When I was little, my mother’s inspiration for our school lunches usually revolved around chocolate chips and food coloring.
I kid you not.
Chocolate chips appeared in standard dessert fare, but they also found their way into our sandwiches — peanut butter, usually, but my mom liked to push boundaries, pairing them with bologna or cheese on occasion. A few drops of food coloring might lend a fluorescent flair to Rice Krispies bars, muffins and cake. And there’s nothing like green or purple mac ’n’ cheese to make a kid feel like she’s eating aboard the galley of “Star Trek’s” Enterprise.
I never had a dull lunch, though I didn’t fully appreciate my mom’s humor and ingenuity until years later.
For many parents, there’s nothing more daunting than packing the school lunch. What do I pack? What if my child gets bored? How am I supposed to prepare a lunch when it’s all I can do to get dinner on the table after a long day? What constitutes “lunch”?
Lunch doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to take forever to prepare. And it doesn’t always have to be homemade.
Here are 10 ideas for school lunch. They’re not recipes, per se, but rough outlines you can tweak to suit your family’s needs, creatively repackaging last night’s leftovers or using a few handy staples. No matter your skill level in the kitchen, there’s something here for everyone.
• Empanadas or hand pies: A great way to recycle last night’s dinner. Take leftover stew, draining the excess liquid, or combine leftover meat and vegetables to use as the filling for these little packets. Wrap the filling in homemade pastry dough or use premade pie or biscuit dough from the grocery store and bake.
• Skewers: Isn’t everything more fun on a stick? Skewer cubes of cheese and leftover roast or chicken, or roll and skewer slices of deli meat. Add tomatoes and crudites, such as carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. This also works with fruit and dessert nibbles. If your kids are too young or the school doesn’t allow sharp skewers, Popsicle sticks or coffee stirrers are an alternative. Make it colorful and fun.
• Dips: Fix an assortment of crudites and cold cuts, maybe adding some bread or crackers, and serve alongside a fresh bean dip or hummus. To make the dip, simply rinse and drain a can of beans and puree in a food processor with a touch of garlic, oil, salt and pepper, and maybe a dash of cumin and paprika and a touch of fresh cilantro. The dip comes together in minutes.
• Salads: Chop up leftover steak or other meat, along with vegetables, and toss with chopped lettuce, pasta, rice, quinoa, grains or beans for a colorful salad. Add bits of colorful bell pepper or cheese, and you’ve got a one-dish meal.
• Soup: Like a salad, leftover mains and sides can often be combined in a simple soup. Fix the soup from scratch or use a premade soup and enhance with the leftovers.
• Onigiri: Have you seen all the creative photos of onigiri on Pinterest? It’s not much more than rice molded into handy shapes. Use cookie cutters or mold the rice into cute little bears or other shapes. Flavor with bits of vegetable (peas, carrots, etc.) and garnish with sesame seeds and nori sushi wrap. Another great project for kids.
• PB&J: There’s a reason this is a classic. If peanut butter is not your thing, try another nut butter, such as almond or cashew. There are so many great options on the market right now. Or better yet, have your kids help you make homemade nut butter. The process is simple: Toast nuts until lightly colored and aromatic, then grind in a food processor for a few minutes until the nuts are reduced to a buttery consistency (you shouldn’t need to add oil; as you process the nuts should release enough oil for a moist butter) and, finally, sweeten to taste with a touch of sugar, honey or maple syrup. Jams are just as simple and recipes are readily available.
• Calzones: Just like empanadas or hand pies but using pizza dough. Sure, you can mix the pizza dough from scratch, but many stores now carry ready-made versions in the refrigerated section to make it even easier. Slather the dough with pasta sauce and add meatballs (homemade or frozen) or other meats or vegetables and top with cheese, then fold over the dough and seal. The calzones bake in about 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven. Be sure to pack a little extra pasta sauce on the side for dipping.
• Quesadillas: Sprinkle cheese over a tortilla and add leftover meats or vegetables, then fold and cook over a griddle until the cheese is nice and gooey. Ready in minutes.
• Wraps: Keep a package of tortillas or flatbread on hand, along with an assortment of deli meats and cheeses. Layer them in the tortilla, along with tomatoes and lettuce or other greens (a great way to introduce your child to spinach or other ingredients on the sly), along with a slather of mayonnaise or mustard to add moisture and flavor. Or try peanut butter with a sprinkling of mini chocolate chips for a dessert option. Not into gluten? Wrap everything in lettuce. Have your kids help with assembly and rolling.
Here are tips on how to pack a school lunch in a way that will encourage kids to eat healthfully.
Sometimes it all boils down to packaging and presentation, even when it comes to the school lunch.
Handled in just the right way, you might be able to sell even the pickiest child on a food he or she might otherwise toss or trade.
Focus the lunch around a child’s favorite ingredient but sneak in a surprise (just like my mom did with chocolate chips in sandwiches).
Make the overall composition colorful by incorporating fresh vegetables and fruit (food coloring not required).
Play with textures, just as chefs do when composing formal dishes at restaurants.
Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches or other items into creative shapes. And if something — like the idea of a sandwich — gets boring, repackage the sandwich using pita bread or as a wrap, or deconstruct it as skewers or a dip with crudites and cold cuts.
There are so many alternatives to the lunch box and brown paper bag.
If your child is a fan of Lunchables, consider buying a compartmentalized bento box you can find at most Asian markets and online. These handy boxes allow you to choose what goes into each compartment, tailoring the lunch to your child’s needs and tastes.
Look for lunch containers that are insulated, so you can keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot, a potential health concern when your child’s lunch is left at room temperature for hours before being eaten.
Like reusable grocery bags, cotton lunch sacks are easily laundered so they’re always clean and fresh when you’re packing a new lunch.
Finally, add a little something extra to let your kids know you love them and are thinking about them during the day. Don’t underestimate the effect a simple note, a surprise sticker or stamp can have during a long day at school.