I’m afraid the start of the academic quarter has made for sparse lunch posts on my part. Funny thing about teaching: it’s always a challenge, even for a class that you’ve taught for twelve years in a row. Or, maybe it’s just me. I can’t resist making new assignments, because I get bored looking at the same old thing year after year. That’s how it goes with lunch, too. If the lunches get too repetitive, the kiddos complain.
One thing they never complain about is when I make a fun, snacky lunch—a Momables lunch box, if you will. The snacky lunch is all about balance: something sweet, something crunchy, something salty, and something proteiny (I don’t think “proteiny” is a word).
If I have several little things to organize (like edamame and small slices of meat or cheese), I like to use silicone cupcake liners in the lunch box. Crackers are always de rigueur in a snacky lunch. Our favorites are good ol’ Ritz. Not the healthiest option, but I don’t make snacky lunches every day.
Mini muffins are a great thing to build a snacky lunch around. Banana peanut butter chocolate chip muffins are definitely a kid favorite. I like to swirl a few scoops of peanut butter into the muffin batter before pouring it into a mini muffin pan. If you don’t fully incorporate the peanut butter into the batter, you get satisfying blasts of peanut butter deliciousness in every muffin. Small fruit is also great to throw into a snacky lunch: things like figs and apricots (fresh or dried).
The Basic Formula
A lunch of snacks is basically built around finger food. The formula is simple: crackers/bread + veggies (small or cut small) + fruit (bite sized or cut into chunks) + protein (meat or cheese or tofu or nuts) = a fun lunch.
I have several friends who have kids going into kindergarten. Many of them have asked me for ideas about how to pack healthy lunches for their kiddos without going insane from the time and effort it takes to make lunches every school day. I have been packing lunches now for six years, since my youngest was in preschool. My kids are now in fourth and first grade, so I’ve developed a pretty good system for getting their lunches made quickly, and relatively painlessly. Here a few tips for moms about to embark on the whole lunch packing journey (let’s start by calling it a journey instead of a tedious chore):
1. Buy a lunch box with compartments.
When I first started packing my son, Iain’s lunches, I used a regular insulated lunch bag. What I noticed is that he would usually eat his sandwich, which was zipped into the bottom of the lunch bag, and he wouldn’t eat the fruits and veggies and various snacks that I had packed in the big compartment of the lunch bag. After several years of lunches coming home partially eaten, I started to think about presentation. At the time, Iain had a little divided plate that he used for lunch and dinner at home, which got me thinking that he might be more likely to finish his lunch if he could see everything at once. I decided to get a stainless steel PlanetBox, because it was easy to open and close—with no tricky Tupperware-type lids—and it seemed really durable. I have been packing lunches in the PlanetBox for the past three years and I love it. However, the PlanetBox is quite expensive and there are many compartment-style lunch boxes out there that I’m sure would work equally well depending on the age of your child. What I like about divided lunch boxes is that soft foods don’t get squished or beat up, and the different compartments force you to think about packing a balanced lunch with lots of variety.
2. Have lots of fruit and veggies cleaned, prepped and ready for lunches.
I do a lot of preliminary lunch box prepping during the weekend. I usually shop for fruits and veggies at our local farmers market on Saturday and make sure to wash and organize everything before putting it away: lettuce and greens get washed and spun dry, root veggies get scrubbed, and most fruit gets washed and put on the counter. It’s easy to pack carrots sticks if they are already cleaned, peeled and sliced. Crispy veggies such as carrots, celery and jicama can be sliced and stored in water all week (cold water will keep the veggies fresh and crunchy). Cherry tomatoes and grapes are also easy to throw in a lunch box if they are rinsed, dried and ready to go. And what could be an easier snack to pack for your kids that an apple or a banana, which are both perfectly packaged by nature?
3. Whenever possible, prepare food in bulk and in advance.
If you know your kids will eat certain foods, keeps lots of them on hand. Just like fruits and veggies, prep food in advance whenever possible. I like to mix my own trail mix and store it in a big glass jar. The kids and I love granola and I often make batches big enough to last us for a month. Cheese can be pre-sliced or cubed, gathered into a small brick, and wrapped up in waxed paper—much cheaper and less packaging than individually wrapped cheese sticks. Mini muffins can be frozen and popped into a lunch box the night before to thaw. Hard-boiled eggs will keep for a week in the fridge and can be peeled in less time than it takes to make a sandwich. A big batch of tuna salad can turn into several lunches for both mom and kids. Cold grilled meat or veggies or tofu can be the start of a nice lunch of small bites.
