Not all kids are built alike. And not all lunch boxes have to be filled with the same things.
When my own child was small, I used to roll my eyes at all those parent-magazine lunchbox tips. “All kids love dipping things! Send them to school with vegetables and a little container of ranch dressing!” Oh, really? My kid hated any form of dip — especially ranch dressing.
“Tuck a fun note in with lunch!” He would have gouged his own eyes out if he’d had to open a note from his mother in front of his friends. “Cut sandwiches into cute animal shapes!” If I had turned his bologna into bunnies, he would have run away and joined the circus.
And you know what? I got it: Lunch is personal. It’s the oasis in the day, a meal we get to tailor just for ourselves. The lunch box is our own turf.
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It isn’t even just for kids. Adults probably carry lunch even more often than kids do. Given the time, cost and calories of the lunch options near most workplaces, packing your own is often your best choice.
With school starting, you have the next nine months or so to figure out the best way to game lunch for yourself and your kids. This time, I dug into cookbooks and websites in search of ideas for loading up those lunch boxes.
If you don’t find anything that inspires you, go to the website Food 52 and search for “Amanda’s kids’ lunches.” Writer Amanda Hesser documents what she packs for her twins’ lunches every day. Yes, Hesser’s kids apparently are willing to eat asparagus sandwiches, cold haricot verts, pickled onions and Milanese rice salads with tuna for lunch. In front of their friends.
Told you — not all kids are built alike. I bet Hesser’s kids are really happy. I hear the circus can be a really good career.
Keep these on hand
Tortillas. Wraps are the fastest sandwiches you can make, and tortillas often keep longer than bread. You can get all kinds of flavors to change it up, too, from flour or corn to green spinach or roasted red pepper.
Hummus. It’s nutritious and filling. Even better: Try some of the nontraditional versions, like Roots’ lima bean hummus or Trader Joe’s edamame hummus. Change it up: Take a whole-wheat roll, cut a sliver off the top, hollow out the center and fill it with a little hummus and salsa.
Tiny tomatoes and bocconcini. If you need something to fill out a bento box, toss little tomatoes and bocconcini (little balls of mozzarella) with a little olive oil, some dried oregano and a little salt.
Grapes. To keep a lunchbox cold, freeze little baggies of grapes. When they thaw, they make a good fruit serving.
Nut butters. Branch out from peanut butter and into almond or sunflower butter. Change it up: To make it more substantial, hit the salad bar and get sunflower kernels, dried cranberries or currants and shredded carrot to stir into it.
Blueberry jam and goat cheese. Trader Joe’s Blueberry and Vanilla Chevre is my newest flavor obsession. Pack a couple of slices with a bag of graham crackers. (Don’t spread it on in advance or the graham crackers will get soft.) Or make your own: Combine 2 tablespoons goat cheese or cream cheese and 1 tablespoon jam (blueberry or whatever flavor you like). Microwave for 10 seconds, just until soft enough to spread. (From “Little Bento,” by Michele Olivier; Sonoma Press, 2016.)
Apples and oranges. Together: Combine apple slices and orange slices, squeezing one orange wedge over the apple slices. It will keep them from browning without having them taste like lemon juice.
From “Little Bento,” by Michele Olivier:
Plan leftovers into your lunches. Save some roasted chicken for quesadillas later in the week, or make a big pot of chili you can send in a thermos.
Find a time that works. If morning is too stressful, pack lunches while you’re making dinner. Or do it while you’re cleaning up the kitchen after dinner.
Double up. Plan lunches around things both the kids and adults can take. It saves time, money and stress.
Pack rainbows. Try for something red, orange, yellow, green and blue or purple to balance “beige,” like bread or meat.
Kale Smash and Hummus Sandwiches
Adapted from “A Modern Way To Cook,” by Anna Jones (Ten Speed Press, 2016).
About 10 kale leaves, stemmed (about 5 cups)
4 sun-dried tomato halves
Juice of 1 lemon
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Sliced sourdough bread
Wash the kale and shake dry. Place in a food processor with the sun-dried tomatoes, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt and pepper. Process into a paste, adding more olive oil if needed.
Spread one slice of bread with hummus. Spread a second slice with some of the kale spread and place the slices together into a sandwich. Refrigerate any leftover kale spread in an airtight container with a little olive oil on top to keep it from darkening.
Yield: 2 to 4 sandwiches, depending on how thickly you spread them.
Spinach Pesto Pizza Rollups
Adapted from “Little Bento,” by Michele Olivier (Sonoma Press, 2016). These take a little work in advance, but they can be kept for a week in the refrigerator, or frozen for 2 months.
1 packed cup fresh spinach leaves, larger stems removed
1/2 cup prepared pesto (refrigerated is usually better than jars)
1 bag pizza dough
2 cups shredded mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan, divided
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with nonstick aluminum foil or parchment paper.
Combine the spinach and pesto in a food process and process into a paste. Set aside.
On a lightly floured work surface with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the pizza dough as thinly as possible (about 14 or 16 inches long and 9 inches wide).
Spread the spinach pesto mixture over the dough, spreading all the way to the end on the short sides but leaving about 1 inch free on either of the long ends. Sprinkle the mozzarella over the pesto, then sprinkle with 1/2 cup Parmesan.
Starting with the long side nearest you and using a spatula or dough scraper to lift the dough, roll the dough over tightly, working it away from you until you have a log shaoe. Tuck any cheese that falls out back into the ends and press the seam closed with your fingers. Using a serrated knife, slice into 1-inch-thick pieces and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan.
Bake about 20 minutes, until the crust is golden. Cool for 5 minutes, then remove the slices to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature with pizza sauce.
Testing note: Some of the cheese and pesto may leak out a little. Wait until the rolls cool and trim it away for a neater presentation.)
Yield: About 12 slices.
Salted Tahini Spread
Adapted from “Easy Vegan Breakfasts & Lunches,” by Maya Sozer (Page Street, 2016). If you get really bored with nut butters, try this one for a change. It makes a great dip (for kids who like dips) with baby-cut carrots and apple slices, or as a spread on whole-grain crackers.
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons almond or cashew milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Yield: About 1 cup.
Adapted from “Leon Happy Salads,” by Jane Baxter and John Vincent (Octopus Books, 2016). You can make the dressing as directed, or you can replace it with an Asian-style soy dressing.
1/2 cup quinoa
1 cup frozen, shelled edamame
1 cup frozen peas
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup bottled Asian sesame-soy dressing
Rinse and drain quinoa. Place in a medium saucepan with 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the edamame, cover again and cook 5 minutes longer. Add the peas and remove from heat. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.
Stir in the salt, pepper and dressing. Chill in a resealable container until ready to serve.
Yield: About 3 cups.
1 can vegetarian refried beans
1 tortilla, flavored or plain
Quarter of an avocado, thinly sliced and peeled
1/4 cup diced tomato
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup shredded lettuce
Open a can of refried beans. (Most vegetarian styles are thin enough to spread, but if it isn’t, mix it with 1/4 cup water.) Spread over the tortilla, reaching to the edges so it will help hold the roll closed.
Line up avocado slices down one side about 1 inch from the edge, then top with tomato, mozzarella and lettuce. Fold the edge over, then roll it up. Use a serrated knife to cut into 1-inch-thick slices.
Yield: 1 serving.