“I desperately want to start sending my son to school with a lunch from home. I’ve invested in high-quality storage containers and a good lunch cooler, and now just need to get some good ideas on lunch planning on an extremely limited budget!” —Chrissy Stanek
I don’t have children, but every mother I know wrestles with the lunchbox question. “It’s the bane of my school-year existence!” groaned one pal. But what keeps her and lots of other moms going is the knowledge that packing lunch for their kids goes a long way in keeping them happy, productive, and grounded throughout what can be long or stressful days.
PB&J was the default (and inexpensive) lunchbox offering when I was a kid, but now everyone is mindful of the need to protect children with a peanut allergy. Some schools ban nuts entirely; others allow cashew or almond butter. But once you start thinking outside the box, so to speak, there are all sorts of other economical, healthful, delicious options available. The Vegan Lunch Box, by Jennifer McCann, is one source of inspiration, whether you are vegan or not. And when you start thinking of lunchbox meals as part of your larger, weekly culinary repertoire rather than a completely separate chore, then you will get into a groove.
Take lunch meat, for instance. Kids need their protein during the day, but what’s available at the deli counter or already packaged is often expensive and/or full of preservatives and other additives. Spend your money instead on a boneless turkey breast and roast it yourself one night while you’re cooking something on the stovetop. Or, on chicken-dinner night, roast two birds at the same time and save the second one for the lunchbox. In addition to sliced meat for sandwiches, you could shred some of the turkey or chicken. Stir it into a bean chili or combine it with grated carrots, chopped celery, and a little mayo, then wrap the salad in a multigrain flour tortilla, burrito style.
“The trick is a bit of variety and packaging,” said Melissa Roberts, a former Gourmet colleague and mother of two boys, aged nine and seven. “Large cookie cutters can do wonders for a ho-hum sandwich.” Something easily eaten in a short amount of time—rolled-up slices of turkey or ham, a hard-boiled egg with a little container of salt, veggie pinwheels, cucumber spears, grapes, apple slices—is also key. “Twenty minutes is the norm for lunch, so you need something that doesn’t take too much chewing time,” she explained.
Melissa hangs the month’s menu up where her boys can see it, and they choose what days they want to do hot lunch. “Leftovers are a great source for lunches,” she said. “Lasagne, beef stew, a rice dish—anything that reheats well.” Supermarket items she relies on include Barilla dried tortellini or whole-grain pasta, which she tosses with pesto or simply a little olive oil and butter. She’ll add a meatball or two if she has them left over, along with parmesan on the side. Meatballs in sauce, by the way, freeze beautifully, so make a big batch and freeze them so you always have them on hand.
Another former Gourmet colleague, Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez, is a fan of leftovers as well, and her nine-year-old takes his trusty Thermos almost every day. “He loves pasta, and in the colder months, soup with crackers. Everything from chicken noodle to escarole and bean or chicken dumpling soup,” she explained. She will also pack grilled chicken with roasted peppers, a chicken cheese quesadilla, and dips like hummus or baba ghanouj with cut-up vegetables or easy-to-hold pita pockets.
North Carolina chef Andrea Reusing balances life at her restaurant, Lantern, in Chapel Hill, with feeding her husband and two young children, aged four and eight. “We most often do lunch bento box style,” she said. “I sometimes pack parts of the kids’ lunches immediately after cleaning out their boxes, then I stow them in the fridge overnight.” Items she assembles ahead of time include raw green beans, sliced cukes and bell peppers, sliced salami, and chickpeas dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. “In the morning, I might add crackers, romaine lettuce spears and tomatoes with a Ranch-ish dressing made with yogurt, or popcorn popped with olive oil,” she added. “In the winter, I’ll fill a Thermos with chicken or red lentil soup, or black beans and rice with cheese and tortilla chips on the side.”
Yum. Why should kids have all the fun? I want a lunchbox, too.
For more information on healthy lunchbox ideas as well as a free downloadable five-day meal plan, visit the Fresh for Kids website.
Jane Lear On staff at Gourmet for almost 20 years, most recently as senior articles editor, Jane wrote about culinary techniques as well as the popular "Kitchen Notebook" section. She’s also co-authored cookbooks and now blogs regularly at JaneLear.com. As our weekly food advice columnist, she's here to answer questions about the food landscape, from policy to no-fail cooking techniques. TakePart.com