4. Whole grain tortillas are your friend.
Whole grain tortillas are great for school lunches. You can make quesadillas, oven baked taquitos, pizzas, roll-ups and wraps with tortillas. Usually a whole sandwich is too much food for smaller kids, but those same sandwich ingredients wrapped in a tortilla will be just right and often easier to eat. I put all sorts of food in tortillas: peanut butter, nutella, bananas, spinach and marinara sauce, fried rice, traditional taco fillings…you name it.
5. Be creative with leftovers.
Kids are smart. They can smell leftovers a mile away. The key is to repackage those leftovers into an exciting new presentation. I turn a lot of leftovers into quesadillas and taquitos (see tip #4 above). Parts of dinner can also be deconstructed and turned into a snacky lunch with some cheese and crackers. Leftover meat/fish/tofu can be tossed with cooked pasta/noodles, crunchy veggies, and a sweet and tangy dressing to make a kid-friendly salad.
6. Pack lunches when your kitchen is already a mess.
I don’t know a mom alive who has enough hours in the day to get everything done. Packing school lunches needs to be done as quickly as possible and without creating a bunch of things to clean. For this reason, I tend to pack lunches either while dinner is cooking or right after dinner when I’m cleaning up the kitchen. I already have a cutting board out and the oven or stove top is hot, so I can quickly make a quesadilla or a sandwich. Plus, I know I don’t have time to pack lunches in the morning, because mornings are insane. Of course, things happen and life is messy: sometimes I don’t have time to pack lunch until ten o’clock at night, because I’ve spent the rest of the day racing around like a maniac. It’s okay, you just deal.
7. Buy big containers of plain yogurt and add your own sweeteners.
I am a total yogurt junkie. My kids also love yogurt. I tend to avoid buying flavored yogurt, because I’m a chronic label reader and most flavored yogurt is loaded with sugar and various un-pronounceable preservatives. One of the worst offenders is Yoplait, particularly Go-Gurt squeezy tubes of yogurt, which are aggressively marketed to kids and moms. There a clearly worse things you can pack in your child’s lunch that a tube of Go-Gurt, but plain yogurt with fruit and a teaspoon of honey or jam is much healthier. The nice thing about plain yogurt is that it’s versatile: you can mix it with any fruit, you can use it as a substitute for sour cream, you can put it in a smoothie, you can add chia seeds and turn it into a thick pudding, you can stir in some peanut butter to make a hearty snack or fruit dip, you can make a parfait with granola and berries, etc. It’s much more cost-effective to buy quart sized containers of plain yogurt and to add your own sweet toppings than to buy individual containers of flavored yogurt. It doesn’t take that long to spoon some yogurt and applesauce into a small container for lunch. My love for yogurt is a little extreme and I started making my own yogurt last year. One of these days, I’ll post the process for making homemade yogurt. Unfortunately, I have not had any success making non-dairy yogurt.
8. Keep a well stocked fridge and pantry.
My fridge and cupboards are a total embarrassment. My fridge is practically a projectile, with small containers flying out when you open it. Periodically, I deep clean and organize my fridge, but, inevitable, it ends up looking like the photo above. No matter. I need to have a well-stocked fridge in order to make breakfasts, cook dinners, make kid lunches, and make grown-up lunches throughout the week. I try to avoid mid-week trips to the grocery store, because I don’t have a lot of time during a packed work/school week to shop for groceries. This requires me to be organized and to think about what I want to cook during the following week before I do big shopping on the weekend. If you have a good supply of fruits, veggies, milk, pasta/grains, frozen veggies, legumes/beans (dry and canned), jarred marinara sauce, nuts, spices, oil, vinegar, condiments, and kid snacks (whatever they may be) it’s much easier to get through the week.
9. Find shortcuts that work for you.
Everybody has their own challenges during the week. For me, it makes sense to pack lunch during dinner prep or clean-up. If you’re a morning person or an early riser, you might want to tackle lunch packing before the kids get up. I do a lot of cooking during the week, because I love cooking and find that it actually relieves stress to be in the kitchen. I prefer cooking to watching t.v. As a result, I tend to make a lot of school lunches with dinner leftovers. Not everyone has the time or inclination to do this much cooking. You have to find what works for you. No matter what you pack for your kids’ lunches, it’s almost certainly better than what they’ll get in the school cafeteria if they are in public school in the U.S. (or what you got in your lunch bag if you grew up in the 1970s or 80s).
