If you’re like me, you can vividly remember sitting at the lunch table in elementary school, watching as everyone unpacked their lunch boxes (mine was groovy…red plaid tin, with matching thermos). What was on the menu? Bologna sandwiches with the crusts cut off, PB&J on fortified white bread, and there was always some kid unfortunate enough to have a sandwich made on the heel of the loaf of bread haphazardly folded in half. Side dishes included an apple or banana (90% of which ended up in the trash on the way out of the cafeteria), a package of processed fruit snacks, and maybe, if you were lucky, a couple of sandwich cookies in a baggy.
In the 80’s (I know, I’m dating myself here) the miracle of the snack-sized bag of chips was born; along with “fruit drinks” in a box or silver pouch. I’m not sure which was worse: brown-bagging a bunch of chemical-laden, nutritionally empty, sugar-packed “food” or buying lunch at the cafeteria…where ketchup had just been declared a vegetable.
Fast forward thirty years or so
As a food-conscious mother of kids with food allergies, the traditional lunchbox choices are simply not an option. Bringing real food to the cafeteria is something that keeps students healthy and helps them do their best in school, but it’s hard to balance making sure your child has a nutritious, healthy lunch and making sure that said lunch will be eaten, and won’t be the subject of ridicule among the other kids in the cafeteria! Let’s face it, a certain amount of judgement goes on at the lunch room table.
It’s all about the presentation
I’ve found that the thing that makes typical, pre-packaged food so “cool” is not so much the sugar content or the vividness of the food dye involved, but the cute, single-serving nature of the packaging. It’s fun to open little packages and enjoy a variety of treats for lunch! Real-food warriors, we can do this at home with healthy food, packaging that won’t end up in a landfill, and for much less money!
Bento to the rescue…
Meet the Bento Box. This fresh take on the traditional lunchbox comes to us from the far east, and maximizes the “cool packaging” factor while allowing for an endless variety of good, fresh food. Bentos come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, in materials ranging from plastic to stainless steel, and can be ordered online (like these) or purchased at a local store (I found ours in the food storage area of a nearby department store). Our bento-style lunch boxes came with inserts that can be frozen, and the cute little containers can be snapped onto the insert to keep food fresh and cold all day. The containers can be arranged and re-arranged to allow for an endless variety of lunchtime surprises for your healthy student.
Lunchtime gets creative
So now that you have all this great packaging, what do you put in it? Bento-style lunches are great for gluten/grain free meals (as a Celiac mom can I just tell you…sandwich-free sack lunches can be a challenge!). Rather than restricting lunch to revolve around a sandwich, bento-style lunches open the door to a whole new creative take on meals. A rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables can be cut into bite-sized pieces and served with a variety of healthy dips. Salads can be sent with the dressing on the side, preventing the nice crisp vegetables you packed in the morning from becoming a soggy mess by noon. Homemade, healthy dinner can be recycled and served with side dishes, natural fruit snacks, and low-sugar desserts. Add a few fun flourishes, and your child’s healthy lunch just might be the envy of the lunch room!
Here are three bento-style lunch options to get you started:
1. The PB&J Makeover
Mash one ripe banana, 3 tablespoons of all natural peanut butter (or use a different nut or seed butter), and 3 teaspoons of raw honey together in a bowl. Fill a medium-sized container with the dip.
Slice one small apple, toss with a touch of lemon juice (to prevent browning) and pack into a container.
Toast one slice of whole-grain, gluten free bread (this is a great way to use the heel of the loaf!). Cut into sticks for dipping and pack in a container.
Serve with a container of fresh berries or homemade fruit leather, and a savory snack such as seasoned kale chips, cubed raw-milk cheese, or a hard boiled egg cut in half and sprinkled with sea salt.
2. Hummus Among-us
A good portion of hummus serves as the hub of this lunch; send a small butter knife along so that the hummus can be spread on home made corn chips, tortilla or pita wedges and topped with a variety of toppings.
Hummus (makes enough for two lunches): Prepare 2/3 cups dry garbanzo beans by soaking overnight, then cooking until soft. In a blender or food processor, add 1/4 cup of tahini (sesame seed paste) and the juice of 1/2 a lemon. Process for 1 minute, until the mixture is creamy. Add a small clove of garlic (or 1/2 a large clove, or omit if your child is not a fan), the beans, and 2 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil. If you’d like, add a tablespoon of roasted red peppers or a tablespoon of rehydrated sun dried tomatoes. Process until very smooth, adding water a tablespoon at a time if the mixture looks too thick. Add sea salt to taste. Garnish with paprika, chopped Greek olives or diced red pepper before putting on the lid!
Along with the hummus, send wedges of whole grain pita bread, tortillas (brown rice or teff work well), or homemade corn chips.
To top the hummus:
Grilled free-range chicken cubes
Feta cheese crumbles
Whole black olives
Add a container of fresh pineapple chunks and blueberries, a few homemade fruit snacks, and some yogurt-covered raisins to round out the meal.
3. Pinwheels and yogurt
On an all natural, healthy tortilla or sandwich wrap (gluten-free spinach tortilla shown here), spread 2 tbsp. organic cream cheese. Over the cheese, place fresh spinach leaves, 2 thin slices of natural, nitrate-free sandwich meat (optional), and a thin layer of sprouts. Sprinkle toasted sunflower seeds over the sprouts and carefully roll the wrap tightly into a tube. Cut the tube into 1/2 inch sections crossways, to form a spiral. Pack into a large bento container.
Fill a medium bento container 2/3 full with organic, naturally sweetened Greek yogurt (you can buy this plain and sweeten with a little raw honey).
In small bento containers, pack fresh blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries. A small container of home made granola is great for added crunch!
Tell me, what are you favorite kid-friendly and healthy lunches?