© Svetlana Kolpakova | Dreamstime.com
I love summer break — road trips, long twilights, sneaking bites from my kids’ popsicles. By now, though, I’m okay with seeing the kids head back to school. What I hate is returning to the morning rush. In particular, I dread the return of the lunchbox.
Division of labor helps. My older son packs the lunches every morning, so I do the behind-the-scenes work of supplying healthy, filling foods my kids will actually eat when I’m not watching.
Of course, sandwiches and quesadillas with cheese or cold cuts and whole-grain bread or tortillas can provide good protein and complex carbs. Throw in some grapes and carrots and you’re all set. But mixing it up provides nutritional variety and stretches young palates. So I try to keep a selection my kids can mix and match in a lunchbox with compartments or in small, reusable containers. My son knows to aim for at least one food in each category. Here are some of our standbys, which shift with the seasons.
Try These Lunch Box Options
Fruits/dried fruits: Grapes, apple or pear slices, clementines, sliced oranges, trimmed strawberries, chunks of melon or mango, cherries; in a pinch, raisins or dried apricots
Vegetables: Cherry tomatoes, bell pepper slices, carrot sticks, sliced cucumbers, sugar snap peas, steamed or roasted green beans or broccoli
Carbs: Cooked and chilled brown rice, quinoa, pasta, or Asian noodles; whole-grain bread, tortillas, rice cakes, crackers, granola
Proteins: Chunks or thin slices of leftover chicken, beef, or pork; chickpeas, edamame; drained canned tuna, cubes of ham; yogurt; cheese
An attractive array of finger foods like these is especially good for younger kids who don’t like mixing. Older kids might appreciate a big salad, though, since they can put a good-sized serving of it into a container, add some yogurt or a piece of fruit, and be done with it. Make it for supper the night before, and then have your kid pack an extra container. It’s grown-up enough for you, too.
The trick here is to taste, taste, taste, as you go. Don’t be afraid of salt. Invite the kids to help you — they just might love it.
Big, Crazy Tasty Lunch-Rut-Busting Salad
This salad borrows from tabouli, panzanella, and pasta salads. I’m giving you rough proportions you can adjust to suit your preferences. Resist the temptation to use bottled salad dressing. Your own vinaigrette will cost less and taste better!
- A cup or two of cold cooked grains, such as quinoa, brown or white rice, bulgur, couscous, or as much as a loaf of hearty country, French, or Italian bread, sliced and toasted or grilled, then rubbed with peeled cloves of garlic and torn or cut into bite-sized chunks
- Onions: either coarsely chopped white and light green parts of scallions, or a sweet red or white onion sliced and chopped, then soaked in salted ice water while you prepare the other vegetables
- A couple of tomatoes, any kind, cut into bite-sized pieces (or up to a pint of cherry tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise), tossed with a generous pinch of salt and set aside
- Cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and cut into bite-sized pieces
- Chopped herbs, such as fresh mint or parsley in large quantities, and/or fresh or dried oregano or thyme in smaller amounts
- Additional vegetables: roasted broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower; chopped radishes or bell peppers; grilled or roasted eggplant or zucchini
- Proteins (optional): Sliced leftover steak, shredded or cubed chicken, ham, or pork roast; cubed, crumbled, or grated cheese (feta and mozzarella are great here); chickpeas; canned tuna or sardines
- Half a cup of hearty vinaigrette (see below) to start; you may need more
Once you’ve got the onion soaking and the tomatoes sitting with salt, mix up a vinaigrette in a small bowl. Start by whisking together 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, a generous pinch of salt, and up to a heaping teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Whisk in 6 tablespoons of olive oil and either minced garlic or shallots. You’re going to add salt, pepper, more vinegar or lemon juice, and/or oil to taste once you start assembling the salad.
Place the grains or bread chunks in a large bowl. Drain the tomatoes, reserving the salty juice, and add them to the bowl. Drain the onions and add them, followed by the cucumbers and herbs. Toss with about half the vinaigrette, and taste, adding more liquid as needed. (This is why you saved the tomato water, especially if you used toasted bread, which will soak up much more liquid than grains.) Add any other vegetables or proteins you’re using, then taste again. If you find you still need more flavor, moisture, or tartness, add salt, oil, or either lemon juice, tomato water, or vinegar and repeat the toss/taste cycle as needed.