10. Fruit is beautiful: put it on display, in easy reach of your kids.
I love to decorate with fruit. I live in California and am extremely fortunate to have access to amazing fruit year-round. Once I’ve cleaned all my fruit from the farmers market, if it can be stored at room temperature, I put it on pretty melamine trays (mostly from Target and Ikea) in the kitchen and dining room. Fruit is always in easy reach of the kids. They can grab an apple in the morning to pack as a snack for school and they can dig into a big nectarine if they are hungry after school. If kids see fruit all the time, they’ll learn to love it. Trust me: you want the fruit out in the open and the Goldfish hidden away in the cupboard.
It was nice to send two pretty much healthy kids to school on Monday with some yummy stuffed tortilla pizzas for lunch. To make a yummy stuffed tortilla pizza, you spread a little marinara sauce and some shredded cheese on a tortilla, fold it in half, and spread more marinara sauce and cheese on top. Then pop it in the oven until the cheese is bubbly and golden—basically, cook it until it looks like a slice of pizza. Super easy, kid-approved lunch. If I had been more motivated, I would have chopped some spinach and put it in the pizzadilla. Next time.
If you regularly read food blogs on the internets and peruse Pinterest, you have probably encountered Salad in a Jar. I’m not sure of the exact provenance of Salad in a Jar, but I do know that it’s a genius idea for lunch. You start by mixing up a little dressing in the bottom of a tall jar. I use a pasta sauce jar, but you can use a large canning jar: a wider mouth makes it easier to fill. Then you add ingredients that won’t get soggy and gross if they sit in the dressing overnight—things like cooked grains, pasta, beans, or raw kale. I also like to put something protein-rich at the bottom, so that the salad is hearty enough to fill me up (I’m pretty hungry at lunch). Then you pile in more heavy ingredients, such as: cucumbers, tomatoes, cooked potato chunks, roasted beets, edamame, etc. Next, stuff in as much leafy, green stuff as you can fit in the jar. Once I’ve packed in the greens, I like to put a little handful of nuts or seeds in the neck of the jar. When it’s time to eat the salad, turn the jar upside down, shake it up, and then pour your beautiful, colorful, amazingly healthy salad onto a plate.
In a perfect world, I’d eat a big salad for lunch everyday. But, what with packing kid lunches, cooking meals, making snacks, and everything else, I sometimes neglect my own lunch. I’ve read that Salad in a Jar will stay fresh for up to 5 days, but I’ve never tried making several jarred salads in advance. Maybe next week.
Today Iain’s 2nd grade class is going on a field trip to the SLO Botanical Garden, which is one of the hottest, dustiest botanical gardens around. But, no matter—the kids will be so excited to get out of the classroom for most of the day. Parents were instructed to send a sack lunch and Iain told me: “It has to be in a sack, Mom. Keep it simple.” A field trip sack lunch is actually kind of hard, because it has to withstand the heat without an insulated bag/ice pack, it will inevitably get crushed in the backpack or in transit, and everything in the lunch has to be disposable. And because Iain is in “the allergy classroom,” no peanuts or peanut products allowed. This is clearly not my usual lunch packing style, which involves complicated food neatly arranged in little compartments with a fork, spoon and cloth napkin. Sometimes simple things are a challenge for me.
The sack lunch contains the following:
half a sunflower seed and lingonberry jam sandwich, in a snack baggie
a little snack baggie filled with Goldfish and honey wheat pretzel sticks
a little snack baggie filled with blueberries that we picked over the weekend at Cal Poly
a homemade energy bar wrapped in waxed paper
a granny smith apple—no plastic required
a teeny tiny bottle of water
Geez, that’s a lot of snack baggies. I meant to throw in a paper napkin, but I think I forgot.
And for decorations on the bag, a Pea Shooter from Plants vs. Zombies:
If you live with an 8 year old boy, you are probable quite familiar with Plants Vs. Zombies, which is actually a pretty awesomely cute game.
Yogurt cream cheese is delicious stuff. It’s basically yogurt that has been strained until it is thick and spreadable. If you strain yogurt for an hour or so, you’ll get Greek yogurt. If you strain yogurt overnight, you’ll get yogurt cheese. The process is super simple.
