Earlier this week I wrote about my very simple lunchbox rule: just provide more than two opportunities for them to make good choices, and the rest will take care of itself.  However, that rule is not, in and of itself, the foundation of a great lunch-packing system.  It would be easy to craft a lunch of, say, hummus and veggie wraps with a side of applesauce, sweet potato chips, and yogurt with berries and honey — a healthy and attractive spread that would certainly satisfy the opportunity rule — and simply stick to that, or slight variations of that, for as long as the kids would continue to eat some of it.  But that’s not what good lunch-packing is about; good lunch-packing should not only be nutritious, but also provide continuity as far as the values you’re trying to instill about food at home.  If you are trying to provide varied foods and encourage your kids to expand their palates, the same-old-same-old lunchbox menu just won’t do.

Yes, folks, at some point I was going to have to admit to you that packing the kids’ lunches DOES have something to do with keeping them (and you) interested in the lunchbox fare.  I’m still no “cute food” advocate, and I still feel as though I’m breaking out in aggravated hives whenever I see a back-to-school lunchbox planner that chirps bright advice like “Cut the sandwiches into dinosaurs!” as if stegosaurus-shaped bread were the only way to get our kids to eat at midday.  But kids — even the very selective ones — DO like interesting food and interesting presentations, and they will respond to your efforts, even if it’s just making sure that you do better than squishing a tuna on rye into a plastic baggie and weighting it down with an apple.

Balancing the need to keep their interest in lunch with children’s inherent need for familiarity can be tricky, to say the least.  P. would likely be happy if I packed a sunflower butter and banana sandwich, yogurt with raspberries, and dried mango every day, and in some ways that can be very tempting.  But ultimately, it’s my job to develop his eating habits and preferences, so I’m walking the line just like everybody else, between packing what I know he’ll eat and what I want him to eat.

There are two main tricks, I think, that help in staying on this very narrow path to lunchbox confidence.  First is to set up a “lunch pantry” which contains the sides and add-ons to the main meal.  If you consistently keep on hand a variety of kid-and-parent-approved items, like sugar-free dried fruits, unsweetened applesauce cups, whole-grain pretzels, and yogurt, you’ll be able to choose two or three items from that selection each day with very little difficulty.  That way, the kids will have the familiar routine of seeing the same items on a regular basis (though you should try to vary them from day to day, rotating through the best you can), but their main meal and probably at least one side item will be less predictable.

The second thing that helps is understanding themes and variations, and using them to your best advantage.  By slightly altering familiar foods, and changing them more and more as your children become more adventurous eaters, you’ll find that you get a lot more mileage out of the same four or five menu items without getting stuck in a rut or having your kids completely flip out.  I’ve identified five lunchbox entree categories, and in each category I’ve chosen five basic items which can then be embellished in a number of ways.  If you tried every single suggestion on this list — some of which I’ll publish today, and some tomorrow — I daresay you’d have nearly 100 lunch entrees to choose from by the time you were through.  That would get you through more than half the school year without packing the same exact main meal twice!

How the list works: Each bolded CATEGORY comes with a big tip from me on packing that type of food for lunches.  Underneath, there will be five base items, each with a + symbol to indicate some kid-friendly add-ons.  You could choose to mix in or swap out one or all of the add-ons to customize these choices for your kids.  (Note: I’m not providing recipes in this post; many of the things I list here are food items you will probably already have on hand or will already have a recipe for.)

The big tip: Make sure you preheat your Thermos by filling it with boiling water for 10 minutes before dumping it out and refilling with hot soup. 
The options:
+ Meatballs (any meat), spinach, or pasta of any shape
+ Apple/pear puree or tortellini
+Roasted red peppers, sauteed mushrooms, or shredded chicken
+Noodles of any variety, lentils, or dumplings
Black bean
+Shredded cooked pork or chicken, cheese, or guacamole

The big tip: Sandwiches tend to seem unappetizing by lunchtime because they’re often soggy.  Try to choose sturdier breads if you’re making ahead of time, or provide the components for the sandwich without actually assembling it (L. prefers the hands-on approach, actually).  Also, even though I usually suggest packing lunches as much as you can the night before, I think if you’re planning to put together a sandwich for the lunchbox, it’s best held off until the morning.
PB and J (or sunbutter and J)
+ sliced berries, apples or bananas; unconventional bread choices (like leftover pancakes or mini whole-wheat soft pretzels); or off the bread altogether, pureed with banana and yogurt for a fruit dip
+bacon, lettuce, tomato; apple butter; or vegetable or herb cream cheese
Ham and Cheese
+broccoli in a wrap, quesadilla, or calzone; pineapple; or off the bread, wrapped around lightly steamed green beans
+lemon juice and plain yogurt (in place of mayo); pickle relish and rye crispbread; or sundried tomatoes and black olives
Egg Salad
+avocado or crumbled bacon; on a mini-bagel or wheat crackers

The big tip: Pasta’s a great lunch item because it can be served hot or cold.  Just be sure that you always take care to make it really flavorful and exciting, because bland room-temperature pasta will just taste like mush and turn the kids off from eating. (And, of course, always choose whole-wheat whenever possible.)
meatballs of any variety, marinara, or pesto; or mixed with scrambled eggs, cheese, and veggies and cooked into a spaghetti fritatta
(nitrate-free) pepperoni and marinara for “pizza ravioli,” or a quick sauce of sauteed onion, pureed pumpkin, and cream; or serve cold with diced chicken, basil, and a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice
Mac and Cheese
broccoli, peas and carrots, or leftover chili
+smoked salmon and peas, or slivers of (nitrate-free) ham or salami with tomatoes and basil
+cheese cubes and grape tomatoes or roasted peppers; or spinach and ricotta

I’ll end the week with variations on “kid favorites” like pizza, burgers, and dogs; and how to make lunchbox variations on salad seem exciting.  In the meantime, I’m sure some of you have lunch-packing questions you’d like to ask or dilemmas that need solving.  Leave a comment and I’ll try to address your question in the next post.  Let’s send the kids back to school with lunches we all feel good about.