The Foodlife Journey: The Friendly Lunchbox
When it comes to the contents of your kid’s lunchbox you can break (almost) all the rules. Don’t try so hard. Stop wringing your hands about your lack of creativity. If your kid eats a PBJ every day for the next five years, it’s okay. Lunch is the meal at which you can apply your impulses to short-order cook. Can you believe it? Has the moving stress gotten to me and I’ve finally gone mad?!
I’m not saying that lunch doesn’t matter. Rather, lunch should just be a bit more carefree. It should be a large snack between a more sizable breakfast and dinner. Let’s face it. You can’t make your kid finish his lunch. You’re not there! He’s also terribly distracted by the social setting of lunchtime. So lunches should be friendly, nutritious and simple.
I know many schools have the option of a school-prepared lunch. I’ll forfeit that topic to Jamie Oliver. My bottom line on lunch is that so few schools prepare nutritious meals that it isn’t even worth pretending that’s an option. We should all be sending lunch with our kids. No, don’t tell me you don’t have time or that your school uses “whole grain crust and organic cheese” on their cafeteria’s pizza. Bumpkus.
So many of the most thoughtful parents find bag-lunches so frustrating. They worry that their kids will get hungry. They’re bored with making the same thing every day. They’re offended when food comes back uneaten or confused about what their kids actually eat. They want to pack a complete meal in one lunchbox and make sure their kid actually consumes all the food groups in one sitting. Lawdy, lawdy. It’s just too much.
Lunch should be FRIENDLY:
Pack your kids food that they will eat without coercion. If you need to transition your kid from, say, white bread to whole grain, start the change at home. When he’s used to it at home, then you can start packing it in his lunch.
Don’t offer your kid overwhelming choices about what to eat first or the perceived expectation of needing to finish a lot of food. Keep it small. Rule of thumb: two items of food.
Lunch should be NUTRITIOUS:
Duh. You already know this. But what do our ideas about “nutritious” actually mean?
The foods you pack for lunch should be low in sugar and minimally processed. That’s all we’re aiming for. Low sugar is important to keep your kids from having a massive afternoon sugar crash. You want their food to keep them energized, attentive and alert. Minimally processed food is almost always nutrient dense. Your kids are distracted at lunchtime and are unlikely to eat a large volume of food.
It can be hard to get a balance of nutrition at this one meal. This is why I rely on the wisdom of one of my favorite mantras: “Pay attention to the nutritional value of the day and the week, not the meal.” If you have trouble getting protein into your kid’s lunch, don’t go packing a “protein bar” to absolve you. Let that go. Unless your kid is starved when he gets home, there’s nothing to worry about. If he is starving, he probably does need some protein. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Lunch should be SIMPLE:
It makes me laugh to see the “cute” lunch suggestions that every parenting magazine comes out with in their September issue. Aside from the absurdity of the time spent making food look cute, they all seem to have four items that all require prep or time. Because I have four kids and make a substantial breakfast, I’m not about to spend 5 minutes to style my kid’s cheese and crackers to look like Peter Cottontail.
I offer the kids one hearty item and one “side.” That’s it.
I apologize. I have a visceral hatred for “cute” food. I feel the same way about costumes for toy dogs and overly-styled desserts.
Our practical reality
Here’s how this plays out around here. I weave the preparation of the kids’ lunches into breakfast making. While one side of the pancakes cooks, I nuke Sophie’s soup. Their lunches are done and set beside the front door before we sit down to breakfast. I don’t want to feel hurried when I’m enjoying breakfast with the kids.
Sophie loves a hot lunch. Most of the time, she has soup- which she brings in a Thermos. I make a large batch of soup, portion it into vacuum-sealed bags that contain about a week’s portion and defrost as needed.
The rest of the time, she gets leftovers. I warm the thermal container with hot water and let it stand. I scoop the leftovers- this week, she had ravioli with a vegetal marinara and some Masaman Curry with brown rice- into a 2 cup Pyrex measuring cup to the 1 ½ C line. It gets nuked and put into the warmed container.
