Does the thought of packing your child’s school lunch fill you with dread? Does the idea of slapping together another PB&J make you cringe?
As the kids head back to school, parents head back to the drawing board, tasked with making lunches for the next 10 long months.
“It’s like the never-ending problem,’’ said Leah Klein, a blogger at Leah’s Life and mother of two. “I love food, and I love cooking, and it’s hard for me.’’
We asked parent food bloggers, nutritionists, and chefs across Boston what they pack their kids for lunch. It turns out a little bit of prep work, some fun containers, and shedding the sandwich mentality can make all the difference.
Don’t wait until morning. Many parents get frustrated or spin their wheels because they pack and prepare school lunches in the morning while simultaneously making breakfast and getting the kids ready for school, said Liz Weiss, a registered dietician from Lexington and mom of two. “Planning is key,’’ said Weiss, who, along with Janice Newell Bissex of Melrose, make up a duo called Meal Makeover Moms.
Make a list. Klein routinely sits with her children, ages 8 and 11, and makes a list of their favorite foods. She then refers to that list while grocery shopping and making lunches. “If they’re involved in the initial process of making that list, they can say, ‘You know what, I don’t like edamame anymore.’ They take responsibility a little bit for what’s in their lunch box,’’ she said.
Lunch doesn’t have to mean a sandwich. Always think about how your dinner leftovers can be repurposed. Klein makes extra rice for dinner, and then freeze small portions she can then microwave and mix with vegetables for her kids’ lunches.
Get creative with containers. Containers that are great for packing lunch include bento boxes, thermoses, and mason jars. Nancy Oliveira, a nutritionist at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital’s Nutrition Clinic and a Dedham mother, blogs at FitMamaEats. She uses bento boxes for her 8-year-old son’s lunch, and keeps it simple with rolled turkey, cucumber slices, squares of cheese, popcorn, and chocolate. A thermos is the perfect way to shuttle leftovers like dump soup, beef stew, pasta, or chili to school too.
Kids love to see their favorite foods deconstructed. “They like miniature things and shapes,’’ said Oliveira. Pizza in a bento box might look like a short stack of whole grain crackers, slices of pepperoni, and hunks of cheese. A deconstructed taco could be tortilla chips, black beans, corn, and diced tomatoes, she said.
Ditch the grocery store guilt. No time to cut and chop veggies for those deconstructed meals? Buy them pre-cut. “Don’t feel guilty when you see those chopped up fruits and vegetables in the store,’’ said Oliveira. “I know they are expensive but, honestly, they are worth it. You don’t have to worry about the waste and your time.’’
But pay attention to labels. “Be smart about choosing packaged foods,’’ said Weiss, whose kids are 20 and 16. “Everything is processed, but [make sure you look for] minimally processed. That’s the key.’’ The fewer the ingredients, the better, she said. And if the food is high in sugar and sodium and low in fiber, don’t buy it. Healthy picks include sugar-free fruit cups, whole-grain crackers, cheese sticks, yogurt, hummus, sliced apples or carrots, and popcorn, she said.
It’s time to think of mason jars in a new way. “It’s really become a trend to layer salads in mason jars,’’ said Weiss. “Your kids can help you prepare it in the morning or the night before.’’ Dump leftover chicken, salmon, or beef — the heavy, moist stuff — in the bottom of the jar. Then layer the veggies your child likes on top, and pour a little salad dressing over it.
It’s OK to pack the same lunch all week. “You don’t have to come up with this amazing different lunch every single day,’’ said Oliveira.
Make kabobs. “Kabobs are really fun, because those are really customizable,’’ said Weiss. Add your child’s favorite fruits or vegetables to a skewer between chunks of chicken. Ideas include grapes and strawberries or olives, peppers, and mozzarella balls.
Think tacos. Make them traditionally or try fish. Chef Michael Schlow, of Alta Strada in Wellesley and Foxwoods and Tico in Boston, makes fish tacos for his 8-year-old daughter Petra’s lunch. He mixes avocado with lime juice and salt and places it on a warm tortilla with cooked shrimp and bacon.
Battle food boredom. Present food differently by using a cookie cutter on sandwiches, serving cold cuts rolled up, or picking a wrap in a different color or flavor. “I’ve heard moms say they’ll use a spiralizer or slicer to present vegetables in a different way,’’ said Oliveira.
Most kids love pasta, so why not create a pasta salad? Weiss picks one type of pasta as her “canvas,’’ and then adds her children’s favorite vegetable, dried fruit, and nut. She skips mayonnaise for salad dressing.
Make quesadillas. Weiss places leftover chicken, black beans, frozen corn, cheese, and sauteed bell peppers on a flour tortilla. She folds it, and cooks it in a skillet, then cuts it in half and packs it in foil.
Trail mix is easy and healthy. Klein has a trail mix station at her home. She just mixes her kids’ favorite nuts, seeds, and dried fruit together in a baggie.
Kids tired of sandwiches might love a wrap. Oliveira’s son Jake loves this one: a whole-grain tortilla with peanut butter (use sunflower seed butter for children with nut allergies), sliced banana, and mini dark chocolate chips. She said she uses dark chocolate because it has more nutritional value than milk chocolate.
Yet some kids — even the kids of chefs — still prefer sandwiches. “His favorite lunch is so simple, but really delicious,’’ said Todd Winer, chef at Pastoral, about his 11 year-old son, Julian. Pastoral was recognized as a top lunch spot for kids on Boston magazine’s Best of Boston list this year. “It is just a peanut butter sandwich served on really good bread with slices of peaches.’’