By Katy Killilea
A child’s lunch box is a tiny, portable piece of home. Like a happy home, it is best kept clean and comfortable and filled with good things to eat. Finding the right format for your child’s lunch need not be tricky, and waxed paper and a bag might be all anyone actually needs. However, lunch box goods get cleverer and more beautiful each year, so they are fun to choose and can quash the new-school jitters.
The cost of outfitting a lunch box shouldn’t exceed the cumulative cost of the food that will go in it. But like boots, cabinetry, and masking tape, it’s worthwhile to consider higher-cost options. Metal containers are pricier than their plastic counterparts, but are very durable and can be safely washed/crammed into dishwasher by clumsy/careless people in your household. Among other lunchtime items, Eco Lunch Boxes offers a lidded, sandwich-sized container of stainless steel, accompanied by a small leak-proof dish that fits inside and reliably contains liquid components ($22 for the set). Lunchbots is dedicated completely to stainless steel lunch containers and offers a basic rounded rectangle for $13. (Spotted locally in Wakefield at the Alternative Food Coop.) An eight-ounce cylinder from Kids Konserve ($18.50 for a set of two) will last to accompany your child to college, but let us bar our minds any images of what might be stored in it then.
A divided container with compartments of different sizes can keep a lunch neat and can also help a parent’s brain function. Easy Lunch Boxes offers sets of four three-compartment containers ($14) to get lunch ideas flowing. Invented by a mom of three who’s “all about fresh, healthy, and FAST,” this is like a simplified Laptop Lunch set with more wiggle room and the potential to fit neatly in a favorite lunch bag.
On Etsy or at Kreatelier, and sometimes at Providence Open Market, artists offer distinctive-looking Zip-loc size fabric bags with features like velcro closures that seal all the way across to keep pretzels from migrating. Elena at Bebeloosh offers bags of appealingly simple hemp and organic cotton, each decorated with a beguiling calico astronaut or owl. Get a five-pack for $30 in her Bebeloosh Etsy shop. (Bebeloosh bags are offered individually for $7.) Lizzy at Bag It Conscious lines each bag with ripstop nylon to keep juicy stuff contained and uses boldly colorful fabrics patterned with flowers, cupcakes, or rows of granny smiths. A set with one sandwich bag and a smaller, matching snack bag is $13.25 in the Bag It Conscious Etsy shop. (Single sandwich bag, $7.) Our original favorite reusable Zip-loc replacer, the Happy Sack, has changed its name and oomphed up its inventory; see Snack Taxi for the full line of pleasing, modern fabric choices. Make an imaginary lunch date with Jeff Tweedy more realistic with a Snack Taxi bag designed just for Wilco. (Snack Taxi bags are $7-$9.)
If you’re not so much a bagger as a wrapper, Kids Konserve offers super-easy, completely wipe-off-able reusable wrappers ($9 for two patterned mats.) Wrap n Mat is another excellent choice. Durable and easy to wash and air-dry, these are available in a few sizes and mind-bogglingly eclectic fabrics. ($7.50 for a wrap made in China, $9 for one made in the USA.)
Can a folding spoon work like a magic wand? Is Target’s camping aisle a portal to Diagon Alley? My favorite lunch box item of the year is the squat food jar from Thermos ($20.) It promises to keep food hot for seven hours, and has a built-in jointed metal spoon that young testers say is fun to use. If a wizard had a magical folding spoon, this would be that spoon.
What foods do your children eat at school? Each year at this time, I’m gung-ho on lunch. I work with my kids to create a list of mutually agreeable lunch options (i.e. a list of things they are happy to eat and I am neutral-to-happy to provide.) In a complex but predictable dance, the system falls apart within the first few weeks of school, and I begin to make fluffernutters.
But hope springs eternal. Last year everyone we know shared ideas for packed lunches with Kidoinfo, and this year we’re adding to the list. Here are more favorites from more schoolchildren:
Fruits and Veg
- Salsa as gazpacho: a lidded dish of salsa with some tortilla chip scoops
- Cucumber slices sprinkled with salt
- Carrot sticks with any kind of dip (ranch dressing was mentioned as a favorite)
- Strawberry slices with “three chocolate chips” (this tip comes from Hannah’s Harvest)
- Apple slices layered with orange slices do not turn brown
- Frozen applesauce will be nicely slushy by lunchtime
- String cheese tastes even better at room temperature; serve a limp, leftover stick as an after school snack and get rave reviews. Further along in its lifespan, string cheese is a fine treat for a dog.
- Cheese, TLC crackers and olives to stack and munch
- Cucumber and cheese sandwich on soft wheat bread
- Pretzel rods for attacking a triangle of Laughing Cow cheese
- Laughing Cow cheese spread along the edge of a wrap sandwich functions as strong adhesive to keeps things tight
- Cheddar or deli American cheese wrapped in a tortilla, nuked, and packed in foil to be eaten later at room temperature is a quesadilla, with emphasis on the L
- Mini sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches (crusts off, cut into one-inch squares)
- Any sandwich cut into an amusing shape (“turkey dolphin” is one child’s favorite; be assured it is dolphin-shaped). RISDworks (the museum store) has a set of six sandwich cutters (includes teddy bear, jack o’lantern, and more to see you through the school year while maintaining a seasonal theme: $12)
- Specificity Sandwich (a.k.a. Pretension on Bread): most deli counters encourage, or at least make it easy for, children to sample different meats and cheeses. Instead of “ham and cheese” they might hone in on “hand tied maple ham with Jarlsberg”
- “Faux Dairy-Dactyl” (named for the popular combo plate that school lunch provider Chartwells sometimes offers as an alternative choice)=tube yogurt, brick of cheese, peanut butter crackers + drink
- Cocktail Party Tuna=tuna from a can packed in a lidded bowl, Ritz crackers, and a tiny cocktail fork for creating an hors d’oeuvre display
- Bento, bento, bento
- Customized miso soup (starts out as hot water mixed with miso paste in a thermos. Optional: seaweed, tofu cubes, noodles…)
- Trader Joe’s chicken noodle soup and baked beans, and Amy’s No-Chicken noodle were mentioned as favorites from cans
- Any pasta leftovers (penne with marinara and macaroni and cheese were mentioned as favorites) nuked to bubbling hot, then packed in a pre-heated thermos
- Hot cocoa on the first snowy day
- Your House Blend trail mix (cereal, nuts, chocolate, dried fruits, pretzels…Peanut Butter Puffins with M&Ms?)
- Welchitos: mini-cans of juice are sugary and cheap, but have no HFCS. (Grape and mango Welchitos can be found in the Latin American food sections of most Rhode Island supermarkets.)
- A carrot or zucchini muffin counts as a cupcake and a salad
- Peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwich
- Build-your-own parfait with pudding and graham crackers (prepare the night before) or a cup of chocolate pudding with graham crackers to dip
- Bologna on Charmin-soft white bread, with optional mayo or straight up
- Dog in a blanket: nuke a hot dog. Wrap in tortilla. Place in container to be eaten at room temperature at lunchtime
Step into the new school year with hope that food will be eaten, bellies will be filled, brains will be fueled, and our children will be set for the day, even though we aren’t there to wipe off their chocolate milk mustaches.
If you have had any brilliant or even modestly successful packed school lunches, would you be so kind as to share them by posting a comment?
Photo credits: Lunchbots, Easy Lunch Boxes, and Kids Konserve.
Editor’s note: Eco Lunch Boxes, Easy Lunch Boxes, Etsy artists, and Kids Konserve provided samples for review. Kidoinfo never accepts payment of any kind for reviews, and only mentions products we have tried and liked.