Austin360Cooks: Back-to-school lunch tips from @MarieSaba

Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 13, 2014

When Austinites first met Marie Saba, she was hosting a cable access show called “Cooking with Marie,” but she’s transitioned now to the role of food blogger and mom.

On her website CocinaMarie.com, Saba posts photos and recipes for all kinds of meals, but in the past few weeks, she’s been posting a lot of Instagram photos of her son Jack’s “little lunches,” filled with everything from spinach mushroom quesadillas to cream cheese, cucumber and avocado sandwiches.

Jack eats way better than my 4-year-old (golden beets! cherry tomatoes!), but that doesn’t mean parents of kids of all ages can’t learn something from her tips that she shared as part of our #Austin360Cooks project. (To find more recently submitted photos and tips, go to bit.ly/austin360cooks.)

We ran these tips in today’s food section, along another story about back-to-school lunches that includes recipes for roasted carrot hummus and a hearty berry smoothie that gets its heft from a surprise ingredient.

1. Leftovers from last night’s dinner can be a lunch-making parent’s best friend. She recommends cooking extra vegetables, including broccoli, peas, green beans, corn and beets, and go ahead and pack them into smaller containers the night before. The more you can assemble the night before, the less you have to do in the morning.

2. Presentation counts. That can mean using a cookie cutter to make a heart-shaped sandwich or simply taking the extra step to cut tomatoes, cucumbers or grapes in smaller pieces or peel an orange or avocado. “Maybe it seems like a hassle, but if you give yourself a few minutes to have fun with it, making lunch can actually be a great way to release stress and engage the right side of your brain,” she says.

3. Keep processed, convenient foods to a minimum, if you can, and balance them with as many whole foods as possible, like cheese cubes, fruit salad or whole-grain crackers.

4. Don’t stress about having a different lunch every day of the school year. Kids thrive on routine, so find four or five lunches that your child enjoys and then rotate them. When they tire of that routine, hit Pinterest to find new ideas. The bento lunch box community is a particularly creative resource, but you don’t have to spend an hour turning every component into a work of art. Take one or two ideas and incorporate them.

5. Add something special from you. “In the end, taking time to pack lunch for your children is just another way to show them your love,” Saba says. “If you don’t have time to make heart-shaped sandwiches, you can show them you care in other ways: Include a handwritten note on a napkin, a picture of the two of you smiling and hugging, or a special rock, charm, or flower for them to find. These little surprises help them feel connected and loved even while the two of you are apart.”

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