For their "main course" I have them make their own sandwich. I lay out the bread, meats, veggies, and condiments before they wake up, and they make the sandwich to their liking. I also make a big batch of a pasta salad filled with a protein and vegetables that they can choose instead of a sandwich.
For their snacks I fill three rubbermaid type bins with lids. I fill one bin for salty foods, one for sweets, and one for fruits. I try to make it a mix between healthy and what the kids would consider 'fun' foods. I trust them to make good choices, and they always seem to balance healthy and fun in the same lunch. I can live with that. They pick one item from each bin and put it into their lunch box. Easy.
Sometimes, I make a big trip to Costco and fill it with pre-packaged foods and other times I will put large containers of foods and have them fill their reusable lunchbox each morning. Other times I have foods like popcorn, muffins, and protein bars that I made at home...but that's only when I'm feeling super motivated. It does not happen often.
These 3 bins are only for school and only get taken out in the mornings while they pack their lunch. They have other snacks to choose from in the pantry. This keeps us from realizing we are out of snacks during the morning rush and prevents me from adding cereal, Halloween candy, or a candy cane for their snack...not that they would mind. Each bin lasts about 4 weeks between my three kids.
Here is what is in the bins this month:
Fruit bin: Go-go Squeeze Apple Sauce, Crunchy Pak Organic Apple slices from Costco (the fresh fruit changes weekly), and Clif Kid Z Fruit Rope.
Salty Bin: Quaker Popped Rice Crackers (in 3 flavors), Annie's Cheddar Bunnies, and Pringles
Sweet Bin: Annie's Chocolate Bunnies, Annie's Graham Bunnies, , Nature Valley Trail Mix bar, Rice Krispie Treat, Fudge Stripes.
The bins vary depending what is on sale at Costco or what is on sale in bulk at our local grocery store HEB. It also depends on my schedule and what I have time to make.
Since starting this way of packing lunches, the kids and I are much happier in the mornings. They get choices that they like, they learn the responsibility of packing their own lunches, we don't run out of snacks last minute because they ate them for an after school snack, and I'm not putting random crap in their lunches anymore. If you do something like this, I'd love to see a link to your ideas! Please post your ideas here on on my FB page : https://www.facebook.com/BloodSweatandMinivans