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Lunch Prep: How I Stock The Fridge

Last week I shared how I stock my pantry so today I wanted to share how I stock the lunch prep fridge. We’re lucky enough to have 2 extra fridges in our garage. Large family = Extra fridge space. I have one fridge dedicated solely to lunch prep to help make it easier for the kids to pack their own lunches every day. We’re over a month into school and the system is working! So today I’m going to give you a peek inside my lunch prep fridge and share how I keep it stocked. 

This is my garage lunch prep fridge. It’s nothing fancy- just a basic $450 fridge that we got for $200 in the scratch and dent section and it works for what I need. It used to be a drink fridge but this year I decided it needed to be more functional for our family. The lunch prep fridge was born! I bought the colorful baskets at The Dollar Store and they are perfect for what I need. This fridge holds everything cold that the kids need to pack lunches every day. I took the kids with me to the grocery stores the first time and together we chose items that they wanted to pack for lunches this year. I tend to keep it stocked with the same stuff but every once in awhile I add something new for a change. I bought 6 of the shallow bins and 2 of the deep buckets to keep the fridge organized. Let’s face it- none of my kids are willing to sort through big full buckets or unorganized shelves to find stuff for lunch. They’d just pick the very first stuff they saw and everything else would go bad. Kids. 

I use the bottom 2 drawers for drinks. Zoey likes the Honest Co juice boxes and Mason likes the Country Time lemonades. They always take a full water bottle to drink during the day and the juice boxes/lemonade are for lunch time only. They don’t take these every day, maybe twice a week. The rest of the days they just drink their water. I keep water bottles on the bottom 2 shelves for them as well. 

The blue bin on the first shelf is for yogurt. My kids love the YoCrunch yogurts. I buy them in the smaller sizes and I typically buy 3 packs a week (M&M, Oreo, and Cookie bite) plus a few of the Twix larger ones. I know they’re not the healthiest but it’s a nice little treat for them and at least their eating yogurt! The red basket is where they put their chosen lunch items for the next day. My biggest rule for lunch packing is that it must be done the day before. I do not have time to poke and prod kids to pack lunches in the mornings. 

On the middle shelf I have a basket for lunchables and P3 packs. I only buy a couple of these per week because they’re not my first choice for lunches but the kids love them. I buy the lunchables at ALDI because they have the organic ones and all the kids like the P3 packs from Walmart. In the middle basket I keep hummus and naan bread dippers- these are for Maliah. She loves the chocolate hummus for fruit and the roasted red pepper hummus for the naan bread. She also uses the naan bread dippers for her chicken salad which is kept in the next basket. 

I alternate buying her regular chicken salad and cranberry pecan chicken salad and I buy them wherever they are cheapest that week (mostly at ALDI). I also keep several of the Philadelphia cream cheese packs on hand for them. They love those! There are several flavors- strawberry with bagel chips, chocolate with pretzels, and garden vegetable with bagel chips. And Zoey is a huge fan of the little packs of crab sticks! They’re the perfect size for lunches.

On the top shelf I keep lunch snacks. In one basket I have string cheese sticks and the Laughing Cow cheese packs. The kids love to spread those on Wheat Thin crackers or Melba Toast.  I also keep applesauce and apple slices packs with either peanut butter or caramel sauce in a basket. I know it’s much more cost effective to slice our own apples but I have 2 kids that will not eat an apple that has even a hint of brown. I bought some powder stuff to use to keep the apples fresh but some weeks I just don’t have the time or the apples are too pricey so I buy the apple packs instead. 

In the last basket I keep the packs of pickles. I alternate between these Dilly Bites and the Mt. Olive pickle paks. Maliah is the one who loves pickles but Tyler will also snag one for his work lunch occasionally. They come in both dill and sweet pickle petites varieties and they’re the perfect size for lunch. 

So that’s my lunch prep fridge! I shared some important info about how I stock the fridge on my Lunch Prep 101 post including how often I restock and how much money I budget weekly for stocking the pantry and fridge so be sure to check it out if you want those kinds of details. Next week I’m going to share how I grocery shop! You can find all the posts in my Meal Planning & Prep and Lunch Planning & Prep series HERE



Lunch Prep: How I Stock The Pantry

I shared the basics about my lunch prep last week and today I want to share all about my pantry! One of my deal breakers when we were looking for a new house was the pantry. I lived for 13 years with the smallest pantry known to man and I actually had to use our large closet under the stairs for a second pantry, which meant I had to store the vacuum cleaner and steam cleaner and carpet cleaner in various places around the house. It was not ideal. So having a large walk-in pantry was very high on my wish list for a new house (along with a second floor laundry room because I do a lot of laundry). Our new house has a huge pantry that works very nicely. Today I am going to give you a tour of my pantry and share how I keep it organized and stocked!

