Back-to-School Lunches

September 02, 2009

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I became obsessed with my girls' lunch boxes at the end of last school year. It was June and I volunteered to be a room parent on Neha's kindergarten field trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Things were going great until we stopped for lunch.

 

The teacher sat all the kids down in a grassy area by the flamingos and asked everyone to pull out their lunches. Neha opened hers and instead of digging in like the other kids, buried her chin into her hands. She looked down and looked thoroughly dejected.

"Neha. Why aren't you eating?" I asked.

"Mom. Just look at my lunch. I can't eat anything. It's all mushy!"

She was right. Everything that looked so wonderful and fresh that morning was brown, curling and unappetizing by noon. I felt like the worst mom in the world. I immediately jumped up...ran to the cafe and ordered a turkey sandwich with lots of fresh veggies for us to split with a bag of chips. I've never seen a kid's mood turn so fast. I could just imagine if I had not been there and how Neha would have just shuffled her food around and packed up without eating anything.

I know I can't be there every day for Neha or Aria. And I know I have to be especially creative. Their school doesn't allow peanuts or nuts and because my girls are generally vegetarian (outside of the random slice of turkey or chicken) I have to be especially creative. (For the turkey sandwich at her school trip Neha made me take out all but one slice of turkey but ate up all the lettuce and tomatoes).

That's what my article today in the Chicago Sun-Times food section is all about -sucessfully feeding your kids when they are outside your clutches and in school with their friends and teachers and very little monitoring.

There are great recipes in the article - many of which my daughters loved. Even if you think they are too daring for your child - don't assume anything. Try making them with your kids. I bet they'll be more willing to try eating a recipe they've shaped and molded with their own hands versus one that has suddenly just appeared in their lunch box.

I am also obsessed with finding the best lunch box for my kids. I'm not sure I have quite yet, but here are some suggestions. Please post comments if you have any other ideas:

1. Laptop Lunchbox: this is based on the Japanese bento box - a rectangular, flat box with many compartments for small amounts of various foods. After a year of searching for a real bento box and coming up short I was ecstatic I found these at Whole Foods. I bought them for the kids and immediately and used them for a year. Generally, the idea behind is a great one. But, here's the downside. They are flat and thin. You have to cut up fruit and veggies to fit into the compartments. Chopped anything usually doesn't hold up well by the time kids get to lunch. There is no room for a whole apple, banana, peach, etc. The plastic latch also seems to wear out after some time. It was also extremely hard to clean. The outer cover doesn't appear to be machine washable and it would stink after fruit juice leaked into it (most containers inside don't have lids). For the amount I paid for it ($35), I thought the construction would be better quality. Their water bottle also leaked. The most valuable part of the set was the book with all the recipes for lunches. They have some nice tips on salads and sandwiches. All in all, I would recommend keeping this as a great options for kids and adults in the car for a road trip. The kids can fill it with goodies of their choice and then open it up on their laps in the back seat with minimal risk of it tipping over. I know some of you have bought this for your kids - please continue to use it and tell me what you think!

2. OOTS! Lunchboxes:
I haven't tried this lunchbox yet, but it looks neat: stackable plastic containers that are both reusable and functional. All the plastic they say is kid safe and everything sort of fits together. Just looking at it from the website it just seems a little bulky to me. But, worth a shot if your kid likes the design. It's a little too European for my not-so-fancy kiddos. It also seems pricey. Do I really need to spend $50 for a lunchbox? $100 if you consider I need 2? Then again, that's the price including the food containers.

3. BUILT New York is another brand becooming popular with moms and kids. Again, this one I have not tried, but looks like it could work. The material is flexible so you could fit in a sandwich along with some whole fruit and another small container. Nice price point as well. I just wonder as the kids get a little older if they'll actually be into the animal faces. My four-year-old is already almost past that stage.

