Doing the kids’ packed lunches is a task almost as relentless as cooking dinner, and sometimes as thankless—which is why lunch box hacks are an essential survival tool. We’ve got a dozen ideas to take the sting out of the daily pack panic. Keep reading to see them all.

photo: Clean Eats & Treats

1. Prep it. You’ve heard it before but we’ll say it again; whether it’s doubling up a Sunday roast or spending some time getting ahead by cooking up a big chili dish or a tray of sausages, prepping before the school week gets underway can save you time and trouble. Check out these ideas for big cook-ups that, with a few small tweaks, will quickly add up to a week’s worth of packed lunches. You can also prep sticks of carrots, celery, and cucumber in portions in the fridge so they are easy to grab when you need them.

2. Reuse it. We’re talking leftovers. Add last night’s chicken dinner to salads or wraps. Try to get the kids eating from a thermos at least once a week; it’ll give you the option to reheat leftover soups, stews and rice dishes for lunch. Preheat the thermos by swilling it with hot water before filling with food, so lunch is still hot at recess. Think about reusing breakfast leftovers too; the morning’s toast can be cut into crackers, waffles work just as well for lunch, and if you have leftover pancake mix, add cheese and sweetcorn to turn breakfast into lunch with a recipe like this one from Girl Versus Dough.

photo: Kathleen Franklin via Flickr

3. Freeze it. Clear some space so you can fill the freezer with lunch box goodies. Prepped ahead portions of pasta, frozen veg, and leftover chicken can be pulled from the freezer on a weekday morning for an instant lunch. It’ll be freshly defrosted by midday and keeps everything else cool. Looking for items that double as freezer packs? Try juice boxes, yogurt sticks or even a small sponge in a ziplock bag for easy hand cleaning. Lots of other lunch box staples can go straight from freezer to bento box—sandwiches, berries, even orange slices frozen in cling wrap.

4. Save it. Single serve condiments from take-outs and restaurants don’t need to be ditched. Pop a sachet of ketchup in to liven up the cut veggies or bacon bits.

photo: Real Mom Nutrition

5. Cut it.  Crinkle cut or spiralized? Veggies cut in fun ways and cookie cutter sandwiches can make all the difference to whether a bento box comes back full or empty. Cutting food into small pieces helps little hands when the time is short during lunch recess. Apples are more likely to be eaten if they are cut up, and this rubber band trick will keep them from going brown. If your lunchbox is better suited to sliced fruit, keep apples fresh by rubbing lemon juice on the flesh or, if that’s too sour, Sally Kuzemchak at Real Mom Nutrition suggests a combo of lemon juice and OJ or pineapple juice. Talking of oranges, slice them into the caterpillar cuts below, and turn a messy, hard-to-peel fruit into an easy lunchbox addition.

6. Simplify it. Work with nature—hard boiled eggs, bananas, and clementines are lunchbox friendly foods that come in their own organic containers. There are lots of other healthy options that work well raw in a lunchbox like kiwis, halved oranges or avocado that can be scooped out with a spoon.

photo: Emily Myers

7. Skewer it. Kebabs are a great way of creating a colorful and appetizing lunchbox menu. Use wooden skewers, or party picks to make mini kebabs and create a totem of fruit, veg, cheese squares, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella balls, folded salami, micro sandwiches and more. Snip off the end of the skewer if you’re worried about anyone at the lunch table getting poked with something sharp.

8. Cup it. Reusable silicone cups are an ideal accessory for adding dips and snacks to a lunch box. Kids love individual containers for things; another idea is to pop six plastic easter eggs in an egg box, each one stuffed with something different like popcorn, sunflower seeds, granola or crackers.

photo: Clean Eats & Treats

9. Troubleshoot it. Involving kids in the process of packing their lunches can have huge payoffs. Plenty of moms, including Shannon Sargent at Clean Eats & Treats, swear by the idea of “snack stations” where kids can pick out what they want. Dedicate a space in the fridge or pantry using toy storage bins, and pack it with snacks or use this genius hack from Mom Always Finds Out, which reuses a hanging shoe organizer with see-through pockets as a snack wall.

10. Roll it. Pinwheel sandwiches are an easy lunch box option (and can be frozen ahead of time). Flatten bread with a rolling pin, add a spread and roll it up before cutting it into bite sized portions. Something similar is salami wrapped around chopped carrots or ham around a stick of cheese. You can bet the kids will unravel what you’ve carefully rolled, but the good news is it will probably end up being eaten!

photo: Boulder Locavore

11. Don’t Sweat it.  Sculpting sandwiches into Disney characters will certainly add a little lunch box magic, but it can’t happen every day. If you want to pen some lunchtime encouragement keep Post-it notes near the fridge, scribble on a banana or check out these simple ideas from our archives. Keep in mind that lunch is social for kids, and they are easily distracted. Sometimes it’s better to keep lunch portions small and focus on giving the kids a good breakfast and a healthy snack at pickup.

12. Chalk it (up). Put lunchtime options on a chalkboard or family whiteboard so the kids can see what will be in their lunchbox and what dinners they’ll be having for the week. It removes the expectation (or disappointment) when kids have an idea of what’s on offer for the week ahead—and it can be a great reminder to busy parents of what’s in the pantry or fridge.

What are your best lunch box hacks? Let us know in the comments below.

— Emily Myers