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Thinking outside the (lunch) box

Published on: September 01, 2009

New ideas for packing school lunchesPacking a lunchbox for a child used to be such a simple thing: peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chips, fruit and, hopefully, a cookie. It's not so easy anymore for parents like Stacy Choi of north Seattle, whose 6-year-old daughter, Sage, won't even eat peanut butter and jelly. "I usually pack her favorite foods in her lunchbox, like cream cheese and bagels, because I know she'll eat them," Choi says, adding that as a parent, she is always looking for new lunch ideas.

Packing school lunches is tricky business, with complications that include short lunch periods with talkative classmates, potential food explosions from shaken lunchboxes and the inevitable food swapping. Add in your child's fussiness and food intolerances, and it can become downright challenging.

It's no wonder that parents end up packing the same lunch week after week. Seattleite Alex Richardson, father of 8-year-old Payton, feels pretty lucky. Payton likes fruits and vegetables and will tell him exactly what she'll eat in her lunchbox, including details like how much mayonnaise she wants on her sandwich. With Alex's busy schedule in construction, however, he doesn't have much time to come up with creative new lunch ideas and feels like Payton's lunch always looks the same. And although he doesn't mind that Payton donates parts of her lunch to the official "sharing tray" in her Broadview-Thomson Elementary School lunchroom, he'd prefer sending a lunchbox with a wider variety of foods that she would enjoy eating, rather than giving away.

Sometimes it's not the child's fussiness that narrows down lunch options but food allergies and/or intolerances. Many schools are nut-free, making the peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunch even more obsolete.

Karen Phillips of Renton finds herself working hard to make creative lunches for her 9-year-old son Jake, who has a dairy intolerance. "Finding the right combination of foods for his lunch is that much harder when he can't have any dairy," Phillips says. She takes advantage of the many available dairy-free lunch products but notes that Jake only likes a few. After much trial and error, Phillips discovered that it was actually easier to just make lunches herself rather than buying overpriced prepackaged products that Jake ended up throwing out.

In addition to coming up with lunches that your child can and will eat, here are some tips for making lunch time successful:

  • Prepare lunches that are easy to unpack during short lunch periods.
  • Check in with your kids often about what they aren't eating or would like to try, as their tastes can change over time.
  • Try introducing new potential lunch foods during play dates with friends who are adventurous eaters.
  • Get your kids involved in the kitchen, as they are more likely to eat what they have helped cook.
  • Send a note in the lunchbox -- a little love with lunch can make their day.

The following meals are made with fresh, healthy ingredients and are low in sugar. Several of the lunch recipes (included below) are even wheat-free and can be easily made with dairy-free alternatives. When looking for different lunches that are both healthy and kid-friendly, it helps to come up with a theme first. Mix and match these lunch time ideas to create your own unique lunchbox menus!

Tea Party Lunchbox

  • Tea sandwiches with cucumbers
  • Blueberry scones
  • Sliced strawberries or cut fruit served with umbrella toothpick

Breakfast Surprise Lunchbox

  • Yogurt parfaits with homemade granola
  • Banana slices and berries
  • Hard-boiled eggs

Picnic Day Lunchbox

  • Sliced hotdogs with ketchup for dipping
  • Potato cheese puffs
  • Cubed watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew

Asian Delights Lunchbox

  • Sesame noodle salad
  • Sweet-n-sour tofu
  • Edamame (try the pre-cooked lunch packages at Trader Joe's)

All-American Fare Lunchbox

  • Grape-nuts chicken salad pita
  • Apple carrot muffins
  • Snap peas, cauliflower or green beans with ranch dip

Mexican Fiesta Lunchbox

  • Quick bake quesadillas
  • Homemade tortilla chips with guacamole
  • Frozen or canned corn

Lunchbox Sides

  • Parmesan broccoli
  • Sliced red peppers and tomatoes
  • Dried cherries, currants or cranberries (a good alternative for those with a sweet tooth)
  • Tofu pockets filled with rice (tofu pockets can be found in Asian grocery stores)
  • Kidney beans, navy beans or chickpeas (kids often enjoy beans as finger foods)
  • Bite-size nori rolls
  • Pita chips served with hummus

Julie Negrin, MS, a Seattle native and graduate of Bastyr University, is a certified nutritionist and the director of culinary arts at the JCC in New York City.

Outside the (lunch) box recipes

Sweet-n-Sour Tofu

1 pound extra firm tofu
1 tablespoon sesame oil (or olive oil)
4 tablespoons tamari
4 tablespoons maple syrup
4 tablespoons water

Wrap tofu in dishtowel for at least 10 minutes to absorb excess moisture. Heat oil in a large, non-stick skillet. Cut tofu into 1-inch cubes and sauté on medium heat until each piece becomes golden.