4. If you are really looking to get back to basics, check out the stainless steel tiffins from OM-Goods. There's no real catch here, just kids stacking foods in stainless steel containers the way kids in India have been doing for a lifetime. This San Diego-based small endeavor is basically taking a classic and repackaging it. The Chicago native behind the idea - Charita Charu Singh - is a chef and mom determined to waste as little as possible when it comes to lunches - for kids and adults alike. She now lives in San Diego and teaches her two young children to eat wholesome foods in a wholesome way. What I love is that she designed carrying bags that hold the 2-tier and 4-tier containers. I ordered the 2-tier with the small bag so the girls can fit in a whole fruit at the top. I ordered a 4-tier with a bag for myself. Definitely worth checking out if you think your kids' little fingers are nimble enough to open the latches on their own or with a little help. For about $40 you can get the tiffin ($12)..a bag ($15) and a set of cloth napkins. While I love the idea of zero waste, I think the cloth napkins are a little big for school lunches - though they're perfect for use at home. If you go this route get 10% off if you use coupon code: *b2school* at checkout!

If you don't want to order online, check out any Indian grocery store. You'll find the tiffins (not sure if they will be the kid-friendly sizes though). Keep in mind as well that stainless steel looks great but can dent and bend easily. Also, when the stuff comes from India there can be little things come up. For example, a pack of stainless steel drinking cups I got had stickers on them that I just can't get off. It's that heavy Indian glue that is going to have to be soaked for awhile!

Regardless, I love the concept of zero waste and getting back to basics. Neha loves the SS glasses. They frost over when you put in cold liquids. And the 250 ml sizes are perfect for little hands. Just cut down a straw to fit! OM-Goods is definitely worth checking out.

5. So, this all begs the question what are my girls using? I've set them up with lunchboxes from Pottery Barn Kids, which have the mix-and-match plastic containers. The only thing I was shocked by? The containers don't easily fit into the lunchbox. You have to kind of cram them in. Really bad marketing in my opinion. It should all be made to fit together regardless of the combination you use. When I asked a sales associate about it, she said the reason was that kids don't like lunchboxes that are too big. I don't think an inch here or there would have made a difference to the kids but for the moms at least everything would have fit. For now, though, it appears to be working. I'll likely start them on their tiffins when they want me to work them in. They only arrived on Monday - after school had already started. Neha was excited about the stainless steel - Aria preferred her pink lunchbox from Pottery Barn Kids.

 

Once you've figured out the lunch box and the food inside, take a look at PenPal Notes - http://www.penpalnotes.com/ The concept - developed by a fellow parent at my kids' school - is a really cute idea. About $10 will buy you a pack of postcards with interesting factoids from all around the world narrated by "Tej" the panda. On the other side is a spot where you can pen a note to your child. The packs include discovering Africa...dinasaurs...and traveling tastebuds. Each pack comes with its own set of sticker stamps. I love the idea and so did Neha. Though the various packs of cards range for ages 4 - 7, 5-8, and 6 -10, kids really have to have a grasp of reading before they're able to appreciate the concept. Aria loved the sticker stamps though! If you use the cards, just continue to stress to your kids they still HAVE to remember to eat!

Container Store is also great for a few products. The first is reusable labels. You can write on them with a sharpie and erase with the special eraser that comes with the pack. I've had my containers labeled for years for spices and lentils and whenever I want to change, I just erase and write again! I love this idea for labeling the kids lunch box compartments as you don't know if it will be handed down in a year's time or better yet - donated!

I also love the reusable ice cubes from Container Store. They are little opaque plastic cubes that you stick in the freezer. I always pull out a couple and pack with the kids lunches if I need to keep fruit cool and fresh. This way, no bulky ice packs for them and no watery mess for me! Just be sure NOT to put them in with the regular ice. I once ground them into a smoothie without even realizing it! Duh!

More Recipes:

We just couldn't fit all the recipes into my article, so I thought I'd post a couple more. Keep checking back, as I'll try to keep adding as I think of more.

Chickers: One of the moms I interviewed came up with a great idea for finger food protein snacks. Take a can of garbanzo beans...drain of all water...toss with your favorite spices, sea salt and a touch of olive oil...put in oven at 375 degrees for about 15-20 minutes. Can be eaten hot or cold. My daughter Neha loves these because she can pop them right into her mouth - no matter how much she's chatting at lunchtime.