When you first walk into my pantry these are the shelves on the left. There are 5 deep shelves that go all the way around 2 walls of the pantry which makes for a lot of great storage. As you can see, on the very top shelf I keep the containers of cereal as well as extra overflow cereal. I should also mention that my kids do not eat cereal for breakfast. They only eat it for snacks so I’m not too overly picky about what type of cereal they choose. On the second shelf I keep the canisters for bulk food. I love these canisters! I bought them in packs of 3 from Amazon for $13.75! They came with the awesome chalkboard labels and I use bought some great chalkboard pens off Amazon for around $5 for a 2-pack. I’ve been using them for months and the writing doesn’t smudge or wear off even with the kids touching the labels all the time. 

Our favorite things to fill the canisters with include Goldfish, Peanut Butter filled pretzels, Cheddar rice cakes, Harvest crisp peas, Wheat Thin crackers, yogurt covered pretzels, Veggie Sticks, Trail Mix, Cheez-its, Pretzel thins and granola. I tend to buy the same stuff most of the time because I know the kids will eat it but I do keep a few canisters to rotate out with new items. This month I bought some delicious Coconut Clusters from Costco that everyone loves. I also make homemade Cinnamon Sugar Pretzels and Salty Churro Toffee crackers once a month or so and I store them in these containers. I’ve been using these since 2017 and nothing has gone stale. I hand wash them every time they need to be refilled and they still look brand new. 

On the third shelf I keep all our open baskets for pre-packaged items. I bought the smaller baskets from Target but found a better deal on the medium short baskets and large tall baskets at Amazon! I stock these with individual packs of Trail mix, cashews, Jif power up bites, fruit snacks, granola bars, crackers, breakfast biscuits, Fiber one bars, melba toast, cookies, mini muffins, pastry crisps, breakfast bars, single serving peanut butter cups, goldfish, and Nature Valley biscuits. Again, I tend to stock the same stuff that I know the kids like but it also depends on what is on sale at Sam’s and Costco! I try to stick with healthy-ish snacks but I include treats as well. Right now we have 4 different kinds of granola bars because they were on sale and everyone likes them. 

On the fourth shelf I keep all of our pasta and bread items. We love pasta in all forms and I always have at least 2-3 ready to eat pasta dishes in the fridge for the kids to eat after school or to take for lunches. I also have a couple of baskets for the remaining snacks- mini muffins and goldfish packs. In the corner I keep all the extras and overflow. The kids know they are not allowed to touch that stuff. I will refill the containers and baskets when needed. I’ve learned through the years that if you give kids free access to the whole pantry you will find crumbs on day 3! 

On the fifth shelf I keep ingredients such as taco seasoning, ranch dressing packets, rice, pasta sauces, can goods, popcorn, ramen noodles, and overflow items. 

This is the other wall in the pantry. The very top shelf (not pictured) holds things like solo cups, paper plates, disposable silverware, etc. The next shelf holds lunch boxes, lunch containers, and frequently used medications. The third shelf holds my baking items including sugars, flours, mini marshmallows, and baking mixes as well as my potatoes. The fourth shelf holds unopened condiments, two turntables of opened condiments and baking items, cooking oil and the biggest container of Worcestershire sauce from Sam’s Club (seriously, we’ve been working on this container forever). The fifth shelf holds trash bags and paper towels, which I was almost out of when taking these pictures. 

On the back of the pantry door I have this plastic shelving unit that holds lunch items including ziplock bags, mini disposable sauce cups, and plastic utensils. I know it’s better to use re-usable silicone baggies and regular silverware, however in my house it doesn’t work. The kids threw out the silicone baggies on day 3 because they forgot. And I’ve replaced my forks and spoons four times because they never come home. For now, this is what works for us. 

