Looking for new ways to step up your lunch box game? Authors and moms Kate McMillan and Sarah Putnam Clegg have you covered. In their book The Lunch Box, they offer smart strategies and recipes for on-the-go lunches that are healthy, great-tasting – and super-fun to eat.
Here are some of our favorite ideas from the book to help you start the school year off right, along with more tips from the authors in our exclusive Q&A.
Use these time-saving tips and creative combinations to introduce new flavors to this lunchtime staple.
How old are your kids? What are the biggest challenges for packing their lunches?
Kate: I have three little girls; Emily and Grace (10-year-old twins) and Caroline (5). My biggest challenge in packing lunch is time (isn’t this everyone’s biggest challenge!). I find that a little bit of advanced preparation early in the week makes lunch-box-packing go a whole lot smoother! I love to bake with my girls on Sundays so that I have muffins or scones to pack all week. I always have hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator and plenty of fresh fruit on hand. From there, I can usually fill in with leftovers or a super-fast sandwich or wrap.
Sarah: My kid is 7 (2nd grade). The biggest challenge is not thinking of it as an annoying chore, day in and day out. It’s most annoying if it comes back uneaten, so I try to keep a positive mindset and make it varied and appealing.
What’s your go-to lunch to pack on a busy day?
Sarah: A bento box with a variety of finger foods: hummus, pita bread or carrots, fruit, cheese, and whatever else I can find in the fridge. Or, I’ll heat up leftovers from dinner, like pasta or risotto or a mild curry. (At night I pack dinner leftovers in a small Pyrex microwaveable tupperware and then zap it in the morning so it won’t be hard and cold at lunchtime. You could also use a Thermos jar.)
Kate: There are a few staples that are always in my refrigerator: tortillas, hummus, peanut (or almond) butter and shredded cheese. It only takes seconds to make a tortilla wrap with hummus and avocado slices or a tortilla filled with melted cheese and sliced turkey. My kids love it when I send peanut butter, honey and banana sandwiches. Served on whole-wheat bread, this is a great way to get whole grains and protein into your kid’s lunches.
What are your kids’ favorite lunches?
Sarah: Mac & cheese, PB&J (or AB&J, with almond butter), or an avocado roll.
Kate: Anytime I can send lunch in the thermos, I know it will come back empty. Ah, the return of an empty thermos might be in the top 5 most-satisfying-mom-moments! I send soup, leftover pasta, tiny meatballs (a toothpick for scooping makes this fun), ramen noodles (with chicken stock, edamame and a bit of shredded chicken), steamed dumplings (we love the chicken-cilantro mini wontons in the frozen section at Trader Joe’s!), even yogurt (with a granola and berries on the side).
What ingredients/foods have you been surprised to find your kids love?
Sarah: Dried seaweed snack. All the kids in his class gobble it up. He’ll also eat nigiri sushi, which seems crazy except when you consider that uncooked fish is very mild in flavor. I’ll pick some up once a week (and I do pack THAT with a cold pack, like anything else!).
Kate: My kids love those mini yellow, red & orange bell peppers. They are very sweet and very colorful! I send them as is (not even cut up or with a dip) and they tell me to send more for their friends the next day!
What are some helpful staples/ingredients to have on hand for packing lunches? What about supplies?
Kate: The most helpful ingredients to me are those that can easily go from my freezer to the lunch box. Things like soup and chili freeze beautifully. Mini quiches, muffins and scones can be baked ahead and frozen for up to 2 weeks. My best suggestion for successful freezing is to freeze things like soup and chili in single serving sizes — this makes defrosting so much easier and faster! And when all else fails, we always have Annie’s mac & cheese in the house. In the time it takes to boil water and cook the pasta, my kids have eaten breakfast.
Sarah: I try to keep a range of good protein and fruit options on hand for lunches: nut butter, hummus, whole nuts, fresh mozzarella balls (bocconcini), yogurt, roast chicken or turkey for protein. I do buy yogurt squeezes sometimes, but just putting yogurt in a small container is more ecological and cost-effective — not to mention less sugary. For fruit, I still do little plastic applesauce containers get prepped mixed fruit at the market, because I think the variety is so appealing and it’s a time-saver. Every few weeks I make up and freeze batches of little burritos with refried black beans, Cheddar, and avocado: thaw in the fridge overnight, and reheat in the oven before school to avoid sogginess. The lunch of last resort is the good old PB&J on wheat. My kid would probably eat it happily every day.
I think it’s really helpful to have a variety of cute containers for lunches. It keeps packing lunch more fun for me and also inspires me to pack a range of different foods. I stop by the Japanese dollar store now and then, or check Amazon for cute bento-style plastic or metal boxes in different sizes, as well as smaller tupperware-type containers. I do like the Pyrex ones for reheating and not having to repack, as I hate putting plastic in the microwave and metal is a no-no. This year I’m trying out easylunchboxes.com because I like the fact that you don’t have to turn the bento-type box sideways to pack it in the backpack (which always mashes the food). I have a variety of kid-size utensils, cute little cloth napkins, and metal Kleen Kanteen bottles for drinks.
Any tips for making a lunch box personal and special?
Kate: Just like adults, kids eat with their eyes first! Lots of colorful tupperware, frilly toothpicks, fun skewers, twirly straws and the occasional note will get any kid excited. I also ask my kids almost every day: how was lunch today? I want them to eat what I pack so if there is something that isn’t working in the lunch box, I want to know.
Sarah: Sometimes I write out a joke or riddle on a Post-it and put it in the lunchbox. Kids love jokes. Or, I’ll write a message backwards.
What are some creative ways to turn leftovers into lunches?
Sarah: I love leftovers! I just heat ’em up and send ’em out, but I suppose you could make the old favorite–spaghetti sandwich. Kids love wacky. I might send that with the pasta and bread separate and let them assemble. Or, keep colored tortillas on hand to invent a new wrap. You can make leftovers into little sandwiches on cocktail bread with cocktail picks in them.
Kate: Leftovers are the best because a little bit can go a long way. Add leftover rotisserie chicken to ramen noodles. If you have leftover bacon, use it in a wrap with sliced turkey and cheese. Leftover rice and beans are my favorite ingredients. I like to send rice warm in the thermos. Then I send along cut up avocado or cucumber slices and a package (Trader Joe’s again!) of dried seaweed. My kids love to make their own “sushi” at school. I also warm beans, put them in a thermos, and cover with shredded cheese and a bit of mild salsa. Then I send tortillas chips on the side for dipping.
How do you get your kids excited about eating healthy foods?
Kate: I am a big believer in getting your kids involved in the kitchen. Let them help; let them choose! I often hand my kids one of my cookbooks (one with a lot of pictures) and tell them to pick dinner. Then I have them help me with the shopping and the cooking. Having kids involved in the process will get them excited and give them a sense of pride when they see the project through.
Sarah: Make it visually appealing and colorful, because we eat with our eyes first. Cut things up so they are small and cute, let them eat with their fingers, and give them a choice of different healthy items.
Find more recipes and tips in The Lunch Box, by Kate McMillan and Sarah Putnam Clegg.