If I have ever given the impression that I know what I’m doing.
If I have ever caused you to think I plan ahead.
If I have ever led you to believe I am organized, efficient or otherwise have a handle on things.
I don’t. I can’t. And I’m not.
I do, however, try hard to keep my cupboards stocked with some lunch box-friendly staples. These are the sorts of foods that let me pull together something beyond the basic PB&J even on the worst of mornings.
And let’s face it, once we add kids to the equation, mornings tend to be more worse than not.
So I came up with a list of my top 10 go-to lunch box-friendly pantry staples. Today, the first five. And please share your must-stock items.
- Mini phyllo cups: With the exception of foods that dare to be green, I could put almost anything in these little pastry cups and Parker would devour them. His favorite filling is quiche (meat, cheese and a bit of whisked egg), but he also loves yogurt and fresh fruit. I’ve even turned them into pizza cups by filling them with cheese, chopped salami and sun-dried tomato, as well as peanut butter and banana cups (filled with — are you ready? — peanut butter and banana). They are inexpensive (usually less than $2 for a package of 15) and have about 12 calories per cup. You’ll find them in the grocer’s freezer section near the frozen pastry. Yet you don’t even have to cook them. Fill them with yogurt or such directly from the freezer and pack them that way. They’ll thaw and be perfect by lunch. And if you’re packing a thermos of warm chili, these cups make great scooper chips.
- Cream cheese: Or what I like to call food glue. Whether they are rolled, wrapped, flat or conventional, sandwiches packed in lunch boxes tend to fall apart. And when I watch my son carrying his lunch box into school in that ever-so-careful way 8-year-old boys have with everything, I can’t imagine why… Cream cheese (or any other sticky spread, such as peanut butter or hummus or even sour cream) fixes this by acting as a glue to hold the various pieces together. I buy an organic variety, but low-fat and whipped (also lower in fat and calories because of the air whipped into it) also are available. Of all the sticky food glues, cream cheese is my favorite because it works equally well with sweet and savory foods. Parker’s favorite sandwich is bacon, ham and cream cheese in a whole-wheat tortilla. I know… fat bomb. But actually, cream cheese is significantly healthier than butter. While 2 tablespoons of butter have 204 calories and 23 grams of fat, the same amount of regular cream cheese has just 100 calories and 10 grams of fat (whipped cream cheese has just 60 calories and 5 grams of fat).
- Fresh fruit: I know… Duh! But seriously. We’re all doing time in the lunch box trenches, and for most of us that involves a daily struggle to get healthy foods into our kids. Much as I wish I could get my kid to gnaw on raw leeks and arugula every day, I’ve long since accepted this fantasy will never be my reality. Which doesn’t mean I surrender the idea of filling him with as much healthy fresh produce as possible. But I save the green bean battles for dinner and make sure I always have some sort of fruit I can shove in his lunch. Berries are his favorite, though they spoil more quickly. Apples are a must. I like to core and slice them for him. Fruit somebody else cuts up for you is always more appealing. Plus, when given whole apples, kids tend to munch halfheartedly around it, then toss it with plenty of good apple left on the core. If I core and slice it, he eats everything. Just remember to toss it in some lemon or orange juice (dilute it with water if the taste if too strong) to keep it from browning.
- Whole-wheat tortillas: I could probably build a couple dozen different lunches out of whole-wheat tortillas. Sometimes I make wraps stuffed with his favorite sandwich fixings. Sometimes I make burritos by wrapping and folding them entirely around the fillings (barbecue pulled chicken or pork are popular choices, but so are peanut butter and banana). I can even turn them into sushi. For that, I lay it flat, pile thinly sliced meats and other fillings on it, then roll it up in a log (glue it shut with cream cheese or something similarly sticky), then cut it crosswise into maki-style pieces. Sometimes I make quesadillas by sandwiching cheese and other fillings between two tortillas, then toasting the whole thing in a skillet. And if you’re feeling ambitious, you can even cut a tortilla into wedges, then fry them in a skillet with a bit of oil to make fresh tortilla chips. That is one of Parker’s favorite snacks after school (technically not lunch, but still…).
- Yogurt cups: Talk about a convenience food you can feel good about. Yogurt comes in about a billion flavors now, never mind all sorts of crazy varieties, including Greek, Icelandic and Australian. Creamy, delicious, filling, healthy and easy to pack. For breakfast for Parker, I’ll often open a cup and scoop some yogurt into an ice cream sundae cup. Then I add a layer of fresh fruit, a layer of crumbled graham crackers, more yogurt, and so on. A breakfast parfait. You can make this ahead of time and pack in their lunch, too. Or even better, get yourself a food container with multiple compartments and pack all sorts of parfait add-ins to go with a yogurt cup. Come lunch, the kids can assemble their own parfait. You also can dollop yogurt onto warm applesauce (packed in a thermos), dunk apple and orange slices in it (chocolate yogurt is good for this), or spoon it over toasted frozen waffles. And when I’m really low on inspiration, time, food or all three, I will dump one into the blender with whatever fruit we have for a lunch box-friendly smoothie.
As for today’s lunch, we have a whole-wheat tortilla wrapped around leftover pot roast and candied bacon (glued shut with cream cheese, of course). I also have some leftover whole-wheat pasta from last night’s dinner. I made a cheese sauce that reheats well and popped the whole thing in a thermos. Done!