If you are like me and you like to cook, then meals for friends and family are a real joy to prepare, but having young children with varied appetites and palates, can at times turn what should be a worthwhile and satisfying process into something more frustrating.
Like many families that juggle work, school, commitments and needs, preparing meals can be a panic-inducing, angst ridden time, especially if the pantry is bare and time pressures dictate your schedule. Oh yes, I am one of the many who have happily forked over a couple of dollars to the kids in the morning for lunches while grabbing back packs and conducting a search and rescue for mittens, all the while crossing my fingers that they make good choices come noon.
There are many challenges to eating healthy in today’s world. In the school cafeteria, they range from tight budgets, limited access to equipment, limited access to healthy choices, corporate and commodity food pressures, and frankly, making something that kids want to eat that is both good for their bodies and delicious. Yet, supported by farm-to-school programs and in Vermont, various organizations that work tirelessly to bring local, seasonal and healthy food to our kids, the school cafeteria is on the verge of transformation.
On the home front, the challenge is a little different. Parents with limited time and income are often overwhelmed with putting together a meal that is not only healthy, but can withstand a locker or backpack environment for a few hours while still remaining edible. More than one of us have found the aged remains of lunches in their child’s backpacks at the end of the day (or in my case, the end of the week). Although there are plenty of resources for cooking healthy, putting together a quick and delicious lunch continues to be a challenge for many of us.
So in that spirit, with one part planning and one part fun, I bring you a few lunches that our whole family enjoys on the go and I hope you might find them inspiring for your own family as well.
Psuedo Bento Lunch Boxes:
This is my (healthier, seasonal and local) answer to the popular convenience product found in many a grocery store cooler (rhymes with “Munchable”) that my youngest daughter covets whenever her friends bring them to school. Our family buys locally and eats seasonally (see my posts here) whenever possible, so adjust the suggestions below based on your locality and season. Because we lose lunch totes by the dozen, I am loathe to spend money on the fancy box containers that seem to be all the rage. Instead, I recycle take out containers.
Each Psuedo Bento meal is arranged directly in the box using cupcake liners or cut outs of wax paper that not only separate the various ingredients, but helps satisfy my need for right brain stimulation and the littlest’s thirst for mass marketing gimmicks. Pre-packaged foods (like the fruit cups) go in first and I arrange the rest around them. Fold in a napkin and sneak in a utensil as needed.
Finger Food: sliced cheddar; sliced and rolled turkey breast; sliced apples; chocolate covered pretzels
Pizza Box: sliced pepperoni, turkey ham or Canadian bacon (aka back ham); cubed mozzarella; wheat crackers; pineapple cup in juice
Zen: sesame peanut noodles; shredded carrots; sliced red bell pepper; snow peas; sliced cucumbers; fortune cookie
Autumnul Love: mashed sweet potato topped with brown sugar; sliced turkey breast; dried cranberries; salted pistachios or almonds; sliced apples
G’s Favorite: whole wheat spinach-chicken-neufchatel roll ups (zap these in the microwave for 20 seconds or in a toaster oven for a yummy, creamy, hot version), sliced into 1 inch rolls; clementine or tangerine; pretzel sticks; small cookie
Chico: black or pinto bean mash; shredded cheddar; sliced avocados; pita chips; orange slices
Huffington Post’s Bento Box Lunches – Get out your cookie cutter,sharp paring knives and chopsticks. Find some inspiration with the fanciful, but do-able bento box creations.
Weelicious.com – A classic “beautiful model meets motherhood” story where the host blogs about cooking for her kids and gets a book deal. I know, I cringed too, but it’s a great site. Besides practical and tasty ideas for lunches, Catherine streams how-to videos, posts a weekly menu and has lots of recipes for the whole family. Fun resource with a touch of glam.
Jars R Us:
Wide mouth jars are best and can be filled with food that can be refrigerated or heated. If freezing, invest in freezer jars or else the jar may burst.
Parfait: Layer granola, yogurt and fresh fruit
Brrrr!: Fill jar 2/3 with favorite chili, Top with shredded cheese.
Smooth Operator: Prepare smoothie (use favorite recipes) and freeze in ice cube trays. Pop enough cubes in a jar to fill it, then close tightly. Come lunch time, with a good shake, a healthy, fruity smoothie is ready to go!
Salad Jar: Time for a confession. I LOVE these salad jars for lunch. My kids? Not so much…but I’m at peace with that.
Pour a bit of dressing in the bottom of the jar, then alternate layers of fresh greens with raw veggies, nuts, fruit, etc. Give a good arm jiggling shake or mix with your fork when ready to eat
- creamy balsamic dressing, apples, spinach, pecans, dried cranberries
- honey lime vinaigrette, shredded red cabbage and carrots, chopped green bell peppers, chopped peanuts
- pesto vinaigrette, tomatoes wedges or halved cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella balls, toasted walnuts
- chunky blue cheese dressing, chopped romaine, hard boiled egg slices, shredded chicken breast, halved cherry toms, chopped cucumber, toasted pecans
Huffington Post Meals in a Jar: Yep, they did it again. Beautiful photos too.
Krista and Jess: Love this blog and their meals in a jar were featured in the photo above as well as the preceding Huff Post article.
Other Lunches and Snacks:
Quick and Dirty: pumpkin, carrot or banana muffin; ham and cheddar “kebobs” (alternate cubed meat and cheese on toothpicks)
Johnny Meets George: Sliced apples (johnny appleseed) smeared with peanut butter (george washington carver)
Cool as a Cucumber: Slice a cucumber lengthwise and wrap around cherry tomatoes, chunks of melon or strawberries. Secure with a toothpick.
Sanity inducing tips!
A well stocked pantry, fridge and freezer go a long way to keeping the stress level down. It just feels good to reach in and get what you need. Try this kid-friendly list for starters, adjusting to your climate and season, for a multitude of healthy, quick lunches:
- Kid favorite veggies (carrots, cucumbers, baby spinach, celery, bell peppers)
- Whole fresh fruit (bananas, apples, citrus, berries, tomatoes, melon)
- Frozen fruit and veggies (sliced and peeled banana chunks, mixed berries, peas, corn)
- Fruit cups in 100% juice (manadarin oranges, pineapple, peaches)
- Dried fruit (apples, cranberries, raisins)
- Whole nuts (pistachios, cashews, peanuts, almonds)
- Nut butters
- Beans (try low fat, low sodium refried beans for an easy spread)
- Whole grain wraps and crackers
- Cheddar cheese and mozzarella
- Neufchatel cream cheese (1/3 less fat and softer than cream cheese, but tastes the same!)
- Pepperoni and Canadian bacon
or try this one from Eating Well to extend healthy meals for the whole family.
I take the time to plan a flexible menu at the beginning of each week. It helps me think about the week’s activities, the above grocery list and satisfies my penchant for organization, if only in my mind.
Making dinner tonight can be a great time to prep and set aside salads, prep vegetables, etc for tomorrow’s lunch. Leftovers make fantastic lunches.
Get in the habit of having the kids pull out their lunch totes, boxes and/or jars as soon as they get home and have them wash out their own containers.