Lunchbox Philosophies, Part II: The Interest

Earlier this week I wrote about my very simple lunchbox rule: just provide more than two opportunities for them to make good choices, and the rest will take care of itself.  However, that rule is not, in and of itself, the foundation of a great lunch-packing system.  It would be easy to craft a lunch of, say, hummus and veggie wraps with a side of applesauce, sweet potato chips, and yogurt with berries and honey — a healthy and attractive spread that would certainly satisfy the opportunity rule — and simply stick to that, or slight variations of that, for as long as the kids would continue to eat some of it.  But that’s not what good lunch-packing is about; good lunch-packing should not only be nutritious, but also provide continuity as far as the values you’re trying to instill about food at home.  If you are trying to provide varied foods and encourage your kids to expand their palates, the same-old-same-old lunchbox menu just won’t do.

Yes, folks, at some point I was going to have to admit to you that packing the kids’ lunches DOES have something to do with keeping them (and you) interested in the lunchbox fare.  I’m still no “cute food” advocate, and I still feel as though I’m breaking out in aggravated hives whenever I see a back-to-school lunchbox planner that chirps bright advice like “Cut the sandwiches into dinosaurs!” as if stegosaurus-shaped bread were the only way to get our kids to eat at midday.  But kids — even the very selective ones — DO like interesting food and interesting presentations, and they will respond to your efforts, even if it’s just making sure that you do better than squishing a tuna on rye into a plastic baggie and weighting it down with an apple.

Balancing the need to keep their interest in lunch with children’s inherent need for familiarity can be tricky, to say the least.  P. would likely be happy if I packed a sunflower butter and banana sandwich, yogurt with raspberries, and dried mango every day, and in some ways that can be very tempting.  But ultimately, it’s my job to develop his eating habits and preferences, so I’m walking the line just like everybody else, between packing what I know he’ll eat and what I want him to eat.

There are two main tricks, I think, that help in staying on this very narrow path to lunchbox confidence.  First is to set up a “lunch pantry” which contains the sides and add-ons to the main meal.  If you consistently keep on hand a variety of kid-and-parent-approved items, like sugar-free dried fruits, unsweetened applesauce cups, whole-grain pretzels, and yogurt, you’ll be able to choose two or three items from that selection each day with very little difficulty.  That way, the kids will have the familiar routine of seeing the same items on a regular basis (though you should try to vary them from day to day, rotating through the best you can), but their main meal and probably at least one side item will be less predictable.

The second thing that helps is understanding themes and variations, and using them to your best advantage.  By slightly altering familiar foods, and changing them more and more as your children become more adventurous eaters, you’ll find that you get a lot more mileage out of the same four or five menu items without getting stuck in a rut or having your kids completely flip out.  I’ve identified five lunchbox entree categories, and in each category I’ve chosen five basic items which can then be embellished in a number of ways.  If you tried every single suggestion on this list — some of which I’ll publish today, and some tomorrow — I daresay you’d have nearly 100 lunch entrees to choose from by the time you were through.  That would get you through more than half the school year without packing the same exact main meal twice!

How the list works: Each bolded CATEGORY comes with a big tip from me on packing that type of food for lunches.  Underneath, there will be five base items, each with a + symbol to indicate some kid-friendly add-ons.  You could choose to mix in or swap out one or all of the add-ons to customize these choices for your kids.  (Note: I’m not providing recipes in this post; many of the things I list here are food items you will probably already have on hand or will already have a recipe for.)

The big tip: Make sure you preheat your Thermos by filling it with boiling water for 10 minutes before dumping it out and refilling with hot soup. 
The options:
+ Meatballs (any meat), spinach, or pasta of any shape
+ Apple/pear puree or tortellini
+Roasted red peppers, sauteed mushrooms, or shredded chicken
+Noodles of any variety, lentils, or dumplings
Black bean
+Shredded cooked pork or chicken, cheese, or guacamole

