Thinking outside of the bag

School starts next week! That means the dreaded lunch packing must begin. Take a break from the go-to PB&J and try out these tips and ideas on how to show your kids a little love through their lunches.

I recently polled my husband who reported that he had the exact same lunch every. single. day. from kindergarten until 12th grade. To which I replied, “What the heck? Are you kidding me? How boring is that? Why didn’t you rebel and stop eating? Should I start making the same thing for dinner every night around here? Where’s the love in that lunch?”

Love in lunch? Yes, that’s what I said, LOVE. I thought about it and quickly recognized that opening their lunch box was the one touch of me that my girls got in a day at school. I totally remember days where I would open my bags in school and have a little note written on a napkin, or an extra cookie (really, that only happened when Dad packed it).

Is this selfish? I can’t really tell. But I can’t be with my kids all day and I want them to know I love them, even when I’m not with them. Packing their lunch is my silly way of communicating this. Whether or not they’re picking up on it, I’ll never know, but it makes me feel better. It almost feels like preparing a little “gift” for them each day.

Now, you may be wondering, “How do you show your kids love through a brown bag?” Of course, I’ve got my lunch standbys: cheese sticks, organic yogurt tubes, crackers and the like. But I feel like these are just a small step away from a Lunchable. So, I really do try to think outside of the bag.

First, be creative in the presentation. This does not mean extravagant; it just means mixing it up and making it fun for the kids to open up and see what’s up today…

  • Use a cookie cutter to make shapes out of your sandwiches.
  • Add a little fun to your kids’ yogurt with a few sprinkles
  • Include small forks, spoons, or even toothpicks. Kids are more interested in food when they have a “tool” to assist them.
  • Small, fun containers (I collect them throughout the year) are great for things like homemade desserts or yogurt with granola.

And, yes, we should all cozy up to the idea of putting little notes in the lunches. I quickly realized that the napkin that I dutifully pack every single day rarely gets used, so it’s my canvas. “I (heart) U” is classic, but I also have taken to drawing funny pictures or something that has to do with the letter of the week.

Next, get creative with the food itself (but not crazy, we DO want them to eat what we send)…

It didn’t take me long to realize that kids love to dip. Veggies in ranch, fries in ketchup (heck, fruit in ketchup if you’re some kids), or pasta in sauce – I think kids just like the idea of being in charge of their food. So, what about these yummy and simple options?

  • Fruit Dip: Stir a dab of honey in to some vanilla yogurt, sprinkle a bit of cinnamon on the top, and voila’! Serve with their favorite fruits.
  • Purple Dip: Have you ever tried black bean hummus? When they’re pureed, black beans turn a lovely shade of purple, giving it this affectionate name. Serve with pita chips, carrots, celery, broccoli, crackers.

Do your kiddos ever get sick of sandwiches? You can easily pack a lot of punch with some other options…

  • Muffins: I like this option because I know they get full, and I can also sneak in some good stuff that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Sweet Potato Muffins are so delish, and my kids have no idea they’re eating a root veggie for lunch. Peanut Butter Honey Muffins are the other favorite around here. These also freeze well and defrost by the time they eat lunch.
  • Quiche: Yes, I realize not every child loves quiche. But, if you happen to have a little one who will eat it, it’s a great lunch food. When we have leftovers, I’ll pop them into individual containers and away they go.

Moving on to desserts… to give, or not to give? Before we start arguing, maybe it hasn’t become too clear yet in my writings that I have a very sweet sweet tooth. So, my vote on this issue is yes, every day, desert goes to school. Homemade cookies are always better than Chips Ahoy, so bake a batch or two and slowly distribute them in the lunch box – one or two will do. If you can, cookie cut those suckers in to your kids’ favorite shapes. Other good options, just for a little something sweet are Rice Krispy treats, a small piece of chocolate (the Hershey’s minis are a hit, or a small handful of M&M’s), yogurt covered pretzels or raisins, even some caramel dip for their apple could count.

And really, I feel like I would be doing this injustice if I didn’t speak for a hot second about packaging. If you’re trying to be as green as possible, consider ditching the Ziplocs or brown bags and going for something different. For example, Tiffin Tins are awesome and basically indestructible. If those won’t work for your kids, try browsing through this site for more reusable bag ideas.

Ok, moms and dads, gear up for a great year, and dish up some love in those lunches!

Sweet Potato Muffins

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 1 cup applesauce
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped nuts, toasted
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 24 muffin tins with paper liners, or coat with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar and cinnamon. Mix well. In another bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, eggs, egg whites, vanilla, buttermilk and applesauce. Mix well. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients in. Add the raisins and nuts, and combine with as few strokes as possible, until all ingredients are just moistened.

Fill the 24 prepared muffin cups with batter. Add 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar to the top of each muffin. Bake at 350 degrees for 22-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks. Makes 24 muffins.

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Peanut Butter Honey Muffins

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat cereal (quick cooking)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup peanut butter (crunchy style)
  • 1 egg, beaten

Combine first 4 ingredients in a large bowl; make a well in center of mixture. Combine milk, honey, oil, peanut butter, and egg; add to dry ingredients, stirring just until moistened.

Spoon batter into greased muffin pans, filling two-thirds full. Bake at 400 degrees. for 20 to 25 minutes. Yield: 1 dozen (one per serving).

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Kelly Blanchard

Kelly Blanchard loves thinking about, preparing, consuming, and serving good food. Believing that life is to short to eat the same stuff over and over, she loves to test new eats on her friends and family. Kelly loves her coffee-addicted hubbie, her two little blonde-haired babes, all things sweet, black tshirts, and the color pink.

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