So it’s back-to-school for our young ‘uns. Some of us are honestly just overjoyed and are breathing a sigh of relief, some of us are too busy hustling with last-minute preps to think about it, and some of us are putting on brave faces though secretly saddened or overwhelmed with the idea of once again sending our popos back into the circus. For me, it’s all of the above.
Ultimately though, one of my largest concerns for my boys is their mother’s long-standing inability to prepare edible meals. I’m not kidding.
Those of you who know me personally are sure to have heard some of my culinary misadventures—diarrhoea- green curry…gooey-red stew…burnt pancakes with salt…baking soda-less flat cakes… charred-beyond-recognition onion rings…and of course, numerous instances of burnt boiled eggs (‘alien’ eggs as my poor babies call them).
So in lieu of my awful culinary track record, I pored through cookbook after cookbook, viewed various Food Networks, and spoke to countless Iron Chef Mamas in search of FFF&N: fast, fool-proof, flavoursome and nourishing foods for kiddos.
I now present to you, my compilation of Lunch Box Ideas with our local supermarkets in mind >>>
PASTA (Italian & Chinese)
- Chicken & Vegetable Low Mein- lightly sauté vegetables in some sesame/ peanut oil, add in strips of chicken (for a quick fix, use store-bought rotisserie chicken) and throw in cooked noodles. Season to taste.
- Lasagne- make life easier by fully or partially preparing the night before and then reheat.
- Pasta salad- lightly sauté your choice or combination of broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and peas, add in your child’s favourite pasta (elbows, ribbons, twists, spaghetti and so on), and season to taste. Add in grated cheese for an extra zing.
- Pasta and chicken nuggets- (use frozen chicken nuggets or boxed mac and cheese to simplify your life)
- Spaghetti/ macaroni and minced meat– season meat, sauté, add in pasta sauce, season to taste , poor over cooked pasta, grate cheese of your choice.
- Chicken and Pasta bake- make creamy, cheesy pasta, add in pre-prepared chicken chunks, pour into a baking dish and pop into oven.
- Noodles & Chinese Chicken- take your pick of sweet and sour chicken, Chinese-styled chicken/ butter-fried chicken. Recipes online.
- Penne Primavera- simple, even for me. Check out this easy to follow recipe at http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Penne-Primavera/)
- Creamy pasta- throw prepared pasta in with Campbell’s Cream Condensed Soup, season, add in some butter and boil down a little
- Pizza & corn- use frozen pizza if time-pressed, or instant pizza dough (the trick is to bake the dough first, then top up, then pop in oven). Add corn kernels at side for variety.
- Burgers- use meat of your choice, add cheese, and veggies to taste
- Ribbon/ pinwheel sandwiches- Spread cheese and sausage paste, or coloured cheese-paste in layers, roll, stick in toothpick and refrigerate until firm)
- Chicken/ Turkey/Ham/ Tuna/ P&J sandwiches/ subs– be creative and make sure to add in your favourite, available veggies (I follow the Subway toppings: cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pineapple, sweet peppers, pineapple, olives, pickles, and a little onion)
- Calzone– something like an inside-out pizza. Stuff pizza dough with cheese, meat, veggies and pizza sauce, fold over and bake until dough is cooked through.
- Tacos- stuff with your choice of beef/chicken, guacamole and vegetables and top with cheese. Hilo sells these wonderful hard and soft taco kits which make life so much easier and tastier.
- Sada bake and takaree sandwiches- you know those tummies so fill ‘em up with curried/stewed bodi (string-bean), pumpkin, tomato/baigan (melongene) choka…whatever suits their palette. Try to make it as balanced as possible though, so go easy on the aloo (potato) choka.
- Roti, curried potato and stewed chicken- still trying to master this one with the help of my after-mentioned local recipe books…oh the sad stories I could tell you!
- Hotdogs/ corndogs- easy, but not-so-nutritional-though-won’t-hurt-once-in-a-while-fix. Lazy me just buys the frozen corn-dogs from Pricesmart but I’m sure there are easy recipes around.
