Stumped for lunchbox suggestions? Here are some strategies that have made packing lunch easier and less stressful.
Make the entire lunch, except the sandwich, the night before. Nobody wants to rush around at 7 a.m. assembling a meal.
Break down the meal into the following components: sandwich, fresh fruit, something crunchy, something sweet and a drink. For the sandwich, I always use a whole-grain bread or roll. For a bit of variety, I use a whole-wheat tortilla to make a wrap or pita bread to stuff. Or I might make quesadillas in the evening, which are great the next day. These can be as simple as cheese pressed inside a tortilla or made a bit more interesting with salsa, beans or grilled vegetables. Simply heat a nonstick pan over medium heat, add a tortilla, sprinkle with shredded cheese and fold over the tortilla when almost melted.
Try pita breads stuffed with egg salad, cashew butter and jelly or bananas, grilled vegetables and hummus or other spreads like artichoke and spinach or baba ghanoush. There are dozens of great spreads on the market.
Crunchy snacks can be any nuts alone or mixed into a homemade trail mix. Don't buy the pre-roasted salted nuts. Instead, purchase them raw or simply roasted from a natural foods store. They are always fresher and naturally sweeter.
I like to combine different nuts and seeds like almonds, pumpkin seeds, pecans, cashews and walnuts with dried fruit like cranberries, chopped mangoes, apple rings, blueberries or cherries. If you want a touch of decadence, add some chocolate chips or other bulk chocolate treat, which can be purchased in the same natural food markets.
There are also many natural chips, crunchy snacks and popcorn snacks available in supermarkets. It's nice to see the mainstream snack companies making cheese snacks and chips without artificial color or MSG. They seem to be listening to parents who want something more healthful for their kids.
Invest in 2- to 3-ounce plastic souffle cups with lids to pack peanut butter, salsa and other dips and dressings on the side so kids can dip and spread themselves. I sometimes make a simple cucumber or carrot salad and pack it along with the sandwich and a plastic fork.
Also, I freeze water or juice overnight and the next morning place the frozen drink in the lunch to keep the rest of the food cool in the insulated box. Remember, this perishable lunch sits for hours in the classroom or locker before being eaten. Think food safety.
Below are some lunch-time favorites for you to try on your kids.
—By Chef Steve Petusevsky