I shared some important info about how I stock the pantry on my Lunch Prep 101 post including how often I restock and how much money I budget weekly for stocking the pantry so be sure to check it out if you want those kinds of details. Next week I’m going to share my lunch prep fridge and how I stock it! You can find all the posts in my Meal Planning & Prep and Lunch Planning & Prep series HERE

**this post contained affiliate links… thank you so much for reading and supporting my blog!



Lunch Planning & Prep 101

Last week I shared the basics about Meal planning and prep. This week I’m starting my series on how I do lunch planning and prep. Over the next month or so I will be sharing all the details on how I make lunch prep and packing really simple in my house including favorite products, pantry and fridge organization, grocery shopping tips, lunch packing tips, and more. My 3 younger kids attend a charter school without a cafeteria and the hot lunch program is way too expensive for me to pay for on a regular basis. I’m not willing to pay $5-7 a day per child for 3 kids to eat hot lunch. When we first switched from public school to our current charter school 3 years ago it was a huge shock to our schedule to have to add lunch packing in each evening. Now it’s just part of our routine. 

Some notes about the way I lunch prep:

  • My kids take their lunch 5 days a week. 
  • My kids are in charge of packing their own lunches every afternoon.
  • We have a fridge dedicated solely to lunch prep and packing in our garage. 
  • In my pantry I have all single serving lunch items separated in bins and all bulk items are in labeled containers.
  • On the back of the pantry door I have an organizer that holds various sized ziplock bags, plastic utensils, and small plastic mini cups with lids for sauces or dressings. 
  • The lunch boxes have a specific spot on a shelf in the pantry so they are not cluttering up my kitchen counters every evening. 
  • I fully stocked the pantry and lunch fridge before school started with a budget of $150. I refill as needed each week with a budget of $25-35. We are a month into school and I’ve only had to refill a handful of things so far. 
  • We use thermoses at least 2 days a week to take hot lunch. These are our favorite ones
  • I stock up on single serving snack items such as Goldfish, Cookie packs, or Belvita breakfast bites when they go on sale at Costco or Sam’s.
  • The majority of our snack items in the pantry are generic and come from ALDI or Walmart. The kids don’t care. The only time I buy brand name is when it’s on a really good sale or there is no generic available. 
  • I have strict limits on what types of items the kids can pack in their lunches and I always double check items in the morning. They must have at least one fruit and vegetable, they cannot have more than one treat item, and fruit snacks do not fulfill the fruit requirement. Nor do veggie sticks or Harvest snap peas crisps fulfill the vegetable requirement. 
  • I assemble lunch boxes in the mornings while the kids get dressed. All the items are already picked out so I do their main item and pack their lunch box for them. 
  • Single serving lunch items are off limits for snacking while at home. They are lunch items only. The penalty for violating this rule is swift and brutal- a week with only a sandwich, fresh fruit and vegetables in their lunch. Only one kid has tested my follow through and he will not do it again. 

I’ll be sharing more about my lunch prep and packing soon including giving you a glimpse into my fridges and pantry and sharing the apps and products that make the process so much easier! You can find all the posts in my Meal Planning & Prep and Lunch Planning & Prep series HERE

*this post contained affiliate links… thank you so much for reading and supporting my blog!



Meal Prep & Planning 101: How I Meal Prep

Last week I shared my meal planning process with you. This week I want to share how I meal prep. I split my meal prep into two different days. I do all my produce and fruit prep on Friday mornings after I grocery shop on Thursdays. I do everything else that requires cooking on Sunday mornings. I used to do it all on Sunday’s but it’s football season now and I’m going to be parked on my couch watching football at 1pm on Sundays. It’s tradition. 

First, let’s talk about the produce and fruit prep. I try to buy the vegetables and fruit that are in season to keep the costs down and I almost always buy the weekly specials at ALDI. The kids take at least one fruit every day for lunch and they also like to eat them as snacks so I do buy a wide variety of fruits. This past week I bought strawberries, blueberries, pears, clementines, plums, red and green apples, and red grapes. For our dinner prep, I bought brussel sprouts, squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and green beans. 