- Empanadas/ Arepas with filling of choice– also available in your local freezer aisle. My husband makes these by kneading some concoction of corn meal, flour, milk, butter, and seasoning until it becomes dough-like.For empanadas, he fills up (like any pie) before baking, and for arepas, he rolls them out and bakes them on the stove-top tawa aka baking stone until golden brown.
- Panini- be creative and add fillings to suit those tiny tastebuds. If you can’t get your hands on focaccia bread or whatever, use regular bread, butter the outside and grill.
- Wraps- use hot dogs, lunch meats, cheese, egg, tuna, chicken strips, veggies…the list goes on. Add condiments to taste, wrap and tuck.
- Croissant/ bagels- fill will your choice of cheese, cold cuts, scrambled eggs or a combination. Add a thin layer of lettuce and voila!
- Baked beef, chicken, cheese pies- good for you if you know how to make pastry dough…I purchase freshly baked ones, cool and refrigerate for next-day use.
- Sausage rolls and dip- If you have access to frozen pastry dough, this is a cinch. Add a barbeque sauce dip and it’s a hit!
- Aloo pies/ Saheena – use local recipe books and local Tantys to figure this one out…:P
- Fried bake/ floats and fried fish– use this recipe http://www.simplytrinicooking.com/2008/11/float.html#axzz2dExOZRiT and use your favourite breaded-fried fish recipe. Maracas-it away away and top up with pine, tamarind sauce, mild chutney- the works!
OTHER STARCHY FOODS
- Pelau/ Cook-up- just as name indicates. Create your own twists by adding your favourite ingredient ends. Serve with a fresh side salad, or potato or pasta salad.
- Rice, peas and beans of choice, meat of choice, salad of choice- easy stuff. Just make sure your kids like the beans of choice.
- Fried chicken wantons and steamed vegetables- for the time-pressed, check the frozen selections available at your supermarket.
- Rice, Baked/ stewed Chicken and callalloo- The Naps cookbook (mentioned below) has these cooking steps outlined in dummie-proof methodology.
- Chinese dumplings/ potstikers– use this easy-to-follow recipe http://chinese.food.com/recipe/chinese-dumplings-217040?ic1=obinsite . Experiment with different dipping sauces like Hoisin Sauce, Peanut or Ginger Sauce.
- Stuffed potatoes- try this easy recipe http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Stuffed-Potatoes/. Instead of using sour cream, add butter, cheese and season to taste. Top with crisp bacon/bacon bits, or bread crumbs, cornflake crumbs or another layer of grated cheese. There’s also this cool egg-filled version: http://homecookinginmontana.blogspot.com/2010/04/egg-stuffed-baked-potato.html
- Fried/baked chicken/ fish and chips/potato wedges- Mc Cain carries these delicious frozen seasoned potato wedges but frozen fries are the one easy thing I boycott. My kids prefer the freshly cut version and I have fun with it by cutting potato slices into funky shapes with cookie cutters. For the healthy-by-baking way, just lightly spray Pam cooking spray over your fries and pop into the oven till golden-brown. And of course, use your favourite baked/ fried chicken recipe.
- Oil down- bess Wendy Rahamut recipe!
- Nibbler’s salad- a mixture of firm fruit, firm vegetables and cheese slices…choose your ingredients tailored to suit.
- Chicken salad with croutons- veggies and chicken strips with salad dressing. Add croutons (available for purchase/ DIY by toasting bread in olive oil until firm, and then cubing).
- Tuna salad- top your fresh salad medley with your mixed tuna, or mix it in. I use lime, mayo, chopped pimento, yellow mustard, grated cheese, black pepper, and a tip of brown sugar for my best results.
- Egg salad- slice hard-boiled eggs, add cheese and vegetables, and top lightly with dressing if so desired.
- Bean salad- some kids may like, but perform a test run first (http://www.easy-salad.com/beansaladrecipes.html)
- Soups– you know the favourites: chicken, cream of mushroom, vegetable, macaroni, wanton, dhal, dumpling and provision soups or even alphabet soup (available in Campbell’s soup choices). Pour into a leak-proof Thermos with a built-in cup. Lovely in rainy weather.
