If you have kids that attend school, or a job that doesn't cater lunch to your cubical daily, then figuring out your mid-day meal is a part of your daily grind. And to make it even more of an unpleasant task, it often needs to be done the night before. Who in the world is that "with it" that they can first of all think up, not to mention execute the preparation of, a satisfying and healthy, portable meal a full 18 hours before it is to be consumed? And do it consistently several times a week, no less. A successful lunch packer has to be prepared! A very different sort of preparedness than for dinner.
I am striving to make more cold lunches for my first grader. Sure, the schools are trying to serve healthier hot lunches and offer fresh fruits and vegetables, but the menu leaves a lot to be desired. Spaghetti Chicken Casserole, anyone? And there is that mom guilt that sets in when I think that I'm taking the easy way out, allowing the school to feed her from a trough like cattle. But how can you make a "cold" lunch that is appetizing, satisfying, and healthy? And don't even think about a frozen meal. Besides, they don't have microwaves in the school cafeteria.
Moving beyond peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, cookies and a juice box is my mission. Here are some of the ideas I've been able to come up with: (But, I could sure use more suggestions from those of you who may be Lunchtime Ninjas, so please leave ideas in the comments.)
- Surimi (also sold as imitation crab or lobster) is tasty, basically all protein, and easy to pack. You often find it on a salad bar, so that was the idea. I've packed this with a little cup of ranch dressing, some 2% string cheese, grape tomatoes, and whole grain crackers with Nutella.
- Pasta salad (made with whole grain pasta, grape tomatoes, feta cheese crumbles, diced up pepperoni or salami, bite sized broccoli, sliced baby carrots, dress lightly with extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar, sea salt and pepper) and a piece of fruit covers all nutritional bases. It's also very tasty, and you can make it in large batches because it keeps well in the fridge. Ooh, a little squeeze of the basil from the tube (see Arsenal of a Dinnertime Ninja) is good in it, too. I like using rotini noodles or farfalle noodles. The shapes are fun.
- Lunchables are the ultimate cold lunch. But those pre-packaged store bought varieties have a lot of sodium, preservatives, and lower quality meat and cheese than we need. Instead, visit the deli counter and get some of the freshly sliced lean meats and all natural cheese. You can request a thick cut, and then cut them into smaller pieces that can be stacked on some organic whole grain crackers. Some apple slices, almonds and raisins are a sweet treat in place of the cookies, candy or pudding cups.
- Soup! Not the kind where you pop the tab, peel back the lid and microwave. Have you seen the sodium content in those??? Break out the Scooby Do thermos and fill it with a hearty and tasty homemade soup or stew. Use your favorite recipe or try organic low sodium chicken stock, white beans, garbanzo beans, red kidney beans, spinach, egg noodles or tortellini , stewed tomatoes, lots of herbs and spices. Enjoy it with a hunk of crusty multi-grain bread and you have a very satisfying meal.
- California Wrap is a take on the sushi roll. There are a plethora of "wraps" on the market that vary in flavor, texture, and nutritional value. Find one you like and fill it with sliced avocado tossed in lime juice, real or imitation crab meat, sliced cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion or scallion (omit that if you have a meeting that afternoon) and shredded Monterrey jack cheese. You don't really need a dressing or mayo, I promise. The juicy tomatoes, lime juice and avocado will keep it moist and delish, and you save yourself from adding lots of unnecessary fat and calories. For this one you may want to pack the filling in a separate container and assemble before eating. Be extra fancy and add fresh spinach leaves.
- Salad is a lunchtime go to. But be warned, I better not see you with iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing. We can do a lot better than that! There are some great pre-washed bagged organic mixes in the produce section. Good rule of thumb is that the darker or more vibrant the color, the better it is for you. I happen to love baby spinach. Toss with fresh raspberries, blueberries and/or strawberries (whatever is on sale, in season or already in your fridge) toasted pine nuts, crumbled goat cheese or blue cheese, and grilled chicken. A raspberry vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil makes it the perfect finish. A little bit of the dressing goes a loooong way.
Quick tip: If you like chicken... Once a week grill a few boneless skinless chicken breasts simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and store in the fridge. Use them throughout the week: sliced to top your salad, cubed to add to your soup or eat with your homemade lunchable, or shredded for a chicken salad sandwich.