Jen Oh

Lunch-the dreaded meal

One of the best compliments we receive is that our 4 year old son is a great eater. He actually prefers veggies and fruits and eats a lot. He’s as adventurous as you can hope a 4 year old would be and will at least try a bite of anything new. This is something our family has agreed upon – all of us – we don’t have to finish any dish, but you must at least try a few bites of anything new.

I was really surprised when his preschool teacher informed me that food was one of the biggest issues they have at the school. Many kids don’t eat, are picky, or have bad foods provided. I found out that one of the biggest questions parents have for the teacher is – what should I pack for my child to eat? What is quick, easy, nutritious, and that my kids will eat?

From talking to his teacher, some of the biggest issues parents have when it comes to lunch are: needs to be quick and easy to make, not the same thing every day, and what to make that is both healthy and will be eaten. We got extremely lucky – I bought a laptop lunch box when my son started preschool. It isn’t necessarily the lunch box that makes our son eat his lunch, but it is the style of lunch box. It’s a bento box. It’s a 4 compartment unit that all fits in a lunch box case. We now have a few different lunch box/carriers that he takes to school because of wash and use, but we still adhere to the bento style. I recently read an article in a magazine where a mom lamented on the bento style. Her daughter was picky and lunches were uneaten – for almost the entire year. After reading the article, I realized – it wasn’t the bento style, it was the lunch making experience that was setting her and her daughter over the edge.

Based on the Laptop lunch box – this Bento style is 4 compartments which we divide into 4 different food categories. In my son’s lunch, he gets a fruit, a veggie, a main item (sandwich, grain, pasta, etc), and an “anything goes” item. By thinking in this way, lunch becomes so much easier. I have heard many parents complain that their kids just don’t like fruit or veggies. But, maybe there a few that they’ll eat. Or maybe you can convince them to eat them. Many kids love to dip – why not pack carrot sticks with hummus or salad dressing to dip? Or what about celery sticks with cream cheese or peanut butter? Start by thinking of veggies and fruits your kids will eat. Picking easy to pack items for each category makes it quick. For instance, one day may be strawberries, a pickle and cherry tomatoes, sandwich (homemade bread, homemade jam, and sunflower butter – since his school is nut free), and the anything goes – a hardboiled egg for protein. In this lunch, the hardest part is washing the strawberries and tomatoes, peeling an egg, and making a pb&j (sub for the sunflower butter if you’re needing nut free).

We also use simple snap & lock style containers too. Again, just use each container like you would a section of a bento. Even leftovers work great. We love Mexican food and when we go out for burritos, I take the leftovers and scooped the inside into a container so he has rice, beans, salsa and guacamole as his main item. Mexican food is also great because of all the hidden veggies (tomatoes, corn, avocado – I throw any veggie that can be cut small in that I’ve got in the house) and the beans for protein. Almost all kids love it and it’s easy to pack and eat at room temperature. Quesadillas, wraps, and burritos are great. I have found that it’s a good idea to toast the wrap or burrito a little (I just pop them into my toaster oven). This helps prevent them from getting soggy before lunchtime.

My son also loves pickles and I count that as a veggie. Naturally fermented pickles (not made using vinegar) are also probiotics, which gives him an extra nutritional boost. I try to make sure we eat at least one food that’s a probiotic every day: yogurt, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.

Almost any leftover works – when we roast a chicken, I save a drumstick for his lunch the next day. He loves to eat drumsticks –so this is quick and easy, but you could also just cut up some leftover chicken too. Same would go for any roast, casserole, etc. When we make hamburgers or meatballs, we’ll make some just the size for his lunch container to take the next day.

Dried fruit and veggies are another great option. Many kids like them and they don’t view them as “fruit and veggies”. We also love Just Tomatoes fruit and veggies. The crunchy corn and peas are a huge hit. The peas are like wasabi peas without the spice and the corn is like corn nuts without the seasoning and preservatives. Their fruit is yummy too. They are all freeze dried –so all the fruit and veggies retain a crunchiness you don’t find in dried fruit. The strawberries are like candy. Since they are 100% fruit or veggie with no preservatives/additives, I often add them to his lunch when I feel he could use another snack or is lacking in a fruit/veggie in any of the “sections”.

Another quick main meal we make is rice or pasta mixed with veggies. I admit – I buy frozen bags of organic mixed veggies. They’re awesome. The veggies are cut very small (also great for my 14 mo old daughter) and they work well in tons of dishes. I’m Asian and we constantly have rice in the rice maker. I’ll take rice; throw some mixed veggies in, a little butter and seasonings and mix. My son also loves kimchi – so I’ll mix a little in too. Plus, we get some naturally fermented tofu from the farmer’s market and so I’ll add some too. I don’t have to cook anything. If we have leftover pasta from dinner – I’ll warm the pasta, mix in some of the mixed veggies, butter, and seasonings. Both are super easy to put together in the morning.

Of course, we have stand bys for each category – but we try to mix it up just enough that our son isn’t eating the same exact thing every day. There are some things that he wouldn’t mind eating everyday – strawberries, hard boiled eggs, cherry tomatoes – which we do pack a lot for him. Why not? They are still great foods for him to eat. We also include our son in the lunch making process. Almost every morning, we ask him what he wants or prefers – sandwich or rice, etc. We also let him know if we’re sending him to school with something he loves; so, he’ll be excited for it. I have discovered that my son almost prefers his most foods room temp to cold rather than hot, which is great for packed lunches. We do have some awesome stainless steel insulated containers for warm foods, but we use them about 2-3 times a month because of time in the morning. What we stay away from are processed foods. I couldn’t believe how many 100 calorie snack packs I see in other kid’s lunches. Or worse – Doritos and Cheetos – which both contain MSG!

To make it easy for us, we came up with an unwritten list of favorites in each category.

Fruit: Grapes, strawberries, plums, pluots, apples, peaches, nectarines, and super easy – dried fruit: raisins, apricots, banana chips, etc

Veggies: cherry tomatoes, peas, broccoli, carrots, corn, pickles, even salsa – this is not including the mixed veggies I tend to throw in many of the “main meals” we make

Main meal: sandwich: meat and cheese or sunflower butter/jam – we toast the bread so it doesn’t get soggy, pasta with veggies, rice with veggies, chicken over rice or pasta (with mixed veggies in it), pita & hummus (kids love to dip), cheese/meat/crackers (think antipasta platter), and dinner leftovers.

Anything goes: anything from above works, crackers, popcorn (remember it’s a whole grain), hard boiled egg, string cheese, yogurt, and sometimes we even do cookies (usually homemade)

By creating lunches thinking this way – it’s easy for us to be able to share lunch duty. My husband and I take turns and we both know that our son will have a balanced diet. Even when you’re pressed for time, there are super quickies in each category that don’t need any prep work. When my daughter was born, my mom had to help out and it was easy for her to make his lunch, too. Explaining that he needed a veggie, a fruit, a main item, and an anything goes was all I needed to say and know he’d get a good meal.

Let’s face it, most of us don’t pre-make lunch the night before and are running late in the mornings. Using this method to creating lunch makes it so much faster, plus guarantees that the food you are still sending your child to school with is nutritious, yummy, and a balanced meal.