- Chicken and vegetable kebabs– easy and fun to make. Cut veggies in chunks, cube cheese and cooked chicken, put through skewer, and grill.
- When in doubt, check out: Recipes for these meals can be found online, but as a novice cook I’ve found the Naparima Girls’ High School cookbook (Naps is my alma mater and notwithstanding my incredible bias, the old girls have compiled an incredible cookbook with exhaustive local and international recipes, useful nutritional facts and helpful tips for cooking-dummies like yours truly), Wendy Rahamut cookbooks (a bit harder to follow but also good with local recipes and local twists on international recipes), and Easy Everyday cookbooks (available in various titles suited to your palette such as Italian, Chinese, Healthy and so on). Special kudos to Food Network, the Food Channel and http://www.simplytrinicooking.com , http://www.food.com/ and http://allrecipes.com/ who all provided therapeutic relief for this ex-kitchen-disaster.
- Must have cooking accessory? Metal cookie cutters! This has proven to be an almost fool proof way to get my finicky-eater-son to consume things usually left untouched. The power of presentation as a very persuasive measure is relevant in the kitchen too! I use it on their potato wedges, dumplings, fruits, sandwiches, pancakes and even pizzas. The fun of eating it up works like a charm!
- Pre-prepare: So after my new concerted attempt to really cook, I honestly wish I had a sous chef. I realise it is extremely important to have all your veggies and whatnot readily at hand. Wash and chop up your fresh veggies, separate them into smaller parcels, and freeze/ refrigerate using Freezer-ready Ziplock bags available at your local supermarkets. And as for meat, especially chicken, if you buy the fresh-from-the-pluck-shop type, ask the kind folks there to chop up in quarters (for frying or baking) or stew pieces. Clean, wash, and season before-hand, parcel out in bags and freeze away. This is a messy, stinky job I try to avoid by bribing…errr paying others to do it for me. A note to the wise penny-savers, keep a written inventory of all you have stored away and label the bags with the package date to avoid wastage.
- “Planner” away: Use this handy monthly planner to ensure lunch-box variety.
Click for download: lunch box timetable
Most schools, especially kindergarten/ preparatory and primary schools, have now adopted a healthy-lunch policy where students are discouraged from bringing unhealthy snacks and drinks to school (making obsolete the cheese-curls, zoomers, sweets, soft drinks, and so on that unhealthily flavoured our yesteryears). But have no fear, even with the limited options of healthy snacking on our grocery shelves, we still have plenty options available in your local grocery, market, or shopper’s club (my fav shopping picks are Hilo, Tru-Value, and Pricesmart).
- Baked potato chips ( hard to find, but they’re around)
- Popcorners (healthy popcorn chips: find them at Hilo)
- Dixie crackers with filling/ Crix cracker sandwiches (DIY with any of your child’s favourite crackers using jam/+peanut butter/cheesepaste)
- Go ahead fruit crispy slices
- Dried fruits (my kids love the local Holiday Exotica Fruit and Nut Medley, Breakfast Medley and Yogurt Delight and the Sunshine Snacks Sun Mix)
- Celery & Carrot Sticks and dip (use your kid’s favourite salad/ cheese dip… my boys love Creamy Ranch Salad Dressing)
- Celery sticks and peanut butter dip (surprisingly good!)
