Along with the new pair of shoes and freshly sharpened pencils that are de rigueur with the back-to-school ritual comes the inevitable task of what to pack for lunch. As a Montessori teacher in my twenties, I became well acquainted with not only the personalities of the children in my class, but what was in their lunch box every day. Some were beautifully crafted miniature meals, other a scandal, a few odds and ends thrown in. Those children gazed longingly at their neighbors who systematically unpacked their booty and set up a little feast with the sandwich in the center, the milk to the upper right, and the dessert to the upper left. I think the routine brown bag lunch is far under-rated and often alot less care goes into it than a regular meal. It is, after all, a mini-picnic eaten in the company of others (with often lots of conversation) and a bit of comfort food in that alien world away from home.
A packed lunch gives a little picture about a child’s home life. Food begins and ends with Mother. You can tell if Mom is organized and if she makes food from scratch. Is the lunch spontaneous or carefully thought out. Is the bag folded over neatly or is the lunch box washed out from the day before. What are the likes and dislikes of the child, and care taken to adhere to special diets, traditional foods, and vegetarians. And those dreadful disorganized days where a child comes to school with no lunch at all, or is so hungry from no breakfast, that lunch is eaten as soon as he arrives.
My Mother made great bag lunches and I contribute that to why I love to make them too. What could be simpler than a cold leftover chicken leg and thigh with a bread-and-butter sandwich cut into fourths, crisp carrot and celery sticks, a fat juicy pear, and a few homemade cookies. I grew up with a formal sit-down Sunday afternoon dinner and Mondays were cold roast sandwiches, which were very tasty.
I never tire of my favorite sandwiches, which were wrapped in crisp waxed paper and cut in half on the diagonal: chunk tuna fish with just pepper between slices of buttered bread (which evolved into tuna salad with a layer of potato chips), a cold grilled cheese sandwich that was squooshed flat while in the pan, or roast beef with salt and pepper on a small, flour-dusted, soft potato roll. Runners up were cream cheese and chopped green olives on whole wheat bread (that oozed a bit when you bit into it), cold meatballs on Italian sesame-crusted bread, and crunchy peanut butter and jam, which needed a lick off the sandwich wrap. This evolved into cashew or almond butter sandwiches with homemade strawberry or apricot jam on my homemade breads that I would make for my boyfriend’s lunches years later.
“Smooth peanut butter and jelly has incredible appeal to young eaters,” said my friend Flossie Gonzalez. “My son has one every day throughout the school year. On the first day of summer, I asked him what he wanted for lunch, and to my surprise, that is what he asked for!”
To make top-notch portable lunches, first, expect that there is planning and assembly time for the maker in the kitchen. Some moms tell me that by the time their child was ten years old, they opted to make their own lunches (future gourmet cooks and chefs in the making). Mom just keeps the fridge and pantry stocked with the basics.
Second, the laws of nutritional balance apply here; you are going for a complete meal. That means a starch, protein, raw veggie or fruit, and a touch of sweet. The dessert should never be the dominant food, even keeping the cupcakes and cookies small (Those oversized cookies are just too big; a few animal crackers are fine.). The starch can be storebought or homemade bread, cold biscuits leftover from dinner, mini-pitas, tortillas, baby tamales, rolls (the bins in front of the Safeway deli have many varieties), even cold potatoes, rice, or noodle salad. Sushi is not unheard of. One of my editors serves her 4-year old sliced turkey and hummus on homemade milk bread (the recipe is in my book, Bread Made Easy from Ten Speed Press). My sister makes diminutive marionberry-banana pancake sandwiches with peanut butter and jam in between for her 2-year old.
Third, that the food is not fragile or perishable, since there is no refrigeration. Whatever you pack must be still fresh after sitting for a few hours. Dinner leftovers, even veggies off the grill, are great.
And fourth, the food needs no last-minute fussing; it must be ready-when-the child-is. Rarely have I seen a small child peel and eat a whole banana; even that is too much work. Make a chunky little fruit salad sprinkled with cinnamon, or once in a while, have a little Libby’s fruit cup. Remember nothing weird or messy; kids like everything to look the way it is supposed to, otherwise they can get frustrated, even upset. If a child does not like what he has for lunch, do not be distressed to find out he has traded it for something from another child’s lunch; it is a common practice, dispite efforts to on the part of teachers to discourage it.
In developing a child’s taste for good food, avoid processed foods containing nitrites and preservatives; they have minimum food value. “I am always trying to diplomatically tell parents about lunches,” explained my friend Mary Cantori, kindergarten teacher at the Carden West School in Pleasanton, who planted a school garden where she teaches the students about growing, harvesting, and preparing their own food. “They need a “just say no” policy when it comes to the packaged Lunchables, which are little more than crackers and a mini-pack of candy.”
“I think our schools feed the kids poorly on an overall basis,” says my sister in Seattle, whose son is 6 years old. “At the school I volunteer at, the basic every day fare is a hamburger or cheeseburger on white buns. The sandwiches are always on packaged white bread. They do have a salad bar but with high fat dressing (which is okay for some kids), but I avoid it.”
“I have to say some kids do bring the worst lunches,” she continued. “Those Lunchables have been rated as some of the worst stuff to give your kids. It is easy now to create a nice lunch with all of these prepacked juices (sugar-free), string cheese (a staple in our house), small bag of carrots from Trader Joe’s (they are individual servings), fruit juice-sweetened yogurt, and sugar-free trail mix with no chocolate, also available at Trader Joe’s. Also when you include something homemade it says you love them.”
“I traveled to Washington D.C. to study the nutritional components and government standards for school cafeteria lunches,” says syndicated food columnist and full-time mom Marialisa Calta. “I found that while a well-thought out home-packed meal is tops, the prepared school lunch is far superior to one containing a Lunchable, high-sugar drink, and pack of Twinkies.”