Start with good yogurt:
My favorite yogurt is Trader Joe’s Organic Plain Whole Milk Yogurt, because it tastes amazing: rich and creamy with a good amount of yogurt sourness. Also, look at the ingredients:
There’s no junk or weird stuff of gelatin in this yogurt: just milk and yogurt cultures. Mmm, I feel healthy just looking at this label.
Scoop some of your delicious wholesome yogurt into a strainer lined with a coffee filter. Set the strainer over a bowl or measuring cup.
Let the yogurt strain for about 8 hours (all day or overnight). I usually just leave it on the counter all night. However, if your home is very warm and/or potentially bug-infested (that would describe my first apartment in Chicago), or if you have a yogurt-loving cat, you might want to put the yogurt strainer contraption in the fridge.
When the yogurt is nice and thick, scoop it into a little container and store it in the fridge. The liquid that comes out of the yogurt is whey. It’s supposedly good for you, so use it in a smoothie. Or, if you’re bold, try drinking it straight.
The consistency of yogurt cheese will be similar to whipped or spreadable cream cheese. I love it on toast. The kiddos love it on toast. You will love it on toast.
And, if you happen to have an amazing jam-making, triathlete, philosopher, business ethics professor friend who sends you a jar of freshly make peach apricot jam, slather that on your toast as well.
Sometimes a ham and cheese sandwich is just a little boring. For those times, try a deconstructed sandwich, because deconstructed food is always fun. These little sandwich kabobs have cubes of toasted and buttered whole wheat bread (Trader Joe’s Tuscan Pane, my current favorite sandwich bread), chunks of Dubliner cheese and little pieces of Canadian bacon. I also made one sweet kabob with grapes and Canadian bacon. I’m sure the kiddos will love this lunch, because they are big fans of party food served on a toothpick. For crunchies today, I packed some pretzel slims and Goldfish. Our orange trees are still going crazy, so we’ve got a seemingly neverending supply of orange slices.
Over the last couple of years, I have been reducing our meat consumption and attempting to cook as many plant powered meals as possible. This has led me to experiment with a variety of vegetarian taco/burrito fillings. Last night’s concoction included: tofu, potatoes, onion, lentils, broccoli, kale, and nutritional yeast. I seasoned this with a little chili powder and smoked paprika. I sold it to the kids as a filling for Make Your Own Burrito Night (second only to Make Your Own Taco Night in popularity). I put a bunch of salsas and hot sauces on the table, along with a bowl of shredded “Mexican Mix” cheese. It was a hit, so I used some leftover filling in the quesadillas for today’s lunch. And I came up with a new crazy trail mix: Crispix cereal, freeze dried edamame and roasted pumpkin seeds: tres fantastique, if I do say so myself. The grape and persimmon fruit mix is getting a little redundant this week, but the kids are still eating it.
Cooking Tip:Veggie Taco Filling Concoction
I tend to make these concoctions toward the end of the week, when I have various odds and ends in the fridge that need to be consumed. I don’t really measure anything and I incorporate whatever veggies I have on hand.
1 lb. extra firm tofu, chopped or crumbled into the pan
1 russet potato or a handful of new potatoes, diced
1 onion, diced
2 or 3 cloves of garlic, diced
about 2 cups of chopped vegetables
legumes of some sort if you have them, such as a can of black beans
about 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1–2 tablespoons olive oil
seasonings of your choice: salt, pepper, chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, oregano, etc.
Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat. Add the potatoes, lower the heat to medium low, cover, and let the potatoes stem for about 10 minutes. Periodically stir the potatoes to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add in your veggies, stir and cover for another 5 minutes or so. Once the potatoes and veggies are nice and soft, add the crumbled tofu, the beans, and the nutritional yeast. Let this heat through. At this point you can season and serve. Or, you can mash everything with a potato masher and cook it up hash style, letting the bottom brown, stirring, and letting the bottom brown some more until you have lots of nice little crisp bits. It will look something like this:
It won’t win a beauty contest, but it tastes darn fine with a nice dollup of salsa and several shakes of Chipotle Tabasco sauce. It’s also totally vegan if you opt not to add cheese.
