Super Cool Lunch Ideas for Day Campers

Day camp is an annual rite of passage for many children in summer, including my own. As parents prepare to send their child off to camp, they’re often instructed to pack a number of items with their camper – things like sunscreen, a swimsuit, bug spray, a water bottle and a nutritious lunch. Those last two items can prove particularly challenging. If campers spend the majority of their day outdoors, it’s safe to assume that their lunches will too. Now, even more so than during the school year, its important to pack foods that will stand up to the heat, in containers and sacks that will keep everything cool and protected until the lunch hour.

In preparation for our own season of day camps, poolside picnics and other outdoor lunching occasions, I’ve assembled some fresh ideas and gear for creating and packing healthy, delicious lunches that will keep your camper cool and hydrated all day long.

1. Keep it COLD: PackIt Freezable Lunch Bags

Durable, foldable PackIt Lunch Bags are a great buy for summer camp and to keep throughout the upcoming school year. Each PackIt bag is designed with freezable gel built right into the walls of the bag, so it will stay cool for up to 10 hours. Simply fold the bag and store it in the freezer overnight. You can rest assured that your camper’s tuna sandwich will still be edible even if it spends an entire summer morning outside.

2. Keep it CLEAN: FlatBox

This may be the perfect day camp lunchbox, especially if your camper will be eating their lunch on the grass or at a public picnic table of questionable cleanliness. The Flatbox is the first lunchbox to unzip, creating a clean, sanitary placemat for your child to eat on. To fill, unzip one side of the bag, slide your lunch inside and zip back up. At lunchtime, your camper simply unzips all sides to create a flat surface. The entire lunchbox is machine washable and they also offer custom fit ice packs to keep everything cold.

3. Keep it Organized: Sistema Lunch Containers

Along with our public schools, most of the camps in our area encourage “zero waste” packaging for lunchtime — no plastic baggies or foil wrappers. In addition to being better for the environment, plastic lunch containers keep everything organized and prevent smushed sandwiches and crumbled cookies. Glass containers are very trendy right now but I don’t trust them with small children in a camp setting; too many chances for breakage. Instead I prefer Sistema’s line of BPA and phthalate-free plastic lunch containers. They offer a variety of sizes, styles and configurations, all featuring sturdy hinges that are easy for little hands to open and securely lock again. They’re also dishwasher and microwave safe and stackable for organized packing.

4. Think Outside the Sandwich

Summer is a great time to shake up the midday meal menu and introduce a few new, fun and kid-friendly items. Skip the sandwiches and send something crunchy, cool and refreshing. My daughter frequently requests Turkey & Avocado Roll-Ups, Tuna & Arugula Jar Salad or DIY BLT Lettuce Wraps. Like most kids, she is more open to trying new, healthy foods when I put a fun or slightly unexpected spin on them.

5. Add a Snack: Fruitfriends

My daughter’s camp also asks that we pack a separate snack each day. This item should be separate from the lunch bag, as they will be eaten in the morning, well before lunchtime. I like to send a piece of whole fruit. To avoid bumps and bruises in her backpack, I’ll use a Fruitfriends Apple Box or Banana Box. Each one features a hard shell to keep fruit clean and protected and a hook that attaches to a backpack or lunch bag for easy carrying.

6. Stay Hydrated

One of the single-most important things to send with your camper is a water bottle, preferably one that is insulated and spill-proof. My kids and I have tried so many bottles and we always found a flaw — they were hard to wash, hard to open, hard to fill, easy to spill or didn’t stay cold. Then we found Contigo’s line of stainless steel Autospout bottles. They stay cold for up to 12 hours, have a wide mouth that’s easy to fill and easy to clean, and the push-button spout is so easy to open and close, even my two-year-old can use it with ease. We’ll use them daily, all summer long.

While we’re on the subject of summer hydration, don’t forget about water while at home. On days when my kiddos are playing in the yard or our basement playroom it seems like they’re constantly running into the kitchen to request a glass of water, then leaving the half-empty cups scattered all over the house. At least they used to do that. Then we got a set of PhillUp Hangable Kids Cups for our refrigerator door and the problem was solved.

These completely genius cups were designed by a mom and it shows. Each set comes with two or four color-coded, BPA-free cups that have flexible hanging loops and corresponding hooks. The hooks use 3M adhesive to securely attach to your refrigerator near the water dispenser so that kids can help themselves to a drink and replace the cup when they’re done. Kids stay hydrated, kitchen stays clean. Problem solved.

7. Pack it Potluck Style

This is a fun strategy if you are familiar with the parents of the other campers in your child’s group or when picnicking with friends or family at the park, pool or beach. Organize a potluck or “stone soup” picnic. Ask everyone in the group to send a large quantity of one or two items for the entire group to share. We often used this technique with my daughter’s preschool class and it was always easy to pack and great fun to share. Items like baby carrots, string cheese, roasted nuts and cut-up fruit are among our favorite shareable foods. For more on this fun picnicking idea, check out my blog post on the topic.

The weather is just heating up, so it’s a great time to stock up on gear and lunch menu strategies to ensure you’ll have happy campers all summer long.