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 students, lunch in the school cafeteria is boring. And for many parents, there's nothing more daunting than packing the school lunch. What do I pack? How can I make it healthy?
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 some 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 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 pre-made pie or biscuit dough from the grocery store and bake.
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 pre-made soup and enhance with the leftovers.
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.
Appetizing tips for packing
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. 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.
Make the overall composition colorful by incorporating fresh vegetables and fruit.
Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches or other items into creative shapes.
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.