I admit that this week’s column topic choice is motivated by a bit of self-interest. My own kids, aged nine and eight, ate mostly school lunches last year. I would pack two to four elaborate snacks for them every day, but lunch was whatever the school cafeteria was serving, an arrangement acceptable to them and to me. At $2.75 a pop this year, I’m thinking I need to just supplement those snacks with a healthy protein main, and I can save the dough. And there’s the rub.
Sandwiches should fit the bill, you’d think: filling, easy to make, the basic brown-bag staple. But neither of my kids is a big sandwich fan. One pulls out the salami and leaves the bread, and the other won’t touch any sandwich at all, and any I pack always come back untouched. Neither can stand PB&J and they’re getting a little old for the sandwich-cut-in-dinosaur shapes ruse. I may resort to baloney, American cheese and Miracle Whip on Wonder, reviled by me but loved by kids everywhere. Hey, if it works, there’s hope. But figuring there has to be a healthy, tastier option, I recently set off in a sea of research to explore other options.
Which resulted in serious TMI, or Too Much Information. There’s a glut of ideas out there that I had never thought of, some good, some not. I realize I have to let go of my aversion to cold leftovers and stop overlaying my own persnickety food preferences over my kids’. Some suggestions that made me shudder might be welcomed by my vitamin-deprived kids. And there is plenty of food for thought, so to speak, enough to start the school year with a resolve for me to do better with my kids’ lunches this year. And maybe even my own.
I began with my own school-lunch memories, triggered by an informal Facebook poll of siblings, friends old and new, and fellow local moms. I begin with the tastiest school sandwiches I recall most fondly from my childhood. One was peanut butter and bacon on whole wheat, which is much, much better than it sounds; trust me on this one. The other was exotic in the Seventies in my circle: an onion bagel with cream cheese and lox. I loved it then and love it still. Oddly I have never packed either of my classic sandwiches for my kids’ lunches. Maybe I will have to try now.
One local mom told me that one of her little kids loves turkey, lettuce, tomato, red onion and yellow mustard on wheat bread. Vegetarian friends suggested cream cheese and cucumber or spreads based on veggies like eggplant or artichokes. A food-writer friend suggested layering a wrap with “thinly sliced turkey breast, shredded carrots, a favorite cheese, maybe some spinach leaves and dried cranberries, depending on the child. I’ve even made peanut butter and banana wraps — not just for kiddies!” Some parents cut those wraps into attractive pinwheels.
A fellow mom who hails from Spain gives one kid bread with butter and sweet ham, the other tomato rubbed on bread with salt, olive oil and a slice of Manchego cheese. Lucky kids. Another suggested Nutella hazelnut spread in a sandwich, another crab stick salad with tomato and arugula on sprouted wheat bread, and yet another turkey, lettuce and hummus. Further suggestions included Caprese salad sandwiched between two slices of crusty bread or smoked Gouda panini, another “very fresh” cucumbers and tomatoes, with mashed avocado and mayo. Another dear old pal suggested the classic fluffernutter, tuna with sweet relish and potato chips layered in it, sloppy joes wrapped tight in foil, or a turkey meatloaf sandwich (thanks, Chandley, for that and those other tips, too [wink]). Good suggestions all.
I was advised to let kids help with the shopping and preparation of lunches, in order to increase their likelihood of eating them. Some sources suggest using a cool, hip lunch bag of the child’s choosing (although older kids prefer brown bags, studies show). Water or juice can be frozen in order to keep the other stuff cool, and will thaw out for drinking by lunchtime. Dipping is universally popular, whether veggies, fruits (lemon or orange juice keeps apple slices from browning) or carbs from pretzels to pita triangles. Though I personally can’t stand ranch dressing, I plan on buying some to see if it’ll get the kids to eat their veggies.
Think outside the box when it comes to a carb covering for a sandwich filling. Lavash or flour tortillas, perhaps in festive colors, make wraps for anything, whether the pinwheel technique is used or not. Try English muffins, bagels, hot-dog buns, rolls, muffins, pita, focaccia or ciabatta; envelop those fillings in a new way.
As for the fillings, the list is endless. Try chicken, salmon or tuna salad (with canned potato sticks or chow mein noodles for crunch). Whatever cheese your kid likes might be welcome tucked into a sandwich. Try salsa, bean dip (try mild cannellini), mashed avocado, cucumber, roasted peppers, baby spinach, crispy jicama. Tuck in olives or dried cranberries. Lettuce and tomato can be left on the side to reduce sogginess, or as one friend suggested put the tomato between two “walls” of lettuce to keep the juices away from the bread.
But keep it simple. Most kids don’t want a piled-high Dagwood sandwich. Keep the fillings to two or three favorites.
And instead of jelly in the PB&J, try honey, raisins, grated carrot or sunflower seeds. Experiment with other butters like almond or cashew. And don’t forget to round out the meal with something sweet, from any fruit from the mundane to exotic, to an oatmeal raisin cookie full of healthy fiber.
I think the most important thing, more than choosing items based on their health, frugality, ease of preparation or kindness to the planet, is to consider the food preferences of the lunchee. I don’t like cold meatballs, but maybe your kid does. Yours might sneer at veggie sushi from the supermarket for lunch, but one of my kids loves it. And kids are tricky; they like the familiar but you still have to mix it up a bit to avoid boredom.
It’s worth the effort. Think of it as one more healthy, homemade meal full of love in your family’s day.++