revolutionary thing I realized in learning from Kathy was that she kept it simple. There were special components to lunch, but the overall structure of lunch was very ordinary. And that’s what made it doable.

Decide, for your family, what the basic structure of your lunches will be. Maybe you plan soup two days each week, with bread and sliced apples. Maybe one day is going to be leftovers, and you double supper the night before as a rule. Another day might be some kind of noodles. Whatever you plan, try to make them repeatable dishes that you can change in flavor or kind, but not in type.

Step 2: Decide early

Once you have your basic structure or “outline,” make a point of making any remaining decisions early on in the week. Maybe you have to decide what kind of cookies you are going to make for dessert this week, or what kind of casserole you are doubling on Tuesday- but whatever decisions you have, make them ahead of time.

Oh, sure, those choices are small, but they add up, and decision fatigue is a real thing. So squeeze those all to the front of the week and get them out of the way.

Step 3: Prepare

Do what you can ahead of time.

The one thing I always find lacking in the middle of the day is time- that little hour between 11-12 is so often spoken for. And as such, it is helpful to do what you can before the week even begins.

I love things like Jar Soups for this. I often bake a whole pan of chicken breasts, cut them up and freeze them for easy grabbing mid-week. I’ll bake the week’s bread on Saturday, calculating out how many loaves we’ll go through with soup or sandwiches. I might freeze homemade macaroni and cheese or tuna noodle casserole, so they are easy to pop in the oven mid-day.

Lunch is worth working for

“Of course the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.” 

― Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Maybe the day started off with wonderful intentions and detailed plans. Or maybe it woke with a start and was frazzled from the beginning. By midday it can be hard to quiet that goal-driven part of me and be willing to step back and take a break; to take stock of the day, smile at my kids, and give us all that mid-day deep breath.

Lunch can serve as this little island in the sea of activity- a respite from the whirl of the day and a recharge- of both body and mind, and it’s worth fighting for.

How do you keep lunch simple and satisfying in your home?

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  1. After a while, we just can’t eat a other sandwich. LOL I rotate between 4 basic lunches each week that I make in large quantities each Monday for everyone to grab from through the week.
    1. Deli meat to make sandwiches or add to a salad. Sometimes a tortilla for a wrap breaks the monotony.
    2. Pasta with cubed pepperoni, salami, and chicken/Turkey breast from the deli, tossed with a favorite balsamic dressing. Olives & parmesan cheese optional.
    3. Chicken salad. I cheat & use store-bought rotisserie chickens for this recipe.
    4. Rotisserie chicken & salad, esp for exceptionally busy weeks. Pick a piece & get outta my kitchen, please! ;-)
    5. Sometimes I’ll make a hearty soup to stretch throughout the week.

    Fridays are meatless, so bean tostadas or canned tuna. I’ll also make a big pot of lentils to get us through weeks with Ember days.

    Additionally we get up a little earlier on Monday & Thursday mornings to make a big mess of scrambled eggs & sausage to get us through the week. If we didn’t my kids would eat nothing but sweet carbs for breakfast. This has made a HUGE difference for my ever-growing son, esp since I am not a breakfast person.

    1. That sounds like a wonderful system! Simple but with enough variety to make it useful over time. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you for writing this! I always feel flustered when lunch time startles me every single day. By now I should know it’s coming. But reading this article made me realize I actually DO have a system, I just never thought of it as such. Now I can let go of that daily dose of anxiety!

    1. Oh Trudy, I totally know what you mean! lol! I just never feel like I will really need to deal with lunch…until it’s lunch time! I’d love to hear what your system is- even if it’s still in process!

  3. Same essential plan in my household, but I make cookies or dessert bars instead of pie, and add raw veggies I clean and cut on weekends, including grape or cherry tomatoes, carrots (not baby), celery, radishes, cauliflower, broccoli.

    1. Yes! I love the cookies/bars plan. I have thought about that, here, too, but have yet to implement that. It seems much easier to double a cookie recipe and make it last- and cookies still have that “homemade hug” quality, don’t they? Prepping the veggies early in the week is so smart too- I can’t tell you how many 12pm’s I have seen, and have thought “oh, I could serve (such and such vegetable)” and the simple act of pulling them out, cutting them up, cleaning up the mess- feels like too much and it doesn’t happen. Those little steps really do make such a difference! Thanks for sharing!

  4. This was a super helpful post! Lots of great ideas for changing chaos in the mid-day to peace and simplicity! Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Heather! I remember thinking that Kathy’s simple plan was such a lifeline to me- I’m thankful to be able to share it!

  5. Yes, lunch is such a schedule crimper in the middle of the day! We have recently implemented a new routine which has been revolutionary. Using a simple chart I penciled out, the kids each fill their own lunch boxes in the morning with a carb, protein, veggie, fruit, and treat (chips, chocolate chips, etc). We do this while we are all bustling in the kitchen making breakfast anyways. I assembly something simple for the three youngest and eye the leftovers for myself. Then we get the kitchen cleaned before school starts and don’t have to worry about recleaning after lunch since it is already prepared. At lunch, we grab our lunch boxes and can start eating right away! No more lunch prep and clean up eating our entire hour break. The kids can actually go outside and okay for a good half hour before it’s time to come back in. I always thought if we stayed home, we were lucky to not have to think about a lunch box in the morning, but it is literally the best change we have made in a awhile. I can see how this simple lunch system you mentioned would make it even simpler. I might tweak our chart based on this. Thanks!

    1. Sara,
      You will probably laugh at me, but honestly one of the more conflicted parts I had about homeschooling my kids was that they would not have the experience of having a lunch box. I just remember really liking the experience of having my lunch box, and all of the good food tucked in there. Each year during back-to-school season I walk past all of those lunch boxes- simultaneously thankful I don’t have to spend money on them and also a little heartbroken that I don’t get to. I know. It’s weird. I’ve thought about getting them for field trips, etc., but it always feels a bit extravagant for the laughably small number of field trips we actually take.

      I love that your kids pack their own lunch, and that mid-day you just don’t worry about it.

      So, needless to say, I’m loving this idea. I’m wondering- practically- do you have things like sandwiches prepped, or are your proteins like string cheese, hard boiled eggs, and easy to grab things like that? How old are your kids- and how many do you have? Do you cut and prep veggies early in the week? When do you clean the containers holding all of the stuff? Are the kids in charge of their own lunch box “maintenance” if you will? And when you pack the three little’s and yours- do they go in their own lunch boxes, too, or do you just set that stuff aside?

      Thank you for sharing!

  6. Principles and a workable plan are the saving graces for sanity, aren’t they??

    In fall/winter/spring, I make a changing rotation of two hearty soups a week and serve them alongside a rotation of cheese, corn chips, toast, sliced summer sausage, cornbread, or whatever side makes the most sense. When lunch comes, I just pull from the big pot and heat up the amount I know they will eat.

    (And my husband eats leftovers.)

    In the summer, I typically serve a rotation of salads topped with meat and cheese and some kind of toasty carb on the side. We have three large gardens and a changing variety of vegetables to choose from. Sometimes I have soups to accompany, but they play a smaller role in the summer months.

    (And my husband eats salads and/or leftovers.)

    Works for me!! I never have to stress about lunch, ever. Sweet relief.

    1. I love, love, love soups in the winter and salads in the summer. Do you keep a file of soups, then? Do you prep veggies at the start of the week so they are easy to grab or do you make the whole salad? I am also interested in knowing how you manage your gardens- three?!? Are you out there just all the time in the summer? Have you always had such a big garden, or did you work up to that?

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