School lunches are big news these days. Parents want organics and balanced meals, not prepackaged like airplane or hospital food rewarmed in a microwave. Soda of all kinds is out. Even peanut butter is suspect with a rash of peanut allergies. The influx of various nationalities gives rise to all sorts of foods not in our American diet 50 years ago. Children love hummus, pot pies, and bite-sized vegetable sushi. The government has been involved in the school lunch debate for a long time. President Harry Truman established the National School Lunch Act in 1946 to offer free or reduced cost lunches at public schools, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the government formally added the School Breakfast Program to its offerings to support vulnerable inner city children. Heard of the Black Panthers? The group built its following due to a massive school breakfast program that had its roots in Oakland, California. It was wildly successful. Inspired in part by the ideas and actions of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started the School Breakfast Program. It now feeds nearly 13 million students every single day.
Where to start to pack your lunches? Look for leak-proof, hard-sided plastic containers with partitioned sections or small 4-and 8-ounce containers with tight-fitting lids. It is an easy way to portion your child’s lunch with eye-appeal and serve the finger-sized, smaller portioned foods like cherry tomatoes, banana hunks, apple wedges, melon, and soft quick breads or pound cake. Use cookie cutters for portioning sandwiches, toast, and cake. (Make your layer cake in a jelly roll pan and drizzle the cut-outs with icing or dust with powdered sugar; these keep great in the freezer.) I love filled meat pies such as pierogi, pasties, or empanadas, which I call “handpies” and are easily concocted out of leftover pastry dough, and are easily stored in the freezer.
“Children love to eat the food they prepare,” Mary Cantori adds. “Take your children to the grocery store and let them smell the produce and talk about the food you buy. They love knowing where it comes from and to understand its value. I often bring a juicer to class.” A smash hit with the 5- and 6-year olds was “zucchini pizza,” a thin slice of just-picked zucchini topped with tomato sauce out of a squeeze bottle and topped with Parmesan cheese.
As a food writer, I am constantly reading articles about the attempt to recapture the nurturing flavors of childhood. Please, give your children food upon which to build their memories on, as well as nourishing them to the max at the same time.
Sandwich Whole Wheat Bread Cones
If you have a family and love to bake, a bread machine is a must because of the convenience. This is one of my favorite whole wheat breads made in the bread machine and you shape the dough into cones, a recipe idea originally from Tomorrowland at Disneyland. Shape these cones on metal pointed cream horn molds, the tinned steel forms that look like an ice cream cone called cornucopias, that are used to shape puff pastry, available in specialty cookware shops like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table. Most forms are between 4 3/8 and 5 1/2 inches long and 1 1/8 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter. You can also use white or whole wheat frozen bread dough in lieu of homemade. Perfect filled with chicken or tuna salad with some leafy green peeking out of the top, or fill like a taco. A delight to eat holding in a little hand.
1 1/8 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups bread flour
3 teaspoons gluten
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons bread machine yeast
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water, for glaze
Sesame or poppy seeds, optional
Place all the ingredients in the pan according to manufacturer’s instructions. Program for the Dough cycle; press Start. Line a large baking sheet with parchment and coat the outside of 10 metal cream roll molds with a vegetable cooking spray like Pam.
At the beep, remove the dough and turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. With a rolling pin, roll into an 15-x-12-inch rectangle. With a pastry wheel making the cuts along the long edge, cut into 10 strips, about 1 1/2-inch thick and 12 inches long.
Holding a mold in one hand and starting at the point end, wrap a strip of dough around the mold in a spiral fashion, rotating the form in your hand to wind the dough into 1/4-inch overlapping layers all the way around it to make a thick layer. Do not stretch the dough. Stop 1/4-inch from the top of the mold to allow the bread to expand during baking. Pinch to seal at both the point and at the top. With a few inches in between, set each mold on the baking sheet on it’s side, making sure the end of the strip is underneath so it won’t pop open. Repeat with the remaining strips of dough, placing 5 molds on each baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
Fifteen minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350º, positioning the racks in the middle of the oven.
Carefully brush each cone with the egg glaze all over the sides. You can sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds, if you like. Bake 17 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes. While still warm, gently twist the forms and slip the bread cones off. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before filling. Makes 10 bread cones.
Beth Bytes: How Do Other Countries Handle School Lunch: France
In France, children eat at the school cafeteria or go home at lunch if their mom doesn’t work, and the meal itself is quite fancy compared to US standards. It is a real meal. French moms only have to pack lunches twice a year, or hardly any more, usually when the kids go on an end of the year outing.
The first course is usually fresh vegetables in a salad (tomato, cucumber, radishes, taboulé) or soup in the winter; then meat or fish with vegetables; then cheese or dairy product, then fruit. Fresh bread and bottled water is on every table.
When the kids are in kindergarten (3 to 6 yrs old) they sit 6 to 8 around a table with a supervisor per table, and kitchen ladies bring the food to the table. When they get to primary school, it is a “self service” and the kids have a tray and have a choice of 2 or 3 main courses, dairy products, etc. They are “supervides” in their choice, which means they are not allowed to skip part of the meal or take 2 desserts. Of course this has a cost, which vary from one city to the next, and from public to private school, and usually depends on parent’s revenues. The price is 28 F per meal per child, which is basically the same amount for a meal at mom and dad’s cafeteria at work!
There are very few shops or restaurants that make sandwiches, so it would be unusual to see one in a child’s lunch. Sandwiches are not a staple in the French culture, although they can be bought in “boulangeries” or as a snack in zinc bars. The French standards are a foot long piece of fresh chewy baguette layered with salami or ham and thick slices swiss cheese or camembert. Nothing compared to the U.S. !
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.