Last night I introduced the idea of the add-on system for varying your kids’ lunches, without going crazy cooking tons of extra items, AND without pushing them so far outside the comfort zone of “familiar” lunch foods that they’d start wistfully eyeing the cafeteria Sloppy Joes and trading their seaweed-tofu dogs for another kid’s Lunchables.  We left off in the middle of my list of lunchbox entrees, so I owe you a few more ideas — just about 30 or so, I guess.

The big tip: Regular readers know how I feel about the whole concept of “kid food” (hint: it’s not very favorably).  However, I fully accept the fact that for SOME kids, watching everyone else eat the cafeteria chicken nuggets and tater tots will be unbearable when they’re faced with Mom or Dad’s healthy unprocessed lunch.  So here’s my thing about “kid foods” like these: As long as you MAKE THEM YOURSELF with RESPONSIBLY SOURCED INGREDIENTS, I confer upon you all blessings to pack them in your child’s lunchbox as often as the kids request (and you can stand it).
Pancakes and Waffles (what kid doesn’t like breakfast at every possible meal?)
+nut butters or sunbutter; fruit; preserves; or with a yogurt and granola for topping (let the kids assemble this whole thing themselves so nothing gets soggy)
+(nitrate-free) ham or salami; mini-meatballs; spinach and ricotta; on a variety of “crust” options, from homemade pizza dough to mini-bagels, pita, English muffins, or tortillas
Go crustless and make “pizza dippers,” offering marinara sauce and cheese PLUS
+grilled or breaded chicken fingers; breaded fish fingers; breaded and baked zucchini and eggplant, cut into sticks or small rounds
Chicken Nuggets/Fingers (dear God, let them be real chicken you made yourself…)
+honey and crushed nuts instead of breading; crushed whole-grain or corn cereal instead of breading; with dipping sauces made from fruit purees mixed with a little bit of ketchup or barbecue sauce
Burgers  (any meat, or veggie burgers)
+marinara and cheese for a pizza burger; avocado and salsa for taco burgers; mushrooms, onions, and peppers for a cheesesteak burger; or off the bun, in slider size, for burger dippers
Hot Dogs (nitrate-free is a must; non-traditional dogs like Whole Foods’ garlic chicken sausage are a great alternative)
+vegetarian chili and cheese; cut into chunks and skewered with grape tomatoes; wrapped in a tortilla with avocado and red bell peppers and sliced to make “hot dog sushi”

The big tip: The more vegetables you pack in a child’s lunch, the more vegetables they’ll end up eating.  It’s not rocket science.  And for some kids, a fun take on salad will be just the perfect amount of food.  Just make sure to keep any dressings separate until lunchtime.
Greens Required
+sandwich or taco fillings for a lettuce wrap; leftovers of roasted or steamed veggies and proteins from dinner for a “salad bar”; hummus or beans, cheese, and crackers; salsa, cheese, and beans or chicken for a healthy taco salad
Greens Optional
Tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers
+stuffings of chicken salad, tuna salad, hummus, or bean dip for veggie boats; chopped finely with cumin, honey, and lime or lemon juice, shredded cheese, and beans for a scoopable “salsa salad” (serve baked tortilla chips alongside)

Whew.  That’s it — the end of the lunchbox round-up, at least for the moment.  As promised, I’ll be sure to link to the lunch-packing post I wrote for another site as soon as it’s live; that one contains 15 lunch ideas for gluten and grain-free kids, so if you’re in need of specifically gluten-free ideas, hold on!  They’re coming.  But speaking of other sites…

I happened to be involved in a discussion on the Facebook page for The Lunch Tray a few days ago, in which I suggested that homemade (non-Velveeta-based) queso dip in a Thermos might be a good way to occasionally switch up lunch — particularly, I think, in a situation where the cafeteria might be serving “nachos” and you feel your kids might be envious.  Immediately, people started asking for a homemade, Thermos-friendly queso recipe….and I had to admit I didn’t have one!  But I promised to create one, so J. and I did a little queso taste-test last night, along with rigorous scientific Thermos testing (meaning that I stuck some hot dip in a preheated Thermos and left it out for 4 hours, then checked to see if it was still warm and pliable.  Very scientific).  I’m pleased to announce that…

We have achieved queso!  It’s not an EXACT replica of the Velveeta-and-salsa concoction we all know, but it’s darned close, and frankly, I’ll take “close” if it means there’s no processed cheese product in sight.  We also made a couple of successful variations with mix-in ingredients, so I guess this queso recipeis my final lunchbox idea for you.  Enjoy, and feel free to chime in with questions, comments, or lunch-packing dilemmas!

Thermos Queso Dip
When we tested it, I swear, this stuff stayed warm and pliable in a preheated thermos for four hours.  It just needed a very quick stir and it was ready for dipping!
1/2 cup thinly sliced (1/4 inch) carrots
1/2 cup water or chicken stock
Boil the carrots in the water or chicken stock until very tender (I confess I did this one in my microwave for convenience — it took about 7 minutes).  Use a blender, food processor, or immersion blender to puree until smooth.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
3/4 cup chicken stock
Veggie Puree (recipe above)
1 1/2 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
2 slices (about 2 oz.) muenster cheese
1 tsp. salt
pinch black pepper
1/2-3/4 cup salsa, any brand you like

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour until it forms a paste.  Cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes.  Slowly pour in the milk and chicken stock, whisking, until all the liquid is incorporated and there are no lumps.  Turn up the heat to medium-high and let the sauce bubble for about 5 minutes, until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Turn the heat to medium-low, add the veggie puree and cheeses to the sauce, and stir until the cheeses are melted and everything is combined.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add 1/2 cup of salsa and mix thoroughly.  Taste and add more salsa if you prefer.  Serve immediately with chips, or pour into a preheated Thermos and pack in a school lunch.
Queso variations: Stir in 1 cup of leftover chili, 10 oz. of chopped frozen spinach (squeezed dry), or 1 cup of black beans cooked with 2 tablespoons of chopped onion, 1 tsp. each cumin and chili powder, and 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes.