If you – or your kids – are sighing at the thought of yet another year of brown-bagged PB&J, perhaps this is the year to mix up the lunchbox offerings a bit.
Of course, that’s an easy thing to say. It’s a lot harder to execute when the morning rush hits and getting the family out of bed and out the door has all the ease of a multinational military maneuver.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix things up now and then. The trick is to have something from which to draw inspiration – and we don’t mean staring blankly into the refrigerator at 7 a.m.
Our advice? Think globally. The world around, parents every day must figure out fun and healthy ways to feed the little ones. Their answers can be startlingly different than our own, but often are easily adapted. It’s a simple way to get inspired, as well as to expose kids to new cultures.
You might even turn it into a family research project. Each week (or month), let the kids pick a new country and read up on what children there eat for lunch. Start at the library; there have been plenty of child-friendly books published on the subject.
To help you start the year off right, we’ve gathered a few easy ideas.
Japanese farm workers once carried their lunches into the fields wrapped in bamboo leaves, and later in simple wooden boxes. Today, bento boxes have evolved into edible works of art, with Japanese parents – and a growing number of Americans – shaping rice balls into hearts and stars, making meatballs into faces and cutting vegetables into flowers. But even ordinary lunch food takes on a special quality in a bento.
“It’s not so much the type of food, but what I call a bento state of mind,” Debra Samuels, author of My Japanese Table, says via e-mail. “I see the concept of bento as basically a food sampler, a colorful culinary puzzle. The benefits of the bento are smaller portions and greater variety of food.”
To assemble a bento box ( laptoplunches.com sells an especially child-friendly one), Samuels suggests thinking in terms of five colors or five types of food. Kid-sized vegetables such as mini-summer squash, cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices make great dippers for dressing. Wraps with meat and vegetables as well as cheese quesadillas studded with red peppers also are festive.
Part of the bento philosophy is to present the items attractively, Samuels says. Cut sandwiches into triangles and set them on end. Fill mini-muffin cups with favorite shaped pasta. Spear finger foods with fun toothpicks.
“Opening a bento box is like opening a gift,” Samuels says. “When you lift the lid, there is a big ‘Ooh!’ factor.”
In India, lunch is all about the tiffin, a lunchbox made from stackable metal containers that usually are filled, then clamped together. Anupy Singla, author of Vegan Indian Cooking, may send her children to school with rice and lentils, rotis and sabzi (a dry vegetable curry) or a potato-stuffed flat bread.
“Those are the things that stay fresher during the day,” she says. Vegetables like kohlrabi and daikon radish hold up well and complement the other flavors. Sometimes lunch is packed in a tiffin, but often Singla just puts the items in a freezable lunchbox available in many stores and online (PackIt and FlexiFreeze are two popular brands).