They ask for Lunchables and desserts wrapped in sealed cellophane. I deliver sliced raw vegetables and a serving of last night’s leftover pasta. We do this dance daily. Two steps forward, one to the side. A push, a pull, then we’re right back where we started. I try to lead, I want them to follow. Do you know this one? It’s the lunch box dance. On good days, we’re dancing in sync to the same tune. Happy kids, empty boxes. But some days we’re not even on the same dance floor – the whole thing comes back warm, limp and uneaten. We are not unique. This challenge faces just about every parent with a child in school. At the local private schools, lunch is included. But my kids go to public school.
The hot lunches at school are not bad, nutritionally speaking. Each includes a serving of whole fruit, low fat dairy, lean protein, whole grains and a vegetable. I appreciate that it’s there in a pinch. But on most days, my kids prefer a home lunch and I prefer for them to have the lunch I pack.
We are just six weeks into the new school year and I’ve already done too much twirling. I’m looking for fresh inspiration and we’ve not even broken out the fall jackets. Enter J.M. Hirsch, food editor for The Associated Press and writer of the blog Lunch Box Blues. Each day, he snaps a photo of the lunch he packs for his nine-year-old son and writes up a short, pithy blurb about the day’s menu. It’s honest and funny. Not every lunch is a home run. His book “Beating The Lunch Box Blues” was published last month. He was kind enough to send me a copy, which I tore into immediately.
As the author states up front, no one wants a lunch box cookbook. But this book is more than that. It’s a collection of creative ideas, colorful photos and inspiration. Many of the recipes are evening meals in large volume so leftovers can go in the lunch box. His tips include gear to help in packing the lunch and keeping it at the right temperature, suggestions for making healthy food more appealing and lots of little tips for punching up the nutritional value in foods kids love to eat. It’s a little book, just shy of 8 inches square, but it’s dense with content.
1. Get into gear.
We already had a collection of insulated lunch bags, bento boxes, small refreezable ice packs and square containers with trusty, tight-fitting lids. We also have reusable utensils that get accidentally thrown out with a yogurt container from time to time. I added a wide mouth thermos to our collection so I could send hot food – something I’ve unbelievably not done in the four years my kids have been packing lunches. This single purchase opened up a whole new world. I only bought one at first, unsure if it would catch on. The boys argued over who would get it. I now have two.
2. Get tricky.
My favorite thing about J.M.’s book is the little tricks I never knew. For example, did you know you can keep apples from turning brown by dipping them in salty water just before popping them in the lunch box? They don’t taste salty. A great trick for when I’m out of lemon. I also love his fresh pasta trick. Heat some oil or butter in a frying pan and cook fresh ravioli or tortellini until golden brown. Hot pasta for lunch! No need to boil water and wait. It’s such a simple trick you can do in the morning when you’re rushing around like a tornado pulling together breakfast and signing forms to be stuffed into backpacks. Before you pack hot food into that thermos of yours, fill it with boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes. This will prime the thermos so you can be sure the food is still piping hot at lunch. I know this is probably an old trick, but I didn’t know it. Now I do.
3. Get creative.
…and by that I don’t mean sandwiches that look like faces or carrots cut to look like roses. I don’t have the time or the patience for that. My guess is you don’t either.
Think about using alternatives to bread for sandwiches. I made turkey sandwiches for my second grader using cucumbers. He called this lunch (pictured at the top of this post) “the perfect lunch.” The box looked as if it had been licked clean. Other ideas for sliced bread alternatives include pancakes, waffles or tortillas. If you can use nut butters in school lunches (we cannot), why not slather peanut butter or almond butter on leftover pancakes or waffles? Or how about “pizza” rolls made with pepperoni rolled into tortillas. Use marinara for dipping sauce.
Speaking of dips, you can make raw vegetables and fruits more appealing by offering small containers of yogurt mixed with jam or fruit, hummus, mustard, whatever your kids like.
4. Get on the stick.
What food doesn’t taste better on a stick? Thread cubes of cheddar cheese on a stick between slices of sausage or rolls of deli turkey. Veggies are beautiful stacked on a stick and served with a side of hummus. Or try making fruit kabobs. You can even put the pizza rolls mentioned in #3 on sticks for added appeal, as I’ve done in the photo below. The stick also helps them stay together.
5. Get out of the box.
You probably put lunch foods in the lunch box, don’t you? Yeah, me too. But what about breakfast foods? My kids have always been big breakfast eaters. What about packing that new thermos with oatmeal studded with dried fruit, nuts, and a sprinkle of flax meal and cinnamon? Or how about scrambled eggs? They’ll still be hot in that thermos. Chop up a few breakfast sausages and throw them in while you’re at it. I never thought about sausages for lunch. My kids love them.
6. Get sweet.
I used to be against including a treat in the lunch box, reasoning that they get so much sugar between class birthday treats, lollipops at the barber and the like. But lately, I’ve warmed up to the small lunch box dessert. Check out the raspberries stuffed with a single dark chocolate chip in the photo at the top. I also like to mix dried cherries with a few chocolate chips. Or include a small square of dark chocolate. Do you see a theme here?
Now it’s your turn. What lunch box tricks have worked well for you?