We’ve all been there—that carefully planned, painstakingly executed lunch sent to school with the kids comes back smushed and uneaten. If your darlings are rejecting what’s packed in their lunchbox, know that you’re not alone. Even food professionals get maddening results. I spent years learning how to make lunches for little ones as a personal chef with a specialty in cooking for kids. I remember when a family of young boys I cooked for found out I was sneaking vegetables into mini meatloaves sent for lunch. After that, they started shredding apart cupcakes for veggie inspection as well! I would introduce a variety of foods for afternoon snacks, so I could see first-hand what was devoured quickly. I learned that when there’s a hit–work it. Of course every kid has his or her likes and dislikes, but here are a few foolproof tricks I discovered over the years for making bag lunches a little more fun:
1. Skewer It
Behold the power of a skewer. Threading sandwich squares onto a skewer gives the ordinary a magical makeover. Or, rely on an all-skewered lunch by stringing together bites of food. Try some of these new combinations:
-Pineapple-ham skewers topped with a maraschino cherry
-Vinaigrette-tossed cherry tomato-mozzarella skewers
-Salami-cheddar skewers with the optional olive
-Cheese tortellini and chicken skewers
2. Think Outside the Bread
Bread can be overrated and, yes, boring day after day. Instead, lean on sandwiching your protein with fruits and vegetables. Some ideas:
-Swirl chopped sundried tomatoes into cream cheese and spread between two cucumber slices.
-Slather almond butter or sunflower seed butter between two rings of apples.
-Spread hummus between carrots sliced on the bias.
-Dot pear wedges with a spreadable cheese and wrap with thinly sliced turkey or roast beef secured with a toothpick.
-Leftover breakfast pancakes or waffles can turn into sandwiches with a layer of berry jam and cream cheese.
-Send along lettuce wraps for self-assembly: lettuce, tuna or chicken salad, and shredded carrots.
3. Stamp It
I’ve always cut sandwiches into sticks or used cookie cutters to fashion the bread into shapes like flowers for Spring, pumpkins for Halloween, stars for the holidays, and such. Fellow cookbook author Debbie Koenig took it up a notch. With a notoriously picky 7-year-old son (and, yes, she realizes the irony), she found success using Star Wars cookie cutters. Squishy whole-wheat bread works the best, leaving a detailed imprint of the faces. “I know that if I use funky cookie cutters on his sandwich, he’ll at least eat it. Yoda and Darth Vader are especially popular,” she says. Any extra sandwich pieces from the Star Wars cut outs are punched out into letters with alphabet cutters to spell out a word.
4. Dip It
Kids and adults alike are suckers for dippers, another option for bringing life to everyday lunches. Try:
-Sending along store-bought hummus or make your own by whirling together edamame beans, black beans, or cannellini beans with a swig of olive oil in a blender. Serve with baby carrots, radish slices, or sugar snap peas.
-Celery sticks can be dunked into egg salad, crackers into tuna salad, or mozzarella cheese sticks into marinara sauce.
-Swirl a dollop of berry preserves or jam into yogurt for a fruit-dipper.
-Match pita triangles with a Tzatziki-style spread made of Greek yogurt, grated cucumber, and lemon juice.
5. Snack It
The reason Bento boxes have soared in popularity are because they’re an easy way to send a hodgepodge of small, snacky portions. “Kids are captive audiences at lunch, plus they’re hungry, so I try to include a couple of different types of vegetables, pasta with peas in it and then halved grape tomatoes on the side,” says Anya Hoffman, an editor at the James Beard Foundation and a mom of two. “They’ll eat more vegetables at lunch then they will at dinner, especially when they’re in cute little portions.” Don’t have a Bento box? Use silicone cupcake cups to portion out food like mandarin oranges, pretzel sticks, cheese squares, salami rounds, red pepper slices, and pickles.
6. Shrink It and Freeze It
When meatloaf is on tap for dinner, I always try to make a double portion, pouring the excess into a muffin tin or a mini muffin tin. Also, for kids who are vegetable averse, meatloaf or meatballs can be stuffed with healthier items like tofu or pureed vegetables (especially yellow squash which remains mostly sight-unseen). A few more ideas:
-Bulk up cornbread batter with corn kernels and shredded cheddar cheese; pour into a mini muffin tin over sliced hot dogs for mini, portable corn dogs.
-Stir 1 or 2 eggs into mac and cheese to hold it together before making into mini mac muffins. Freeze and add to lunches during weeks when time is tight.
7. Enhance It
In a morning rush, just dress up what you already have boxed for lunch. Spruce up a sandwich or tortilla roll-up with a food pick adorned with the cuteness of a bumblebee or ladybug. Turn apples or bananas into a funny face by adhering googly candy eyeballs. Or, use edible markers to write a sweet note onto fruit slices, bread, and more.
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