While tofu is cooking, whisk tamari, maple syrup and water together in separate bowl. Pour over tofu, and continue to cook until majority of sauce is absorbed by tofu.

Homemade Tortilla Chips
2 corn or whole wheat tortillas (works fine if thawed out from freezer)
1/4 cup cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut tortillas into six pie-shaped wedges. Place on lined cookie and brush liberally with oil. Sprinkle with salt and bake 10 minutes. Turn over and bake three more minutes. Cool before packing.

Parmesan Broccoli

1 head broccoli, cut into pieces with most of stalk included
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup cup parmesan cheese, grated
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced (optional)
1/4 cup tsp sea salt
1/4 cup tsp freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 425 F. In a bowl, coat broccoli with olive oil and then toss with parmesan, garlic, salt and pepper. Bake on lined sheet for 15 minutes or until broccoli starts to brown.

Tea Sandwiches
6 thin slices of bread
1 seedless cucumber, sliced paper thin
whipped cream cheese
chives, minced
salt and pepper

Spread each bread slice with a thin layer of cream cheese. Lightly press a single layer of cucumbers into cream cheese. Sprinkle cucumbers with salt, pepper and chives. Cut each sandwich into 4 small squares, triangles or rectangles. Serve immediately, or wrap airtight and refrigerate to serve later.

Blueberry Scones
These scones are very versatile and work well with any dried, fresh or frozen fruit. If your child is a fan of baked goods but doesn't eat much fruit, this is an ideal treat with very little sugar.

2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
5 tablespoons sugar plus 1 for topping
1 tablespoon baking powder
teaspoon salt
stick chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon half and half
cup blueberries (or any other fresh, frozen or dried fruit)

Preheat oven to 425 F. Whisk together dry ingredients. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in 2/3 cup half and half until just moistened. Gently fold in blueberries.

On a lightly floured surface, knead dough gently, 5 to 10 times. Pat into a 1-inch-thick round. Transfer to baking sheet and mark into 8 wedges. Brush with remaining tablespoon half and half and sprinkle with remaining sugar. Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

Adapted from Everyday Food

Yogurt Parfaits with Homemade Granola
If you are tired of reading the labels on cereal boxes and finding loads of sugar, here is a great way to get kids in the kitchen to make their very own healthy and delicious granola. It can be stored in a sealed container for up to a week.

4 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 cups coconut flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup honey
Optional: cup chopped nuts

1 large container vanilla low-fat yogurt
1 pint fresh strawberries or blueberries
banana, sliced

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients except fruit and yogurt. Spread granola in one layer on lined baking sheet. Cook 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool. To assemble parfait, alternate yogurt, granola and fruit in a clear cup.

For the lunchbox: To prevent sogginess, store fruit and granola in separate containers and mix together right before eating.

Potato Cheese Puffs

A healthier, homemade alternative to store-bought Pirate Booty, children of all ages love this recipe. You can make the mashed potatoes a couple of days in advance and then have your children help mix together ingredients and roll into balls.

2 cups mashed potatoes*
2 eggs
1/2 cup parmesan cheese (optional)
Fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
Bread crumbs for coating

Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix potatoes, eggs, cheese, parsley, salt and pepper together well. Roll into balls the size of ping pong balls. Coat each ball with bread crumbs and lay on lined cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or until the outside starts to brown and turn crispy.

* To make 2 cups mashed potatoes, boil 4-5 russet potatoes in large pot of water until very tender. Cool, peel and mash.

Sesame Noodle Salad

This is surprisingly a big hit with kids. They enjoy the toasted sesame oil and, of course, the noodles, which are much higher in fiber than white, refined pasta.

1 8-ounce package of soba noodles
cup cilantro leaves, chopped
cup toasted sesame seeds

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
3 tablespoons tamari or shoyu
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon hot pepper oil (optional)

Optional Additions:
Chopped red cabbage
Cubed tofu
Sliced scallions

Cook soba noodles according to package directions. Drain and rinse in colander. Combine toasted sesame oil, tamari, vinegar, maple syrup and hot pepper oil in small bowl; whisk together. Place drained noodles in a large bowl. Add dressing, cilantro and sesame seeds; toss gently. Add optional chopped vegetables and toss again.

Lunchbox recipe adapted from Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair.

Grape-Nuts Chicken Salad Pita

An interesting twist to the usual, mayonnaise-laden original, this is a great way to make use of leftover baked chicken. The pecans add flavor and protein but can be easily omitted for those with nut allergies.