Smoothies: I am obsessed with smoothies for breakfast lunch and dinner. My favorite these days is: 1 cup soy milk/1 tablespoon goji berries/12 almonds/1 banana/7 frozen strawberries/3 tablespoons Greek yogurt/6 pieces ice. Blend up to frozen perfection. My girls love this concotions - especially on the go in the morning to school. You can use extra ice and pack it up for a drink for a mid-morning snack.

Even if the kids question the smoothie concept, start by pouring small amounts in shot glasses for them. Just this morning I did that and cut down a straw for Neha and she sucked the smoothie right up. Focus on the fun part of eating!

Mock Egg Salad: I love love love this recipe even though I eat eggs. It's amazingly simple and tasty. Take one block of firm tofu, 1 tablespoon Nayonaise (fake mayonaise), 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, chopped onion, carrots, celery. Throw in a bowl and mash well (I use my hands - get out a little aggression). Serve between bread or as a dip. Aria loves it. Neha hates it. I adore it! Tell me what you think!



Anupy Singla
Anupy Singla

Author



11 Comments

Elena Marre
Elena Marre

September 09, 2009

Anupy, the Sun Times Article was really great. I can't seem to find your email, but wanted to reach out. Can't wait to try your aloo gobi recipe! Elena

Indian As Apple Pie
Indian As Apple Pie

September 09, 2009

Hi Elena. Thanks for the great recipes!! Really made the piece. Hope you got good feedback!

Christine Fugate
Christine Fugate

September 05, 2009

I have been looking for lunch-y type containers for a while and this was actually super helpful for me. I also got a chuckle about blending the plastic ice cube into a smoothie! Heh.

Thanks for the post lady!

Leesie
Leesie

September 06, 2009

I saw these bento boxes mentioned on another blog and thought I'd pass it along. http://www.ichibankanusa.com/bento_box.asp

I just discovered your blog and am looking forward to following, learning and cooking with you! That butter chicken looks to die for ;o) and I'm looking forward to your cook book.

Thanks!

Indian As Apple Pie
Indian As Apple Pie

September 07, 2009

Thanks to all the new names on the blog. I really appreciate you visiting from time to time. Anjali! Lily! (Love the hot food idea – I might add that in)…Tej's dad!:)

Karyn and Christine thanks for reading the piece. Even if I didn't have kids I'd benefit from the recipe. In terms of containers I've been using my tiffin non-stop since I got it and I love love love love it! (The 4 tier is amazing for making little treats to get you through a work day or a road trip).

Leesie…thank you for the mention of the bento boxes. I am going to include that in the site. And welcome! I hope you try some of the recipe. -Anupy

Anonymous
Anonymous

September 04, 2009

Hi Anupy! Great blog and great article! Another lunch idea is to give them hot meals. Our little one likes it when we put hot fried rice in a thermos and it's still warm at lunch. I think she gets tired of cold food. —Lily

rb
rb

September 04, 2009

good stuff Anupy… like the chickers idea..


Tej's dad

Anonymous
Anonymous

September 05, 2009

Hi Anupy,

Enjoyed the article in the Sun Times. Even though I don't have children or have to worry about school lunches, it kept my interest. Very well written. Congrats! Karyn

Deborah
Deborah

September 03, 2009

Found your blog through your post on AWJ. I love Indian food. Wish I could make it, but I'm almost two hours south of you and have plans for Friday that wouldn't allow me to get there in time. Although my blog isn't devoted to food exclusively, I do a lot of posts about food. Hope you'll stop by for a Cybervisit sometime!
Deborah
http://antiquityoaks.blogspot.com

Indian As Apple Pie
Indian As Apple Pie

September 03, 2009

Hi. Thanks so much for visiting my site – you've got to love AWJ! I just checked out your blog. Love it already! I'll make you a deal. I get to visit you on your farm (my kids are animal obsessed) and I'll bring food to YOU!!!!!!!:) -Anupy

Anjali
Anjali

September 03, 2009

Hi Anupy!

Avanti just told me about your wonderful blog! Congrats on it and on the book! I look forward to seeing it all come together!

Keep up the great work—it is a great read! :)

Anjali (Avanti's sister)

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