Max has eaten PB&J on whole grain bread for the past 2 years with almost no deviation. He often complains that he’s sick of it. I tell him I’d be glad to give him anything else that is nutritious. He’ll proffer that maybe he could have a bag of dry Cheerios instead of a sandwich. My response is, “Only if you’ll eat some veggies or something else nutritious along with that.” I had that conversation monthly last year. This year, he’s branched out into roast turkey sandwiches with mustard. I guess he’s a sandwich guy.
Both kids then get some sort of “side.” For us, it is usually yogurt or applesauce and sometimes they get a bottle of kefir or some cheese. Occasionally, they’ll get a cookie or sweet.
Suggestions for Your Practical Reality
For the Main:
Nutbutter and Jelly Sandwiches: Why does it have to be peanut butter? We alternate peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter and (my personal favorite), walnut butter. Almond butter with cherry preserves is amazing. Walnut butter and strawberry jam is a combo that never tires. Cashew butter with apricot jam is a revelation.
Cold cut sandwiches: A great choice, especially for the active kid who really needs the protein at lunch. However, there’s a catch. There’s some compelling evidence that nitrates in cold cuts significantly raise one’s risk of a number of cancers, especially colorectal. Should you book a colonoscopy for your kid if he’s had a ham sandwich every day for the past 5 years? Oh, please. But you should remember that you are building your kid’s palate and tastes. So here’s the bottom line: Go for cuts from whole pieces of meat such as turkey and chicken breasts or roast beef. Limit smoked or cured meats, including sausages, bologna, and ham. Dodge the reconstituted meats. How do you know the difference? The length of the ingredient list.
Finally, only keep only one week’s worth of deli meat in the fridge. Either buy once a week or freeze extras. You want to avoid listeria. Blech.
Goat Cheese Sandwich: A favorite of my kids. True confession: I hate the stuff.
Whole grain bagel with Neufchatel: Neufchatel is a low-fat cream cheese. Sometimes I buy the fruity stuff and sometimes I just buy the plain stuff and add a layer of natural fruit. Sophie ate this every day of first grade. By second grade, she was ready for soup and leftovers.
Mac ‘n’ cheese: Your kid loves mac ‘n’ cheese. You buy the “natural” organic kind. [There is nothing natural about powdered cheese, but I will control my impulse to digress] Is there anything wrong with that? Not totally. Mix in some more nutritious foods. Add chopped cooked broccoli florets. Will Jennifer cry because she doesn’t want the broccoli in it? Maybe. Offer her a sandwich. If she insists on the mac ‘n’ cheese, tell her it has to have something nutritious mixed in. Maybe you compromise by only putting a very small amount of broccoli in it.
Other things that taste nice mixed in to mac ‘n’ cheese are asparagus, edamame, and hearty greens like kale and collards (the greens are especially good with some bacon bits, too).
Leftovers: For the hot lunch lover, there’s a home-cooked option. I described how I do this above. It feels great to put leftovers to good use and offers a lot of variety through the week.
Soups: I make large batches and freeze. Just remember to keep starches separate from the soup for storage. If you don’t, they’ll become waterlogged and disintegrate over time in the soup, giving it more of the consistency of porridge.
For the extras:
Applesauce: I make my own during the fall and freeze it for the year. I keep it interesting by adding fruit purees. Blackberry applesauce is a personal favorite. You could stir fruit purees into commercial applesauce as well.
Yogurt: To save money, I buy large containers of vanilla yogurt and then portion it out into a container each morning. To add variety, sometimes I’ll put a few tablespoons of granola in a separate snack bag that they will mix in to make the yogurt crunchy. As a treat, the kids get kefir (a thin, drinkable yogurt) that is full of probiotics and has a reasonable amount of sugar. They’re doggoned expensive, though.
Fresh fruit: Delicate fruits like peaches or plums get wrapped in a dish towel to prevent bruising.
Cheese: String cheese is convenient. We alternate with all kinds of other cheeses, such as aged Gouda and Manchengo.
Fresh Vegetables: For cryin’ out loud. Cut up your own damned carrots. It’s just not that difficult and baby carrots taste absolutely gross. We’re developing young palates, you know… Also, hummus for dipping the veggies is a great way to add protein to a lunch.
Nuts: Pistachios are fun to shell. Any kind of nut is a great way to accommodate that need for crunchiness while also offering healthy proteins.
A hardboiled egg: A nice packet of protein and fat to keep your kid’s belly from grumbling during math class.