The big tip: Sandwiches tend to seem unappetizing by lunchtime because they’re often soggy.  Try to choose sturdier breads if you’re making ahead of time, or provide the components for the sandwich without actually assembling it (L. prefers the hands-on approach, actually).  Also, even though I usually suggest packing lunches as much as you can the night before, I think if you’re planning to put together a sandwich for the lunchbox, it’s best held off until the morning.
PB and J (or sunbutter and J)
+ sliced berries, apples or bananas; unconventional bread choices (like leftover pancakes or mini whole-wheat soft pretzels); or off the bread altogether, pureed with banana and yogurt for a fruit dip
+bacon, lettuce, tomato; apple butter; or vegetable or herb cream cheese
Ham and Cheese
+broccoli in a wrap, quesadilla, or calzone; pineapple; or off the bread, wrapped around lightly steamed green beans
+lemon juice and plain yogurt (in place of mayo); pickle relish and rye crispbread; or sundried tomatoes and black olives
Egg Salad
+avocado or crumbled bacon; on a mini-bagel or wheat crackers

The big tip: Pasta’s a great lunch item because it can be served hot or cold.  Just be sure that you always take care to make it really flavorful and exciting, because bland room-temperature pasta will just taste like mush and turn the kids off from eating. (And, of course, always choose whole-wheat whenever possible.)
meatballs of any variety, marinara, or pesto; or mixed with scrambled eggs, cheese, and veggies and cooked into a spaghetti fritatta
(nitrate-free) pepperoni and marinara for “pizza ravioli,” or a quick sauce of sauteed onion, pureed pumpkin, and cream; or serve cold with diced chicken, basil, and a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice
Mac and Cheese
broccoli, peas and carrots, or leftover chili
+smoked salmon and peas, or slivers of (nitrate-free) ham or salami with tomatoes and basil
+cheese cubes and grape tomatoes or roasted peppers; or spinach and ricotta

I’ll end the week with variations on “kid favorites” like pizza, burgers, and dogs; and how to make lunchbox variations on salad seem exciting.  In the meantime, I’m sure some of you have lunch-packing questions you’d like to ask or dilemmas that need solving.  Leave a comment and I’ll try to address your question in the next post.  Let’s send the kids back to school with lunches we all feel good about.

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13 Responses to Lunchbox Philosophies, Part II: The Interest

  1. Pingback: The Philosophy of Lunch Box Packing as shared by Brianne DeRosa

  2. Viki Worley says:

    Fantastic ideas. I doubt I could get my 12th grader to eat any of it, unfortunately. I am looking in to getting a hydro flask to put homemade smoothies in…

    Mom in NJ, at the preschool I work at there is a “rule” that the lunch boxes have to contain a milk product, a protein, one fruit and vegetable or two vegetables, and bread. It is a state and federal mandate I believe. However, I tell parents to think outside the box all the time. A milk product: milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir. Protein doesn’t have to be lunch meat: leftovers from last night work, also yogurt, beans, hummus, cheese. Bread= grain product: crackers, flat breat, tortilla, homemade granola (to go on the yogurt with the fruit.)
    Smoothies don’t have to have dairy in them. I make a great fruit smoothie without yogurt. Adding yogurt would of course up the protein content. Peach smoothie with almond butter is really good too.
    regardless of the rules…you have to pack what your kids will eat. I would bend the rules or ask for a clarification…go armed with examples of other products that could fit the description.

    • Thanks for chiming in on the lunch policy issue, Viki. I was really wondering about that “must have bread” thing, and I suspect Mom in NJ will be able to have a pretty good dialogue with her school about the intention of the policy vs. its (limiting, frustrating, kind of asinine) wording. 🙂

  3. Mom in NJ says:

    Wow! Thanks for all your suggestions. I’m hoping you can help me with my lunch-packing woes.

    My dilemmas are as follows: School rule: the kids must have bread, which limits the alternate breads you mentioned, plus, I hate to send pasta AND bread…; we are kosher so we don’t use any pork, or combine dairy/meat ingredients and we can only send meat one day each week; the school is nut-free, and I have a hard time coming up with protien without meats, or nuts (I try to limit tuna fish due to mercury), oh and my kids are rebelling about whole wheat bread. P.S. I have to pack lunches for 5 kids.

    Any advice?