I try to buy as much produce as possible (ideally, all our fruits and veggies for the week) from the farmers market. We have lots of farmers markets, so if I forget to buy something on Saturday, I can go to a market on Sunday or Tuesday or Thursday. My kids consume an mind-boggling amount of fruits and veggies every week; I think this is largely due to the amazing quality of produce at our farmers market.
A typical morning at the farmers market results in this:
So, how do I deal with this overwhelming table of deliciousness? I try to tackle it right away. Here is my strategy for produce cleaning and storage:
Carrots: tops are snipped off with scissors over a compost bin. Carrots are rinsed and scrubbed, placed on a kitchen towel to dry, and then stored in a ziploc bag in the fridge. I rarely have to peel carrots that I get at the farmers market. I’ll just slice them for lunches.
Eggs: these are easy—put the carton in the fridge.
Stone fruit (nectarines, peaches, plums, pluots, apricots, etc.): rinsed off and placed on a towel to dry. I never refrigerate stone fruit as this seems to negatively affect the texture. Once dry, these are placed on a tray within reach of the kids; they don’t last long. Pluots and plums will last the longest (5–7 days depending on ripeness) at room temperature.
Grapes: rinse well and dry on a towel or in a colander. I store these in the fridge in a recycled grocery store grape (or cherry) bag; you know, the ones with small holes all over them that seal at the top.
Kale: separate and rinse well. Then, I shake them out to get them as dry as possible (I do this outside—it never snows here). I lay the leaves on a towel to dry, then gather the leaves back into a nice bunch, roll them up in the same towel and store them in a ziploc bag. The leaves are long, so they stick out of the bag. Hearty kale will easily last a week in the fridge.
Apples: get rinsed and placed on a towel to dry. I store them in a cute little 1/4 peck bag that I once got at the farmers market. I place apples in the fridge to keep them nice and crisp, although I’ll leave a couple out on the fruit tray for the kids.
Green beans: I put these in a ziploc bag and don’t wash until I’m going to eat/cook them.
Potatoes: I put small potatoes in those little green baskets that strawberries come in (I have a zillion of them, because we consume a lot of strawberries) and keep them in the pantry. Potatoes should never be stored in the fridge due to some scientific thing that has to do with starch. I read about it once.
Berries (raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, blueberries, strawberries): I usually buy a 3-pack, so I just keep them in their little containers within the cardboard box, wrapped in a plastic bag, in the fridge. I don’t wash until right before eating. I usually don’t wash raspberries until they look dirty. This is the advantage of shopping at a farmers market and buying from farmers who don’t use sprays and nasty stuff on their crops.
*Lunch tip: Bring your kids to a farmers market, farm stand, green market or some such place. They’ll try new things and they’ll like them, because locally grown food tastes good. Surprisingly good.
It’s the end of the first full week of school. A milestone, indeed. Friday’s main lunch item is egg salad on whole wheat sandwich thins. Mmm, do I love a good egg salad. There’s a tiny bit left over for my lunch today.
You’ll notice a lot of sandwich thins in my lunches. These are a fabulous food invention. I find that sandwich thins provide a more appropriate portion for small children than thick slices of bread, unless the bread loaf is pretty small. Iain’s has red leaf lettuce from our garden; Lily still prefers hers without lettuce, I’m sorry to say. Lunch sides are sugar snap peas (farmers market), two small slices of aged cheddar, strawberries and grapes (also farmers market). It looks like one of those crazy candy coated chocolate sunflower seeds in trying to escape from the treat compartment.
*Lunch tip: I boiled four eggs on Monday, anticipating that I could get two lunches for two kids (i.e., four lunches) out of this. Actually, that’s not true. I boiled four eggs, because I had four eggs in the fridge. Whenever possible, prepare things that require cooking or longer prep in bulk (well, mini-bulk; we’re talking kid lunches here) to save time later in the week.
On today’s lunch menu: mini pizza margherita (basil from our garden, marinara sauce, and mozzarella on a wheat sandwich thin), sliced carrots, insanely delicious green plums, strawberries and grapes. All produce is from the farmers market. The treat: chocolate covered, candy coated sunflower seeds (Trader Joe’s).
The was a popular lunch: it was clean plate club for both Lily and Iain.
*Lunch tip: I make pizza-y/melty cheese things when I’m cleaning the dishes after dinner. Line a baking sheet with a small piece of foil, set oven to 400˚ and small melty things will usually be done in about 15 minutes.