Spice Up Your Child's Lunchbox

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Ideas for combatting brown bag fatigue

After two months in first grade, my daughter was as tired of eating sandwiches as I was of making them. Tuna fish, egg, ham, peanut butter. Day after day. How boring can it get? Even pickles couldn't lift our spirits.

"Pack a hot meal in a thermos," said grandma. But the thermos came back almost full. My daughter only has 15 minutes for lunch. She can take her sandwich outside in the playground if she wishes, but dragging a bowl of spaghetti isn't an option.

What I needed was quick, nutritious recipes for cold food my girl would gobble up. After a quick review of my recipe repertoire, I came up with seven main dishes I could prepare--by cheating a little here and there--in less than half an hour.

1. Salad pita

Toss a small green salad. Add one or more of the following ingredients: tuna fish, ham, shrimp, chicken, hardboiled eggs, sunflower seeds, olives, or cheese. Stir in some salad dressing. Pack the salad in a plastic container and send pita bread along. Your child can put the salad in the pita pocket at school. That way, the bread won't get soggy.

To make this dish easier to eat for younger kids, cut all the ingredients very small. You may also want to include a fork, so they can eat the bits that may drop off on their plate.

2. Mini pizzas

Slice an English muffin or a crumpet in half. Slather each half with tomato paste. Sprinkle with spices, such as tarragon, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Add your kids' favorite pizza toppings: ham and pineapple, tomato and bacon, pepperoni and mushrooms, tofu and olives or whatever captures their fancy. Top with grated cheese.

Toast in a toaster oven or in a warm oven on broil for 10-15 minutes. If you don't want to heat up the oven for one lunch, warm up a covered frying pan on medium heat. When hot, toast the mini-pizzas until cheese is melted. Check frequently to ensure crust doesn't burn. Let pizzas cool on a rack before packing.

To save time, you can prepare several mini-pizzas and freeze them uncooked. Pull them out of the freezer to thaw, and toast as needed.

3. Quiche

Mix three beaten eggs, one cup of cottage cheese, one cup of grated cheddar, and salt and pepper. Now, flavour this mixture with one cup of any of the following ingredients: cooked vegetables, tofu, ham, chicken, or shrimp. Pour in a store-bought, thawed nine-inch crust and bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees until the middle of the quiche is firm. Cool on a rack, slice and pack. You can also freeze extra slices for later use.

If using a store-bought crust seems too much of an indulgence, consider using two cups of leftover mashed potatoes mixed with an egg. Spread the potatoes at the bottom of a greased pie plate and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Then add remaining ingredients and bake as described above.

4. Fruit tortilla

Spread a generous helping of cream cheese and jam in the middle of a flour tortilla. Top with slices of fruit such as bananas, strawberries or kiwis. Fold the top and bottom ends of the tortilla toward the middle. Do the same with the left and right ends. Here a novel sandwich that's guaranteed to be a favorite!

5. Leftover pancakes

My daughter loves cold pancakes. I send yogurt and slices of fruit along in a separate container to use as topping. Or apple sauce and raisins with a dab of cinnamon. Or, if I feel inordinately indulgent, sour cream and chocolate chips. To make it easier to pack, I make small pancakes that easily fit in a medium size container.

Like the next two recipes, pancakes are not a grab-and-go item my daughter can take to the playground. But because she likes them, she eats them in a hurry. I get no complaints and no leftovers.

6. Muesli

People generally eat muesli for breakfast. But I find it's a perfect lunch-box item, because it's nutritious and requires no cooking. It needs, however, to be prepared the night before.

For one portion, mix half a cup of slow-cooking oatmeal with half a cup of apple juice and three quarters of a cup of unsweetened yoghurt. Add a selection of the following ingredients (for a total of half to one cup): raisins, dates, chopped figs, chopped dried apricots, banana slices, berries, grated apple, almonds or walnuts. Note that dried fruits will act as a natural sweetener.

Soaking the oatmeal overnight will ensure it absorbs as much liquid as if it were cooked. In the morning, if the mixture seems a little thick, add a few tablespoons of water.

The first time I heard about muesli, I thought, "What an awful concoction!" But it took only one bite to make me and my kids muesli lovers for life.

7. Potato Salad

While any salad would make a delicious cold lunch, I find my daughter loathes most of them. But potato salad is a hit.

Now, the question is: How can I make potato salad in half an hour? I simply bake my potatoes in the microwave, four minutes on one side and four more on the other. I peel and chop them after they're cooked and cooled off.

To make one portion, I use one very large potato or two medium ones, and one hardboiled egg. I also add chopped celery, or pickles, as well as chives, or green onions, or even chopped walnuts. For dressing, I mix in some mayonnaise, a bit of salt, half a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of vinegar (my mom's secret ingredients!).

Do I make special lunch-box dishes every day of the week? No, I confess. All in all, though, the main ingredient in my kid's lunch will always be love, whether I hide it between the slices of a peanut butter sandwich or melt it with the cheddar in a quiche.

© 1999-2014 Louise Rousseau, used by permission.

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