Whoever coined the light-hearted phrase "let's do lunch" obviously didn't have a trio of school-aged kids, a job and a household to run. As almost every parent knows, sending appealing lunches to school day after day can be a major struggle, and making sure those lunches are actually consumed rather than traded or trashed is even harder. If I were to say lunches were the bane of my existence, I would be exaggerating, but only slightly.
That's exactly how Oscar Mayer's Lunchables, the little plastic trays filled with meat, cheese, crackers and a treat, took the snack-food market by storm back in the early nineties. According to Michael Moss's scathing new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, when Oscar Mayer started researching lunch, they found in mothers "a gold mine of disappointments and problems." Time-strapped and stressed, they were desperate for solutions. But the extent to which Lunchables brought relief surprised even their creators. Sales hit over $200-million in the first year and grew from there. Parents were liberated but even more than that, kids were empowered: Instead of a soggy sandwich of someone else's choosing, they could have cheese or crackers or meat; or cheese, crackers and meat. It could have been a win for everyone if the food weren't so amazingly sad. Designed to sit in storage for weeks or even months, Lunchables are heavily processed and loaded with enough fat, salt and sugar to bring a child within sight of her recommended daily allowances, while giving her very little of the good stuff she needs.
I've packed them anyway, I admit, and although it wasn't my proudest parenting moment, we all survived. Still, a lunch that staunches complaints by letting my kids decide how they want to eat: That's an idea worth stealing. Really, all it takes is a bit of planning and a great container. Throw in a bottle of water, a piece of fruit and maybe a nice cookie. Then give that baby a kiss and send it – and your child – out the door.
Here's a little snack pack that riffs off the original with all of the fun but none of the guilt. When it's steak night, broil or grill an extra and slice it thinly for the next morning. Cube some cheddar or Swiss cheese, and slice fresh veggies such as celery and peppers into neat batons. For a dip, whiz up some low-fat mayo thinned with buttermilk and flavoured with fresh dill (or pour a little of your child's favourite bottled dressing into a leak-proof container). Send with a cold pack and a little bag of low-salt crackers. Black + Blum Bento Box, $23, fenigo.com.
Oodles of Noodles
For a great veggie lunch, pick up a pack of cooked, preservative-free udon noodles at the grocery store. Cover with boiling water just long enough to loosen, then drain. While hot, dress noodles with 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil to prevent sticking, then 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce, 2 teaspoons seasoned rice vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil. Mix well and transfer to a sealable container. Chill. Slice fresh snow peas and carrots into slivers, and remove a small handful of edamame from their pods. Place vegetables in bottom of container. Add a little side container of toasted sesame seeds and maybe a few sheets of dried seaweed. Bento box from Sanko Imports in Toronto, $35, toronto-sanko.com.
Mini Taco Time
Using a knife or a 3-1/2-inch cookie cutter, cut corn or flour tortillas to fit inside a tiffin container. (Scraps can be toasted for chips.) Send tortillas flat or make into mini-tacos by setting oven to 350 F and brushing tortillas lightly with oil on both sides. Drape each tortilla over a slat of your oven rack and bake until curled and firm, about 10 minutes. Use the other sections of the tiffin for sliced leftover chicken, shredded cheese and lettuce, salsa in a little container and maybe some fresh lime wedges for zing. Keep cold until lunchtime. Tiffins, $23-$30, fenigo.com.