It’s that time again – back to school. And with it comes the need to come up with nutritious school lunches that your kids will actually eat (as opposed to bringing it back home at the end of the day, and spending the afternoon snacking on junk food because they’re hungry). For years, it was a real ordeal at our house. Knowing that I didn’t like it when they brought home uneaten-lunches, my kids actually hid those lunches in their bedrooms (under the desk…) – really! – to be found weeks or months later, all grey and fuzzy.
So, what makes a great school lunch? My criteria include:
- it has to be fairly quick and easy to prepare – ideally the night before;
- it has to be able to stand 4 hours in a lunchbox – unrefrigerated;
- it can’t require re-heating with a microwave oven;
- it should be well-balanced, containing protein, fiber, fruits and/or vegetables;
- it should be quick for my kids to eat, and not messy;
- it should be something they find delicious.
My kids’ criteria are simpler:
- it has to taste good (or at least be edible);
- it has to have a drink, a main meal, and a dessert; and
- it has to not freak out all the other kids (my daughter’s words, not mine).
A few years ago, we came up with sort of a ‘system’ that’s worked pretty well for us. Basically, we rotate between five different lunch ‘templates’ for the main meal:
1) thermos day: a thermos full of hot soup, or stew, or chili, with a buttered whole-wheat bun. We make a point of cooking soup, or stew, or chili for supper the night before, so this is really quick and easy to put together.
2) wrap day: a whole wheat tortilla, wrapped around some sort of protein and fresh veggies. My kids love this one with shredded lettuce, ranch dressing, and sliced chicken breast. Or shredded lettuce, salsa, black bean dip, and grated cheese.
3) dip day: a container of hummus, or black bean dip, or some other dip, with fresh veggies and tortilla chips.
4) sandwich day: two slices of whole wheat bread, with some kind of protein and veggies in between. My daughter’s preference here is a grilled cheese sandwich with sliced red peppers inside. We make it the night before, and refrigerate it. She says it tastes fine cold.
5) salad day: pasta salad, or tabbouleh, or some other starch/protein/veggie combo.
Depending on the meal, and on what’s around the house, dessert may be a piece of fruit, or a sliced apple tossed in cinnamon, or yogurt with berries, or chocolate pudding, or a piece of apple crumble… The drink is mostly a bottle of water (each of us has a stainless-steel water bottle for this sort of thing).
For whatever reason – my kids both love black beans. Black bean soup, black bean casserole, black bean chili, black bean wraps… Which makes it not too surprising that Dip Day is often centered around black bean dip. Black bean dip, with celery sticks, carrot stick, cucumber spears, sliced peppers, mushrooms, snap peas, and a handful of tortilla chips makes a great meal. The protein and fiber in the black beans makes it satisfying, and keeps them full for hours afterward. Here’s the recipe we’ve been using lately:
Black Bean Dip
540ml can black beans
1 cup salsa
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 clove garlic, minced
Combine, and mix together using a hand-held blender or food processor. Makes about 6 half-cup servings. It’s a very good source of fiber and folate, and a good source of protein, thiamin, iron, magnesium, and manganese.