 

I bought these amazing containers to help extend the freshness of our produce. I got tired of throwing away fruit and vegetables that went bad after a few days because the kids didn’t eat it fast enough. I found some on sale at ALDI for $5.99 and I bought the rest on Amazon. I bought the small size to hold berries, baby carrots, cucumbers, etc. and I bought the large size to hold dinner vegetables and larger quantities of fruits. I can’t believe how much longer our fruits and vegetables last now! Every Friday morning I wash the fruits and vegetables that need washing, slice the ones that need slicing, and put them into containers. I have a drawer dedicated to fruit in my fridge for the stuff that doesn’t need a container such as pears, apples, clementines, plums, peaches, etc. It only takes me half an hour at most. 

On Sunday mornings I get up early to get my weekly prep done. I tend to make similar things every week so it doesn’t take as long now that I have a routine. This week I prepped a large container of spaghetti, a large container of macaroni & cheese with turkey dogs cut up, a large container of white cheddar shells, a large container of Big Mac Sloppy Joe meat, a large container of Italian pasta salad, a large container of tossed salad, 24 mini egg quiche muffins, and 36 Bacon cheeseburger puffs.

Pro Tip: Use one pot to make all the pastas to save on dishes. I make all my pasta dishes back to back with the exception of the spaghetti because it gets made in the Instant Pot. First I boil the noodles for the pasta salad. While the noodles are boiling I cut the vegetables so when the noodles are done I can drain them and pour them immediately into a container where I mix all the other ingredients. I start more water boiling in the same pot for the macaroni and cheese. When the macaroni noodles are done boiling I drain them and pour them into a container where I’ll add the butter, milk, and cheeses to mix so the main pot doesn’t get dirty. Then I can go ahead and start the water boiling for the white cheddar shells and I repeat the same process. After the pasta dishes are done I use the same pot to cook the ground beef. I normally cook 3lbs of ground beef every week. One pound goes into the spaghetti and the other 2 pounds get turned into taco meat or Big Mac Sloppy Joe meat.

The kids eat on the dishes I prep all week long for lunches and for snacks after school or our Find Your Own/Fridge Clean Out dinner nights. I’ve found that this is a really cost effective way to feed my kids. First, having ready made foods they like in the fridge makes them less likely to try and eat the lunch snacks. Second, making everything instead of buying pre-made convenience items is way cheaper. It costs me approximately $4.80 to make a very large container of spaghetti that lasts 4-5 days. And I sneak more vegetables into the spaghetti so it’s healthier than frozen hot pockets and pizza rolls. 

It makes me happy to see my fridge stocked with healthy and easy options for the kids to eat during the week. A little bit of effort on my part has made such a difference in our household. The kids are in much better moods in the early evenings because they can eat a substantial snack when they get home that holds them over until dinner. We typically don’t eat dinner until 6:30-7 so a good snack is vital to the mood stability in my house. Hungry tweens and teens are a bad bad idea.

I don’t place restrictions on the prepped food. If one of my kids is hungry at 9pm then they know it’s perfectly fine for them to come get a bowl of spaghetti or macaroni and cheese. One of mine doesn’t eat breakfast because it hurts her stomach. So she takes an extra snack to school and will eat a large bowl of one of the pasta dishes as soon as she gets home from school. We don’t participate in the clean plate club at our house. I don’t believe anyone should be forced to eat. I require the kids to take at least 2 decent sized bites of whatever vegetable I serve that night but I never force them to clean their plates. Teaching healthy eating habits is important to me because I’ve always had a very complicated relationship with food and I don’t want my kids to follow down that path.

Come back next week to read the first post in my Lunch Prep and Planning series! You can find all the posts in my Meal Planning & Prep and Lunch Planning & Prep series HERE



Meal Prep & Planning 101: How I Meal Plan

If you missed the introduction to this series you can catch up HERE. Today I want to give you a glimpse into how I do my meal planning and the tools I use to make it easier. I have a limited amount of time to get everything checked off my to-list each day and I have my meal planning streamlined into a very simple process. 

First, there are 4 iOS apps I use religiously to do my meal planning. I’m not sure of their availability on Android but they have really helped me turn a dreaded task into something I can get done in 20 minutes. 

