Photo courtesy of laptoplunches.com
I'm going to give away my age here. When I was a young kid, lunch boxes were aluminum and came with an aluminum thermos. Sandwiches were wrapped in waxed paper and placed inside with a bag of chips and an apple. We've come full circle now, sort of, and reusable lunch boxes are back in vogue. While brown bags are still a greener choice than plastic bags, since they are a renewable resource and don't pollute the environment like plastic, they don't protect our lunches, and so limit our choices. Those unpainted aluminum lunchboxes of the 1950's may not have been colorful, but they brought with them no lead paint worries. Checking out the lunchbox choices on the internet today, it appears that this is a concern for today's buyers, after a flurry of Chinese-made products have turned up with lead in them. I did find many, though, that were advertised as having been "verified" as lead-free. I know I'm being skeptical, but with no knowledge of how that was accomplished, I would be careful.
A particularly popular option is the space-saving Bento Box type lunch containers called Lunchopolis and Laptop Lunches, which provide tightly packed reusable containers of various sizes and boasts that it is "garbage-free". Some come with reusable drink containers, either made of BPA-free plastic or aluminum. These are now available in colorful reusable insulated bags which allow for a freezer pack to keep your lunch cold.
Another useful tool, for those of us who are trying to work toward more reusable products, is the Wrap N Mat, by Nubius Organics. This sandwich wrap is self-sealing, washable and reusable, which offers to save you and the environment much in discarded plastic wrap, zippy bags and even the waxed paper bags. Enough about the tools, let's get to the food.
With my kids' lunches, boredom was always a problem. Since they were generally picky eaters, my selection was limited and boredom was the result. If only I had the ideas then that I've learned recently. Let's break down a nutritious lunch into categories: protein sources, fruits and vegetables, dairy, snack items and beverages. The lunch box is looking pretty full already, but the key here is to think smaller portions and more variety in the box. This makes lunch look more like a feast, while your kids are getting more nutrition from the variety of selections you offer over the course of a week. Check these out:
Organic lunch meats like those offered by Applegate Farms are in abundance. You can create a cool finger food by rolling 2 slices of organic salami or turkey up with a slice of organic provolone or Swiss. Not only does this look like fun to eat, but it smells enticing, which goes a long way toward killing that boredom. Wraps filled with organic meats and cheeses are also a fun replacement for the sandwich-doldrums and you can sneak in some organic lettuce and tomatoes to add to this nutritious and low-fat main course. Leftover grilled chicken strips are a money-saving leftover and tasty eaten cold, and can even be enjoyed with a dip of BBQ or honey-mustard sauce. Finally, organic beef jerky is high in protein and low in fat, and once again provides that much-needed variety to packed lunches.
Organic or natural nuts of all kinds are available in bulk at most healthier food stores, and can be packed in small quantities to add to the protein punch of a kid's lunch. Other things we often forget are easy-to-make and inexpensive, such as organic boiled eggs, organic yogurt (the drinkable kind is handy for lunches), and granola, which is great when sprinkled in the yogurt. A variety of organic cheese sticks and string cheese make a colorful, calcium and protein-rich lunch choice that is much healthier than the grilled cheese they might buy at the school cafeteria.
Finally, lest I forget, is the most popular sandwich of them all--peanut butter. In one of my earliest posts on this blog I made an all-call for a spreadable organic peanut butter. Since organic pb has to be refrigerated, it tends to become so rigid that spreading it on a slice of bread is nearly impossible. One creative idea was to warm the pb in the microwave for a few seconds before spreading, but this extra step when you're in a rush to make the bus, may be a concern for some. I have found a choice that works for us--Costco Organic Peanut Butter is extra soft to allow it to still be spreadable, even right out of the refrigerator. Last weekend's picnic finally was complete with organic peanut butter and I felt like a success. That had been one of my greatest challenges in turning my kitchen over to organic foods.
