This summer Nate went to a camp with no microwave. It was a beautiful, earthy, spirited camp but it was nonetheless a camp at which Nate could not heat up the only three lunches he eats: hot dogs, pizza and pasta. We were left with one option: peanut butter (actually soynut butter since camp forbade peanuts) and jelly sandwiches.
Not surprisingly I was way more disturbed about this situation than Nate, who is very happy to eat soynut butter and jelly sandwiches every day, forever.
All summer I tried coaxing him into trying something new. “Please can I give you another kind of sandwich? How about cheese? Turkey? Turkey and cheese? Remi loves turkey and cheese.”
But Nate stuck to the same story: “Remi is five. When I’m five I will eat lots of sandwiches.”
Since his birthday was still months away, I was forced into research mode and luckily I stumbled upon Lunch Box Blues, where AP food editor J.M. Hirsch blogs about the lunches he packs for his nine-year-old son Parker. He started the project without great expectations, but right away, he said, “The response was great. I totally underestimated how frustrated most parents feel about lunch.” Hirsch has many smart, out-of the-box ideas about what constitutes a healthy lunch that he shared with me below, and in his book, Beating the Lunch Box Blues: Fresh Ideas for Lunches on the Go. Plus he’s a good cook and a busy dad who doesn’t want his son, or himself, to be bored by the 180 lunches he’ll pack this year. He quickly became my idol.
How would you describe your lunch-packing technique?
I tend to just pack whatever I have on hand. That means [Parker] gets lots of dinner staples, leftovers, crazy creations, whatever. As long as the food is healthy and easy to pack, I’m willing to put it in my son’s lunch box. So that tends to be the focus of the blog—the unusual combinations and creations that come out of my early morning fumblings to get my son out the door in the morning.
What is the lunch you are most proud of?
The DIY steak taco kit—leftover sliced steak with whole-wheat tortillas, cheese, sour cream, avocado and salsa — is probably Parker’s favorite lunch. I like it because it taps into the same appeal that makes those horrible processed lunch kits at the grocer so popular with kids. He gets to assemble the meal himself at lunch. Kids love that stuff. But unlike those kits, I get to control what goes in it. Same appeal, better foods. Win-win. But I’m also pretty pleased at my ability to turn just about anything into sushi-style bites. Give me a whole-wheat tortilla and I can wrap and slice just about anything into faux maki rolls. Bananas. Meat. Veggies. You name it. Kids love food that is scaled to them, and sushi is ideal for that. Sometimes I totally take the easy way out and just buy a package of sushi and pack that!
What’s your advice for parents who just can’t make another PB&J sandwich?
We tend to make life more difficult for ourselves by thinking of packed lunches in very conventional terms. We usually think it needs to be some sort of sandwich, a side, a drink, maybe a snack. Instead, think of it as just another meal. Or think of it as a mini dinner. Either way, don’t go into it with preconceived notions of what you are supposed to pack. Once you realize anything goes, packing lunch gets much easier. Leftover pasta carbonara? Pack it! Stir-fry? Pack it. Steak and potatoes? Pack it. Anything goes.
Which veggie (and preparation/recipe), in your experience, is most likely to be eaten by a young picky eater?
So much is dependent on the individual kid. That said, one of the easiest vegetables to get into a child is roasted butternut squash. I usually peel and cube it, then toss it with olive oil and whatever seasoning inspires me (curry powder, Italian seasoning, simple salt and pepper, whatever). Then I spread it on a baking sheet and roast at 425 F until tender inside and caramelized outside. The combination of crunchy exterior and soft interior, plus the natural sweetness of that vegetable, makes it an easy hit with kids. And the leftovers can be pureed in the food processor with hummus (homemade or purchased) to add veggies to a dip or sandwich spread.
What did you eat for lunch as a kid?
I was very boring. My mom packed me the same cheddar cheese and mustard sandwich on whole wheat (crusts cut off, thank you very much) every single day in elementary school. In high school I was horrible. The food at school was bad and I was too lazy to pack lunch. So every day I would buy a Diet Coke and a box of orange Tic Tacs. I know… I know.