1 pounds cooked chicken breast, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup seedless green grapes, quartered
1/3 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
cup light canola mayonnaise
teaspoon dried tarragon
teaspoon salt
pepper to taste
2 large whole wheat pitas, halved

Combine the chicken, grapes, pecans, mayonnaise, tarragon, salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl and mix well. Add chicken mixture to each pita half and serve.

Lunchbox recipe from The Mom's Guide to Meal Makeovers by Janice Newell Bissex and Liz Weiss

Apple-Carrot Muffins

Those who think that these muffins sound too healthy to be tasty are always in for a big surprise. It's a great way to get some fiber into your little ones. To serve as dessert, top with cream-cheese frosting.

1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 pinch salt
teaspoon cinnamon
3 eggs
cup sugar
cup vegetable oil
1 cup apple, grated
1 cup grated carrot

In a large bowl, mix the whole-wheat flour, the white flour, the baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

In a separate bowl, blend the eggs, sugar and vegetable until they are well combined. Then add apples and carrots.

Pour wet ingredients in with dry ingredients and stir well. Fill muffin tins (either regular or mini) to about 3/4s full with the batter and bake for 25 minutes.

Recipe by Megan Brenn-White

Quick Bake Quesadillas

For moms who are too busy to stand at the stovetop and make one quesadilla at a time, baking them in the oven is a real time saver. Not quite as crispy as the real thing, most kids don't notice the difference. Try adding in any kind of vegetable or beans for added nutrients.

4 tortillas
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated

Optional ingredients:
black beans

Preheat oven to 350 F. Sprinkle cheese (and optional ingredients) on half of the tortilla. Bake until cheese is melted for 8-10 minutes. Use pizza cutter to divide into wedges.

For the lunchbox: Allow to cool and store in foil. If your kids will eat pizza at room temperature, they are likely to eat quesadillas as well.


2 ripe avocados
Juice of lime
1 plum tomato, gutted and diced
teaspoon salt
teaspoon black pepper

Remove the avocados from the peel. Mash avocadoes in medium bowl and mix in lime juice until creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper, and fold in tomatoes. For best results, chill for at least 30 minutes before eating. Serve on top of quesadillas or with chips.

For the lunchbox: To prevent browning, lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of guacamole in Tupperware.

Bite-Size Nori Rolls

This recipe offers a great opportunity to get your kids involved in the kitchen. They love working with the bamboo mat to make their very own sushi rolls. Just think how lucky you'll be when they are so proficient at it, they can make dinner!

8 sheets of toasted nori seaweed
6 cups short-grain brown rice or sushi rice, cooked and still warm
cup sesame seeds
8-inch-long vegetables: avocado, red bell pepper, cucumber, or blanched carrots, thinly sliced

thin slices of tofu for added protein
soy sauce packets found at Asian grocery stores and restaurants

Set out a small bowl filled with cold water, and a bamboo mat for rolling (covered in plastic wrap to make cleaning easier) or use a piece of waxed paper instead.

Lay one nori sheet on bamboo mat. Use a spoon to spread a very thin layer of rice across the nori, covering all but a 1-inch strip along the edge farthest from you. Lay vegetables horizontally across center of rice layer and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

With your finger, wet with water the top 1-inch layer of nori that has no rice. Roll up mat forward tightly (do not roll the mat into the rice). Complete rolling up by pressing lightly with both hands to seal the edge. Remove from mat and slice into 6 equal pieces using a sharp knife. Repeat with each nori sheet until all the ingredients are used.

Lunchbox recipe from: Healthy Cooking for Kids: Building Blocks for a Lifetime of Good Nutrition by Shelly Null

Pita Chips

These are so delicious that parents tell me that after making them for their kids, they end up eating so many that they have to make a second batch. If you use whole wheat pita, these are much healthier than most store-bought crackers.

2 pitas
olive oil
dried mixed herbs, oregano, basil, etc. (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Slice each pita into eight triangles and pull apart so that each pita yields 16 pieces. Brush each liberally with oil. Sprinkle with herbs and salt. Spread on baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until crunchy and browning around edges.

Lunchbox resources

Lunchbox Websites:
Whole Foods' Kids Recipes
Meal Makeover Moms
The Food Network

Lunchbox Books:
The Mom's Guide to Makeover Meals by Janice Newell Bissex and Liz Weiss
Healthy Cooking for Kids: Building Blocks for a Lifetime of Good Nutrition by Shelly Null
Cooking for the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair
The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas

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