  • Artful Agenda– I use this app for pretty much everything in my life. It’s a digital planner app and my entire life would fall apart without it. I’m not exaggerating. I use the app on my iPhone and I also use the desktop version. It holds my calendar (I have all our calendars synced to it), my weekly menu plan, my to-do lists for the house, family, PTO, and blog, and everything is color coded. I love it. I do pay a $3.99 per month subscription fee but it’s worth so much more than that. I’ll have an in-depth post coming soon about all the amazing features Artful Agenda offers. For the purpose of this post- this is where I do my meal planning. 
  • Flipp– this is the app where I see all the grocery store sales ads in one place. You can set your favorite stores and it will give you the sales ad the day it comes available and for some stores (such as Aldi) it gives you the preview for the next week. This is the only sales app I use and I check it before making my dinner and lunch plans for the week. I build my menu around the meats, vegetables, and fruits that are on sale each week. The app is free. 
  • Shopping List Ease– this is my holy grail of shopping list apps. I have 4 different shopping lists- one for Walmart, ALDI, Costco, and Sam’s Club. Each app lets me save my frequently purchased items from that store along with the price and I can save each item according to aisle or category. It’s so easy to scroll through my saved items each week and choose the items I need to refill. Being able to see my running total at the top lets me adjust my menu as needed to fit into my weekly budget. This app is also free.
  • Recipe Keeper– I keep all of my recipes in this app. I paid a one-time fee of $4.99 for the upgraded unlimited version and it was worth every single penny. I can customize categories and add sub-categories to keep my recipes organized. For example, my main categories include Appetizers, Breakfast, Dessert & Snacks, Main Dish, Side Dish, and Vegetables. Each main category is broken down into sub-categories. For example, the main dish category has 11 sub-categories including Beef, Casserole, Chicken, Fish, Pasta, Pork, Salad, Sauces, Sheet Pan, Soup, and Subs & Sandwiches. This organization is essential to fast and easy meal planning for me. 

Next I want to share the exact steps I take to do my weekly meal planning. I promise it’s very easy and anybody can do it! I do my meal planning and make my grocery lists on Wednesday’s because that’s when the new ad circular’s come out for ALDI. I do the bulk of my shopping at ALDI so I use their sale schedule to plan my week. 

Step One- First thing I do on Wednesday is check the ALDI and Walmart weekly ads. I check to see if any of my weekly staples are on special first and add them to my shopping lists with the sale price.  Next I check to see what fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit are on special for the week and start planning my 4 dinners around the sales. 

Step Two- This is where I actually plan our 4 dinners. On my Artful Agenda app I pull up the weekly meal plan. I know for sure we’re going to do Take ‘n Bake pizzas on Saturday night so I fill it in right away. Next I check our weekly calendar to see which nights are the busiest and make those our 2 leftover/fridge clean out nights. I’m left with 4 nights to plan dinners. If chicken thighs are on sale I know that I will be cooking chicken thighs one night so I use my Recipe Keeper app to look at all of my chicken recipes. Once I’ve chosen the one I want to make I add it to the meal plan. I always add my main meat dish to the meal plan first and then add the sides that complement the main dish the best. This process really only takes me about 5 minutes now that I have the system down. 

Step Three- After my weekly meal plan is set I add all the ingredients I need to buy to my grocery lists. I fill in all the regular staples that I need to refill and I always double check the pantry, fridges, and freezers to be sure I’m not buying stuff we don’t need that week (unless it’s on sale and I’m stocking up). 

Some Notes: 

  • I add new recipes to my app every week. If I find a recipe I want to try I add it immediately so it doesn’t get lost. If we don’t like it then I just delete it or adapt the ingredients to our liking. 
  • I find recipes everywhere- Pinterest, blogs, old cookbooks, Facebook…they’re everywhere!
  • I try to vary the meats I cook so we don’t eat chicken 4 nights a week. I typically do chicken, pork, salmon, and either tilpaia or ground beef.
  • For our side dishes I usually try to do a starch- potatoes in some form, rice, homemade stuffing, pasta, etc. and then a fresh vegetable. 
  • I try to choose recipes that use ingredients I already have on hand. If I’m making a recipe that requires me to buy several ingredients I make sure the other 3 recipes don’t require me to buy anything except the meat. This helps keep the costs down. 
  • I do attempt to make at least 1-2 new recipes per week but I choose recipes that don’t require exotic or unusual ingredients that I won’t use again. 

Next week I’ll be sharing more on how I stock the pantry for our lunch prep! I have over a month’s worth of posts planned solely focused on meal planning and prep and lunch planning and prep! You can find all the posts in my Meal Planning & Prep and Lunch Planning & Prep series HERE