Most parents will agree that children can be pretty tough food critics. Preparing school lunches becomes a parental balancing act – provide nutrition and energy while ensuring the lunch is delicious enough to stay out of the trash bin. One way to clinch the lunch deal is to have the child participate in creating it. Preparing a meal with kids is a great way to spend time together while educating about making smart food choices. Allowing them to take ownership of the task will build confidence and help to ensure their hard work gets eaten. Here are some of our favorite ideas for balanced school lunches for mini-gourmands. Diminutive “foodies” will be delighted to find these creative meals in their lunchboxes.
Turning Japanese: Bento Box Lunch
The Japanese “packed lunch”, or O-bento, is quickly becoming a craze among American school children. Tired of the humdrum sack lunch, creative kids (and parents) are eating up the bento trend, using it as both a form of expression and a way to make healthier lunch options fun. Bento boxes have divided compartments for several different types of food – a great way to ensure a meal is balanced. When building your bento, make sure to pick an array of foods that keep well at room temperature, are bite-sized and of varying colors and appealing textures. Start with a small portion of starch as your base, like rice, noodles, quinoa or potato croquettes. Then add protein. Our smoked meats cut into strips or cubes are great options, like smoked duck breast and smoked chicken breast.
Hard-boiled eggs are bento staples. We suggest hard-boiled quail eggs. The adorable eggs are bite-sized and have the same taste and texture as hen eggs. Round out the meal with a small selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, like cherry tomatoes, carrot and cucumber sticks, edamame, grapes, berries, sugar snap peas, citrus segments or baby corn. Stay away from fruits that brown when cut, like apples and banana. Some bento enthusiasts add extra appeal by giving each box a theme and turning foods into fun shapes using special molds, paring tools or cookie cutters. Give it a try!
Updating the Classics: The Sandwich
Sandwiches are an excellent way to get healthy ingredients into a neat little package but kids today crave more than the typical PB&J. Protein-packed chicken salad is a good choice. Sweeten it up while adding fiber with some fresh or dried fruits like dried cranberries, raisins, diced fresh apple or pear. Mini-meatball “sammys” are satisfying and healthy when made with lean ground bison and lycopene-rich tomato sauce. Add a thin piece of mozzarella cheese and serve in a whole wheat pita. Our smoked chicken breast makes a moist and delicious sandwich. Try it in a wrap with sweet butter lettuce and a thick swipe of hummus instead of mayonnaise. For little burger lovers, try sliders made from ground Kobe-Style Wagyu Ground Beef. Layer the teeny patties with cheese and veggies on whole grain buns. Baked sweet potato wedges with honey-mustard dip make for tasty “fries”.
Mini Main Courses: Lunch from Leftovers
A healthy, balanced dinner can easily equal a real-food, brown bag lunch the next day. All you need is a little ingenuity and a few pantry ingredients. Turn Sunday’s roasted chicken into Monday’s Asian-style lettuce wraps. Cut leftover breast meat into strips and toss with an Asian-style dressing, sesame seeds and julienned veggies and pack up with sturdy lettuce leaves for wrapping. Mandarin orange segments make a tasty side dish. Tuesday’s pasta with meat sauce morphs into Wednesday’s sloppy joes. Drain excess liquid from sauce and scoop into baby pitas or brioche buns. Serve with crunchy baby carrots. Wednesday’s braised short ribs ease into Thursday’s beef tacos. Pack corn tortillas with tender beef, shredded lettuce, diced tomato and grated cheese. Turn Thursday’s meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy into Friday’s mini shepherd’s pies. Crumble meatloaf into a shatterproof ramekin or lidded bowl, add a spoon of gravy and top with mashed potatoes and a sprinkling of shredded cheese. Stick under the broiler until just melted. Apple wedges are a nice, tart accompaniment.