    • Wow! You DO have a major challenge. My first suggestion would be — if you have not already done this, which you likely have — to approach the school and ask for clarification of the “must have bread” rule. It occurs to me that 1) that’s pretty inconvenient for gluten-free kids (I assume they give a pass if you have a doctor’s note?); and 2) “bread” is a silly, silly rule. “Starch” or “carbohydrate” would be better; “whole grain” would be even better. Ask them to please work with you to develop a short list of approved items that fit the “bread” ideal — whole grain pasta, cous cous, brown rice, whole wheat crackers, wheat tortillas. I’m certain other parents would thank you! As to the rest, okay, we can work with this. :-) Nut-free schools are less of a challenge than I think we all feel that they are, actually, because sunbutter and seeds are wonderful substitutions for nuts. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds in particular can give kids a nice protein boost in a vegetarian, nut-free lunchbox. Other great sources of non-meat protein are eggs and legumes. I don’t know what your kids’ eating preferences are, but one way to get ahead for ALLLLLLL THOSE LUNCHES — you deserve sainthood! 🙂 — would be to use a slow cooker overnight to whip up some soups and chilis that have beans or lentils in them (or chicken or beef, if you’re doing it for the one meat day per week). A bean chili with a slice of bread on the side would meet all your requirements. Also, if your kids don’t deal well with beans in their recognizable state, consider using white beans or chickpeas as a thickener for a vegetable soup. You could easily mix pureed white beans into, say, a pumpkin soup, boosting the protein factor without compromising your needs. You can also make homemade falafel or make “burgers” with chickpeas, black beans, or pinto beans. All of those are easy, cheap, and tasty. And if you DO give dairy, remember that yogurt and cheese have quite a bit of protein on their own. If you make a yogurt and fruit parfait and send some whole-wheat cinnamon raisin bread on the side, you’ll be honoring all the needs. Other ideas — panzanella is a favorite with my kids right now, and since it’s a salad made with bread as the base, it would satisfy your school! As a bonus, you can put ANYTHING in panzanella, so you can create different varieties that suit your needs and your kids’ palates. If your kids are rebelling about the whole-wheat bread, I’d say try white whole wheat; it’s usually an easier sell and as long as it’s truly white whole wheat, it’s not a big nutritional compromise. Let’s keep thinking about this! Let me know how I’m doing so far, go through the lists I’ve posted already to choose some and maybe we can put together a couple of weeks’ worth of

      • Sorry — apparently that comment got cut off. It was supposed to end with “couple of weeks’ worth of lunchbox plans for you and your kids.” Hope it’s helpful!

      • Mom in NJ says:

        Yes, this is supremely helpful, thank you! I need to get out of the “sandwich” mode of thinking for lunch, and this has helped tremendously. Any tried and true recipe suggestions for the soup/stew/burger ideas?

        Again, many thanks; I will go through the ideas you already posted and see which ones we can work into a lunch plan for us.

      • Hm, how about a soup/stew/burger recipe bonanza? 🙂 I haven’t done one of those in a while, but I should, and I will soon. Look for it! Definitely let me know what appeals to your kids, too, and we’ll keep working on a great plan for you.

  4. Pingback: Lunchbox Philosophies, Part III: 30 or So Extra Lunch Ideas | Red, Round, or Green

  5. Bri: Both this post and the last one were so great – I’m going to share links to these, as well as your guest post, on my “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch” series this week and next. You have inspired me! 🙂

  6. Kim B. says:

    Love this!! Thanks for all the great suggestions! I like your systematic approach – makes a dreaded chore much more approachable. Some other ideas: for my 2-year old (and actually starting much younger than that), I frequently pack chicken, (brown) rice, & black beans in a thermos. We also do a lot of chili, especially my husband’s slow-cooker 3-bean chili with roasted red peppers. T loves it. During the last week of summer “camp,” we were asked to pack ingredients only and the kids would “invent” their own lunch. I went with separate containers of elbow macaroni, cut cucumber, cut cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, & feta cheese for a “make-your-own pasta salad.”

    • Love this! The “make-your-own-pasta” thing is great. We also do a lot of chili in our house, as well as plenty of leftovers like chicken and rice, and our kids are especially fond of smoked salmon, so we try to offer that when we can (i.e., when it’s on sale!!!). The systematic add-on approach actually just occurred to me as I tried to think of ways to encourage other people in their lunch-packing dilemmas, but now I’m excited about it for myself — I think it’s something I do without thinking about it, but having made it concrete, it seems like a really good road map for those days when inspiration is lacking!

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