Lunch Box 101
Back in the day, it was all about what was ON the lunchbox: Strawberry Shortcake, Popples, My Little Pony. Back to school meant picking out a new lunch box at Gold Circle (that might be a vintage Ohio thing). Also, a fresh pack of crayons (Gold Circle brand had the best pink). I was never a picky eater, so it never mattered what went inside. But the structure was the same, a sandwich, pretzels or chips, cookies and a juice box. I did dread warm orange juice juice boxes that were usually too bitter for my taste. But I went with it. Everything was always packed in a sandwich bag. Always a napkin to keep things neat.
I’m sure everyone thinks their mom made the best PB&J sandwiches, but I think my mom really did make the best…My mouth waters thinking about those sandwiches. She had a knack for putting together the perfect ratio of peanut butter to jelly. A cup of milk to wash it down…perfection! These days, peanut free, gluten free, sugar free and dairy free is the name of the game.
Modern days call for a modern approach to lunch packing. Now, we’re more focused on what goes IN the lunchbox. Make it healthy and make it fun to ace lunches this year. Based on my work cooking with children, I have mapped out some options for parents to overcome the dread of staring at an empty lunch box every morning. Creative lunches are less about smiley faces and more about efficiency. Think about multi-purpose components… how can one ingredient make three lunches? How can you create a plan to have your kids putting their own lunches together. For example: Fill a bento box with taco ingredients that they assemble at lunch time. Ants on a log with ingredients in separate containers. They do the prep work. (Sunday’s the perfect day to prep for the week.) All you need to do is organize it in their lunchbox.
The Co-op sells a variety of containers that will meet your lunch-packing needs. Check out the U-Konserve divided containers and nesting options. We also have insulated food jars so you can send kids to school with a warm lunch. Bento boxes are also great if you want to offer choices and your child isn’t a fan of food touching.
Listen to your what your kids want and work towards a middle ground. If they want mac and cheese, think about how you can add create a healthier version that they’ll love. Below is a recipe for butternut squash mac and cheese that’s always a hit.
Think about how you can use one ingredient and make three different lunches out of it. For example, add butternut squash puree to macaroni and cheese. Sweeten the puree with maple syrup for a side dish. Add to muffin or pancake batter as a third recipe. Keep some cubed to add to tacos as a fourth recipe.
Make Sunday a prep day. The majority of the kids that I work with LOVE to be in the kitchen and preparing food. Yes, it will be messy and yes, sometimes (let’s be real, all the time) it will feel easier if you do it yourself. The thing to remember is – Stay strong! If your kids are having fun and interested, let the little things go. It might not look how you wanted it to look but that’s ok! Chop, dice, julienne…whatever you need to do to make lunch prep faster and less of a hassle. Make a family outing to shop for prep containers that you can use for the week. Give your kids a budget and a shopping list. Go one step further and give them a gift card for them to purchase ingredients for their lunches. Keep their cooking supplies in a special place they can easily access. Empowerment can go a long way toward keeping your kids interested in good food!
If safety is an issue, visit the Co-op’s general merchandise section and pick up a lettuce knife for under $5. This will end fear in the kitchen. While meal prep can be a pain, once you are in the rhythm it will be something everyone will get on board with. Based on what you decide, chop up all the veggies you have purchased and will need for the recipes.
Many recipes want parents to be cute and crafty, but really your kids would be more than happy to take that on!
Charcuterie for kids — meat & cheese slices, fruit and crackers. It’s the modern day Lunchable! This option is interactive and offers your child choice.
Butternut squash mac and cheese — Sure to be a crowd-pleaser at dinnertime. Then, it’ll get a standing ovation when it takes center stage in their lunch the next day.
Nori wraps – Cut each piece of nori into 4 small squares to make one package go a long way. Add seasonal veggies, rice and soy sauce for the center. This is another recipe that offers your child choice.
Leftover pizza — Extend pizza night into lunch time. Make the dough from scratch. Let your child choose their favorite cheese and toppings and build their own! Encourage at least one veggie for the top.
Rainbow wraps — Go to your garden or grocery store. Ask your kids to pick out one fruit or vegetable each color of the rainbow and wrap them up for a colorful lunch!
Mini burritos — Make them with leftovers from taco night. This is yet another opportunity for kids to choose their own fillings and build a burrito perfect for them. In our freezer section we have Maria Ricardo Street Taco Style Tortillas. They’re the perfect size for lunch boxes.
Thermos lunches — Perfect for those cold winter days. Fill with soup or chili and add some bread or cornbread.
Crudite — Add some homemade ranch dressing. Who doesn’t love a dip & crunch lunch?!
Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese
3 cups cubed peeled butternut squash (about one 1 lb squash)
1 1/4 cups fat free, reduced sodium vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups skim milk
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoon plain fat free Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Romano cheese
1/4 cup (1 ounce) finely grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
1 lb uncooked whole grain pasta
Preheat oven to 375°
Combine squash, broth, milk, and garlic in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until squash is tender when pierced with a fork (about 25 minutes). Remove from heat and let cool.
Place the hot squash mixture in a blender. Add salt, pepper, and Greek yogurt. Blend until smooth. Place blended squash mixture in a bowl;stir in cheese. Stir until combined.
Cook pasta. Add pasta to squash mixture, and stir until combined.
Spread mixture evenly into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.
Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add panko, and cook for 2 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from heat; stir in 2 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Sprinkle evenly over the hot pasta mixture.
Bake at 375° for 25 minutes or until bubbly.
Homemade Ranch Dressing
(Recipe from www.ambitiouskitchen.com)
1/2 cup nonfat plain greek yogurt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1 ½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice (or can sub apple cider vinegar)
1/2 teaspoon dried dill or fresh chopped chives
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons water to thin dressing
Add all the ingredients to a bowl or a mason jar and mix until well combined. If using a mason jar, you can simply put the lid on and shake the jar until well combined. Dressing serves 4, 2 tablespoons each.
Pair with your favorite crunchy veggies.