- Granola Bar (chewy or crispy)
- Cucumber sticks/ wheels / salad
- Grapes (seedless/ pitted)
- Dates (pitted)
- Rice Krispie snack (this can be easily made—check out recipes at http://www.ricekrispies.com)
- Plantain chips
- Cassava Chips
- Jello cups
- Pudding cups
- Watermelon cubes
- Baked cheese sticks (http://www.food.com/recipe/baked-mozzarella-cheese-sticks-72425
- Apple slices
- Diced mango
- Cubed paw-paw
- Pineapple (fresh or canned)
- Pear (my kids like them sliced into “pear drops”)
- Fruit salad
- Fruit kebab (fruits on a stick)
- Fruit cups (plastic school-sized cups available in supermarkets, but more cost-efficient if bought in bulk from Pricesmart)
- Raisins (available in tiny boxes/ packets in some supermarkets, but if you could only get your hands on large packs, dish out in small snack-sized ziplock bags)
- Tortilla chips and dip (cheese, salsa or guacamole http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Easy-Guacamole/—your child’s pick)
- Goldfish crackers (Pricesmart has these available in boxes of 24 snack-sized packs but if you could only get your hands on large packs, dish out in small snack-sized ziplock bags)
- Yoplait Gogurt
- Cheese and Crackers
- Mini Crix in packs
- Popcorn (salted, caramel, frosted available on grocery shelves near you)
- Cheesy popcorn (DIY with this great recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/gale-gand/cheddar-cheese-popcorn-recipe/index.html)
- Cookies and milk (use your child’s favourite cookies and pack with small boxes of UHT milk available in Nestle and Moo brands)
- Cereal (use assorted mini boxes/packs of cereal or dish out in small snack-sized ziplock bags)
- Water (an absolute must! In defence of planet earth, please avoid purchasing disposable water bottles and use a non-disposable, portable water bottle using boiled or filtered water—good investments are the affordable Brita water filters for your taps at home or the Brita filter jugs)
- Fresh home-made punches/ smoothies (local favourites include banana, peanut, sour-sop, barbadine, carrot, channa punches—use Lasco powder as a shortcut version—pack in containers over crushed ice to preserve)
- Juices (fresh or store bought—for purchase look for those with less added sugar and more natural juices—more cost effective if bought in bulk)
- Milky store-bought drinks (locally found options usually include Nestle Peanut punch/ Milo/ Nesquick/ Choc-nut/ Supligen, Hershey’s chocolate/ strawberry milk, and of course little packs of Moo or Nestle milk itself. Be very conscious about ingredients used in case of allergy, and be particularly cautious about expiration dates.)
MUST-HAVE LUNCHBOX ACCESSORIES
- Ziplock bags (both snack and sandwich sizes)
- Child-friendly cutlery (use stainless steel or plastic teaspoon-sized spoons and forks and blunt-tipped children’s knives)
- Napkins (pack them in ziplock bags to preserve them from spills)
- Leak-proof BPA free water bottles
- BPA free plastic containers with lids (microwavable)
- Multi-compartment lunch containers/ Bento boxes (BPA free)
- Dip containers (look for containers with built in dip compartments…these are difficult to find in local stores so order online or pack separate small spill-proof dip containers)
- Hot/cold soup or beverage BPA free Thermos (better if with a built in soup cup)
- Funny love notes from Mum/ Dad (if that isn’t too baby-ish for your baby of course)
***Why BPA free? *** Bisphenol A. a.k.a. BPA is an industrial chemical often found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins used to manufacture food containers and cans. Research has shown that BPA can seep into food or beverages from these containers, and this exposure can negatively affect the brain, behaviour and prostate gland of foetuses, infants and children. So in the quest to keep your babies healthy, don’t chance these unwanted effects. Avoid the lure of readily available, cheaper plastics; and pay (and search) a little more for stainless steel or BPA free products (glass and porcelain are also safer containers, but obviously easily breakable by our younger breed). Pay close attention to labels, and buy only heat and microwaveable-safe products as high temperatures breakdown plastics to release carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties.
So there you go! Test out the meals before you pack them in your kid’s lunch-box to avoid picky, hungry tummies. If your child wolfs down any and everything like my younger son, you’re set.
But if you have a picky, finicky eater like my elder son, then you’ll have to go through that trial-and-error process to please those testy tastebuds.
And on a final note for those out there to whom this task may seem like a never-ending, annoyance: never forget that you are nourishing your child for a life-time, both in body and soul 🙂 Have fun with it and enjoy your kids!
“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” Harriet Van Horne
“Cooking is an art and patience a virtue… Careful shopping, fresh ingredients and an unhurried approach are nearly all you need. There is one more thing – love. Love for food and love for those you invite to your table. With a combination of these things you can be an artist – not perhaps in the representational style of a Dutch master, but rather more like Gauguin, the naïve, or Van Gogh, the impressionist. Plates or pictures of sunshine taste of happiness and love.”
Keith Floyd, ‘A Feast of Floyd’