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Originally published Oct. 23, 2013
By Rebekah Denn, Taste contributor

MY OLDEST KID isn’t a picky eater. Still, it took only two weeks into the school year for me to break his one lunch box request: “Please, Mom — no sandwiches!” 

It’s hard not to default to the PB&J. 

I first hit the lunch box blues when — well, when we first hit the age for lunchboxes, when my boy started kindergarten. It helped then to know I wasn’t alone. Even Nigella Lawson commiserated with me about the inherent difficulty of school lunches, trying to pack enough calories into a small space for a kid to eat in a limited time in a chaotic environment. Most modern school kids have 20 minutes or so to get settled and scarf their meals, with extra minutes of recess beckoning for those who find playground games more attractive than downing a final cheese stick (which is to say, everyone). 

I did get some hints from chefs that have served me well. Thanks to Lisa Dupar of Pomegranate Bistro, I cut foods into easy-to-handle pieces for kids that they’re likelier to nibble on, like apple slices rather than a whole piece of fruit. I also make foods more appealing — there’s a reason caterers do it this way — with little touches like skewering cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls on toothpicks for a caprese salad that looks cool and is easy to eat on the go. 

Now, a well-timed book from J.M. Hirsch, food editor for The Associated Press, is giving me a lift by providing another way to look at school lunches. His “Beating The Lunch Box Blues” ($18, Simon & Schuster), developed from his years-old blog on packing lunch for his own son, is making the daily chore a lot more appetizing — and, as a family-wide bonus, providing lunches that the grown-ups are just as happy to eat as the kids. Hirsch says he never spends more than 5 or 10 minutes packing lunch, helped in part by advance work like making minimuffins on the weekend and freezing them two or three to a bag. Pop them in the lunch box in the morning, he writes, and they’ll be ready to eat by lunch. 


Here are some of his tips on making school lunch the most interesting meal of the day: 

1. Stock up on sturdy, dishwasher-safe, reusable containers in different sizes — multiples, if possible — so you can pack a much wider variety of foods. (A container of leftover quinoa salad from dinner was a surprise hit for us, as was a slice of leftover quiche, full of cheese and vegetables.) Use thermoses, too, and prime them for the day, either by rinsing them with hot water before filling them with soups or stews, or by chilling them briefly in the freezer before putting in cold entrees. Hirsch provided some out-of-the-box ideas for those, too, like slicing a grilled cheese sandwich into tall “fingers” and storing them upright in a thermos, or filling the thermos with sausages and sending a separate dip of mixed mustard and maple syrup. Bento-boxes with multiple compartments make an otherwise pedestrian collection of snacks like crackers with hummus, cheese slices and grapes, look appetizing — kids (and adults too) tend to like DIY dishes to assemble as they like. Even a container of cottage cheese gets more tempting when packed with a side of strawberry jam and crackers for dipping. 

2. Make too much dinner: Hirsch recommends tossing extra spaghetti in the pot at night or roasting an extra-large chicken, then using the leftovers in lunches — but his usually have a twist. His dinnertime recipe for breaded chicken tenders, for instance, gets easily repurposed at lunch into a cool chicken-waffle sandwich (with a creamy dressing packed on the side), or rolled up with veggies and bottled dressing into a wrap. When making pizza for dinner, Hirsch buys an extra ball of store-made dough, rolls it out and bakes it plain, then uses a biscuit cutter to cut small pizza bases to be packed along with little compartments of cheese, sauce, pepperoni and other toppings — sort of a homemade Lunchable. 

3. Get rid of preconceived ideas about lunch food, and allow for some crazy ideas: Microwaved pot stickers in a thermos, or cooked samosas from the international section of the freezer aisle, are original enough for me, as is packing a leftover baked potato in a thermos with toppings like baked beans packed separately. But Hirsch also goes for pancake sandwiches filled with cream cheese, or repurposing a hollowed-out papaya half into an edible bowl for fruit salad, or packing up a homemade mango lassi (a cup of frozen mango blended with a cup of milk or plain yogurt, with a pinch of cardamom or cinnamon) in a thermos to accompany a container of leftover curry. Prosciutto-wrapped melon slices, he points out, aren’t just for dinner parties. Extra scrambled eggs from breakfast get layered with ham and cheese slices and rolled up in a tortilla. Hirsch is right that it takes only an extra minute to, say, use the pan from breakfast to saute a few pineapple rings in butter and cinnamon for a tasty lunchbox side, but it’s not a step I usually think of taking for “only” lunch. 

4. Allow for some convenience food: Prepacked items such as individual containers of hummus for dipping vegetables, containers of stuffed grape leaves, or even small packets of Italian meats or cheeses are just fine for mornings when even an easy lunch seems too tough to pack. Other fast bites include freshening up PB&J by using graham crackers instead of bread. A particularly enticing make-ahead entree of “pizza cups” involves filling phyllo dough cups from the freezer aisle with cheese, cherry tomatoes and pepperoni; baking them until the cheese is lightly browned; then cooling them in the fridge. Prepackaged yogurts with “mix-ins” are usually loaded with sugar, he writes, but it’s easy to make your own by packing yogurt with a few toppings, such as slivered almonds or banana chips, for a DIY parfait. 

5. Involve the children: If kids don’t like a particular food at home, Hirsch writes, there’s not much point in trying to get them to eat it for lunch on their own. “Leave the green bean battles for dinner,” he advises. And he suggests making them a part of the lunch box process. His words of wisdom: “Shopping and cooking with kids isn’t always fun and easy, but what about raising children is always fun and easy?” Making a good and interesting meal together, actually, makes it a lot more so.