After more than two months of shutdown, schools are starting to reopen their gates to children without key-worker parents. However, some schools have not yet reopened their kitchens. If you have made the choice to return your kids to school, it means it could be time to start thinking about lunchboxes. Perhaps you’re just a little rusty. Perhaps your children have always had school dinners and this will be their first taste of packed lunches. Either way, here’s a quick guide to throwing together a cheap and healthy lunchbox.
First, the basics. According to the dietitian Ursula Arens, the basic formula for a lunchbox is “hydration, plus wholemeal starch, plus protein, plus fruit”. For hydration, water is best. Fruit can just as easily be vegetable sticks. For the rest, a sandwich is the classic main lunchbox component.
For younger children – at nursery or key stage 1 – bitter experience has taught me that the double-handed balancing act of a traditional sandwich is sometimes too much. If that is the case, a pack of wraps will be your new best friend. Spread one with hummus, sprinkle it with shredded chicken, grated carrot, grated cheese and some salad leaves, roll it up tightly and chop it into inch-long pieces and you have something even tiny hands can manage.
The baby-and-child nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed points out that, great as sandwiches are, serving up the same thing day after day can quickly put children off. She advises “thinking outside the lunchbox”. Carbs don’t mean only bread; you can just as easily sub in an alternative. Her suggestions include crackers with a hummus dip and a mini cheese, or roasted veg with kidney beans, couscous and grated cheese.
She also advises trying a frittata. These are great because kids can eat them cold with their fingers, plus you can hide no end of vegetables inside. Most importantly, the kids will eat only a slice of it, which means you get three-quarters of a frittata for your lunch. To make her baby frittata, slice and fry five mushrooms, wilt two large handfuls of spinach, then put them in a blender with an egg and 2 tbsp of flour. Then fry the mixture like an omelette. They freeze well, too.
If you have any clear plastic jars to hand, watercress.co.uk (of all places) has a great recipe for layered tuna pasta lunch pots. Layer 75g of cooked macaroni, some tuna mayonnaise, half a small tin of sweetcorn and slices of red and orange pepper into a jar, top with 25g of watercress and seal the container. These keep for 24 hours in the fridge if you need to make them in advance.
Lunchboxes are also a smart way to use up any leftovers. The food-waste writer Ann Storr’s Storr Cupboard website has a useful recipe for leftover green beans with pasta and pesto (she also makes the pesto from salad bag leftovers).
For this recipe, boil 200g of salad potatoes for between 20-30 minutes, depending on the size. When they are done, remove them from the water (keeping the water) and mix in a bowl with a tablespoon or two of pesto. Then, cook 200g of short pasta, such as penne or fusilli, in the potato water, before adding it to the bowl with the potatoes. Chop the green beans into pasta-sized lengths, cook them in the same water for four minutes and add them to the bowl, too. If it needs more pesto, go crazy.
If your children are starting to chafe at all the fresh fruit you are giving them, the Great British Apples website has a nice method for turning apples into lightly spiced chips. Thinly slice 400g of braeburn apples into 1-2mm rounds, sprinkle over 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground cardamom seeds, ½ tsp ginger powder and a pinch of salt, then place on to greased baking trays and cook for 45 minutes at 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas mark 5. The resulting chips last a while if you keep them in an airtight jar.
An important final note: returning to school after such a long absence, especially into an environment that is so different to what they had previously experienced, might freak your children out a little. If that is the case, ambushing them with a nutritionally complete, show-off lunchbox item for the first time might be a step too far. This is a time for comfort food, so don’t be afraid to dump in some cake, marshmallows, chocolate, or anything your child actually likes. They may as well have one nice thing a day.
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