Organic Fruits and Vegetables
Organic apples and bananas are widely available now, even in many traditional supermarkets, but remember, we're working on variety, so weave in some other colorful and tasty vitamin-packed possibilities. Organic grapes, too, are becoming more available, in season, and are the ideal finger food for a kid's lunchbox. Organic melons are tougher to find in organic varieties, but when you do, the flavor will astound you. A small container of melon chunks is always a favorite sweet treat.
Organic or all natural dried fruits such as apricots, raisins, dates, and mango not only pack a lot of nutrients, but they are great to keep on hand for days when you're out of fresh items. Other similar choices are fruit leathers, individual apple sauces and the new Fruitabu Smooshed Fruit. Dried fruits and nuts in many varieties make a great trail mix, providing fiber, vitamins, protein and essential fatty acids--the good fat--for energy.
Vegetable sticks are most attractive to the picky eater when you can pack them in a colorful array, such a 1 or 2 french fry sized slices of organic carrot, celery, sweet peppers, cucumber, etc. Provide a ranch dip and they'll eat them "all gone". Of course, we can't forget the old standard peanut butter on celery and dill pickles.
On cold Winter days a wide-mouthed thermos of hot organic soup or stew might be a welcome change, or try putting a stuffed organic baked potato into one. This works well when the thermos has been warmed with hot water first, dried, and the potato is packed inside piping hot, with all its yummy broccoli, ham and cheese toppings--or whatever your youngster likes on his potato.
Crackers, Pretzels and Snack Items
No lunch for my kids was ever complete without the flour-based snack stuff, no matter how hard I tried to slip them an extra piece of fruit, they insisted on a Snyder's pretzel to eat after school on their way to sports practice. Snyder's now makes some organic pretzels; we like the honey wheat flavor the best. Fortunately there are more and more natural and organic choices in our healthy food shops today. I've even found a few better options I can share with you here.
Chunky pieces of granola, eaten as finger food, are popular with my clan, and one of my personal favorites for snacking while I work. Cereal and granola bars are popping up in organic form everywhere; there are dozens of choices in this category.
If you're watching your budget you might keep an eye on the leftovers for muffins, pancakes (roll them up with jelly spread on them), or other homemade breads. If you have a bread maker, this is a great tool to experiment with different organic recipes and provide you with more variety for the lunchbox snacks. I have a great recipe for House Special Organic Cinnamon Raisin Bread that can be found at Blake Bakes, where I am the official Organic Baker. This is an extra-special lunchbox treat for a special occasion like a birthday or an A on test.
This used to be a tough category when I was a child, but now we have freezer packs and wide-mouthed Thermoses, so the sky's the limit. Organic Yogurt, cheese slices and sticks, string cheese, cream cheese spread for muffins and breads, cheese dips and ranch dips for vegetables, kefir for a fruit dip, and even puddings and custard. All of these choices add extra Calcium for your child's growing bones and are high in protein. If you are watching your child's weight, this is the area for extra precaution. Choose low fat or reduced fat items, as dairy can pack a lot of grams of fat in a small serving. Watch the servings; one slice of cheese in a lunch is enough dairy. Save the yogurt for tomorrow when you pack the peanut butter and banana sandwich.
Thermos in hand, all you really need is some iced cold filtered water. I know, I know...my kids weren't always big water drinkers either, except for at sports practice, when they guzzled the stuff like crazy. Tasty and healthy substitutions in the Thermos include juices, lemonade and milk, although the latter can be a tougher clean up. I'd suggest using milk packaged in "juice boxes", if your kids insist on milk, and of course, be sure there is a freezer pack inside the box to keep it cold.
Homemade organic lemonade is so quick and easy to make that even my kids mastered this at a young age. Recipe: Add 1/3 cup of organic sugar and, 1/3 cup of organic lemon juice to a 2 quart pitcher. Add filtered water to the top and stir. If your kids like lemonade varieties, try adding other juices for different flavors like raspberry or cranberry.
In the winter, if the kids complain about the cold drinks, switch it up to hot cider, hot herbal teas or even hot cocoa. Just be prepared with a bottle brush to get the Thermos extra clean.
Have a great school year, and remember: variety is the spice of life!