The littlest luncher: Packing school lunch ideas to keep kids interested

Photo by Andrea Hubbell. Photo by Andrea Hubbell.

Getting back to the school routine is fun for about a week and then it starts to feel like Groundhog Day. Varied meals get my foodie daughter, Maisie, and me going each morning. Breakfast is some variation of fruit, yogurt, and oats or whole grains, and dinner’s based on the season and how much time I have to prepare it. So that leaves lunch—my least favorite meal of the day, but probably Maisie’s favorite for two reasons: 1) it often involves cheese, and 2) it always involves picking, dipping, or stabbing with a toothpick.

I don’t know a kid who doesn’t like cheese. Unfortunately, Maisie’s favorite is the imported and expensive Parmigiano-Reggiano. She could eat it every day and would, if I hadn’t mandated an every-other-day rule to save us from a $20/week habit.

On the blessed “cheese days,” Maisie gets a pile of chunks or shavings (I ask her which she wants each day to give her the guise of control) with either baguette (another expensive habit, as she likes the ends best), grilled multigrain tortilla, or crackers, and a rotating variety of fresh fruit and seasonal veggies.

Everything goes into little containers which all go into a tin and she helps me decide what “colors” we need each day. If there are green cucumber sticks, chickpeas, and red grape tomatoes, she might add some purple pepper strips or mini carrots.

With fruit, no matter how novel it is to eat an apple or plum whole, I’ve learned that kids eat more when it is sliced. They don’t have to work so hard and the way some fruit is grown these days, one piece is just too much.

Picking through little piles of different tastes, textures, and colors is as much about fun as it is about nutrition. And then there’s the dipping and sticking part. Make the chickpeas into hummus, mash avocado with lime juice, or add a dish of balsamic vinegar and you’ve created a healthful pool for kids to dunk everything into, including (hopefully clean) fingers. Pack a toothpick and they’ll get busy making veggie shish kabobs. And because everyone else’s food is always more appealing than one’s own, your kids may assert some positive peer pressure.

Non-cheese days mean a nut- or seed-butter sandwich (sunflower seed butter is a great alternative for kids with nut allergies or students in nut-free classrooms) plus veggies and fruit. I sometimes ditch the bread and slather almond butter onto apple slices or celery sticks with slices of dried fig on top for an updated ant-on-a-log. Of course, Maisie usually calls my bluff by requesting cheese as an afternoon snack.

The quality of school lunches improve with every initiative, but just as I value teaching Maisie to take the time to cook with fresh, wholesome ingredients, I think she ought to learn to make her own colorful, non-processed version of a Lunchable to relish and share with her friends. As long as they don’t eat too much of her cheese.

Maisie’s Roasted Red Pepper and White Bean Dip
Makes about a cup
1 15 oz. jar roasted red pepper, drained
2 tbs. tahini
1 15 oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 tsp. sweet paprika
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
2 tbs. lemon juice
1 small garlic clove
Purée all ingredients in a food processor until smooth and serve with veggies, pita chips, rice crackers, or as a spread on a sandwich or wrap.