Thinking inside the lunchbox
Summer is the time for parents to pack creative lunch options.
By now, that pristine Spider-Man lunchbox you bought in August is dented and dingy. You have also burned through no less than 500 plastic baggies for sandwiches, chips and grapes.
And now summer is looming, which means that the school hot lunch line option will disappear. For parents, that means more packed lunches, plus brutal Central Texas heat. How many peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches can a kid really eat?
Even the least picky eaters like some variety.
With an eye to summer kids' lunches, I tested three bento-style boxes on my almost-4-year-old daughter, Ayanna. I have a vested interest in this project because we will start packing school lunches in the fall, and food experts suggest introducing new lunchtime foods over the summer to reduce wasted food during the school year. Ayanna can eat other kids her age under the table, especially when it comes to vegetables, but only if the food looks tasty.
"The reason why Lunchables (from Oscar Mayer) are so appealing to kids is not the actual food," said Kelly Lester, who started Easy Lunchboxes in 2009. "Kids love being able to take off the lid and see all their food at once. They hate for their food to touch. It is presentation, and if you do that, they will eat food that is good for them."
Another advantage of the compartmentalized boxes is reduced waste, although before the test, I was unsure that a 4-year-old was up to the challenge of multiple containers and lids. Some of the containers looked hard to open and close, and the last thing you want is soggy leftovers in the bottom of a backpack on a hot summer day.
What I found? Definitely spring for a lunch box with insulation, even if the lunch will spend all day in the classroom. Then you can either add an ice pack or freeze your beverage in a freezer-safe bottle to help keep the rest of the lunch cold.
Both my daughter and I turned out to be big fans of the Laptop Lunch system. The slim design makes it easy to pack and refrigerate food overnight and then slide the lunch into a larger backpack. The lids and beverage bottle were liquid-tight and easy for her to open. The clasp on the main box was a challenge at first for her fingers, but other parents tell me that with a little practice, kids as young as 2 can handle it. And by the end of the weekend, Ayanna had hijacked the box and was opening it in the living room. (I liked it so much that I'm considering an adult version with a smaller insulated sleeve for my work lunches.)
Apparently I'm not alone, according to mom and Laptop Lunch co-founder Amy Hemmert. The company started as a kids' lunch solution but quickly branched out after getting sheepish calls from parents confessing that they had their own spaceship Laptop Lunch for work. Hemmert got the idea for the format from living in Japan, where schoolchildren routinely use compartmentalized containers called bento boxes, but she wanted a configuration that could handle an American-style lunch heavily reliant on sandwiches rather than rice.
The best part about the little containers? In addition to being eco-friendly and BPA-free, ditching the baggies liberates lunch-making from the sandwich rut. You have the ability to send potato pancakes, applesauce, omelets and pasta salad. To this day, I won't touch a bologna sandwich after my mother sent one almost daily to school with me in third grade.
The downside? The dishes. And if you have more than one kid, they will take over your dishwasher. But everything can be completely submerged in soapy water, except the insulated bag, which is pretty easy to wipe down when needed.
Even if you want to wait until school to gear up the lunch-packing works, all the boxes also work well for summer picnic lunches at the park.
Here's how three boxes I reviewed stacked up.
$15.95. Online retailers including Amazon.com, Diapers.com and Reusit.com.
The basics: Three compartments, two for food, one for included beverage bottle. Dishwasher-safe.
Pros: The box itself is two pieces. Less to keep track of and less to lose. Comes with cute stickers to personalize the exterior. Slim profile slides into any bag, and multiple boxes can stack neatly on top of each other in your refrigerator.
Cons: The lack of an insulated bag limits what you can pack essentially to brown bag-able foods. Compartments are not watertight. (My test with orange slices and drained olives resulted in seepage out of the box and into my picnic bag.) And the lid is difficult for kids to close. There are only two compartments, which is actually the truest bento configuration (the Japanese boxes typically only have two sections or tiers). For people like me who are new to the concept, it takes more mental energy to fit enough food to feed active kids.
$13.95 for a set of four containers, plus $7.95 for cooler bag. Online only.
The basics: Each container has three compartments. No beverage container included. Dishwasher safe, top and bottom rack. Microwavable.
Pros: The containers are two pieces each. Easy to close and somewhat liquid-tight (my applesauce stayed put, but the manufacturer does not recommend packing runny food such as yogurt, soups or sauces). Insulated cooler helps maintain food temperature. There is room for a beverage, soup container and an ice pack (sold separately). Easy to organize because the containers stack. If one is dirty or you've lost a lid, just grab another one.
"I have three kids. Each kid has three pieces of Tupperware, plus lids. That's 18 pieces in my dishwasher every night," said CEO and founder Kelly Lester. "I started this to make life easier."
Cons: The coolers are large — too large for a backpack, and the containers are prone to jostling unless you fill the bag with other stuff. Zero wow factor. The plain purple sack didn't even register with my daughter. She told me that I could take it for "grown-up lunch," whereas she was very interested in owning, toting and eating out of the other two. This is probably also the least sustainable option: The containers are reusable, but the information included warns that they are prone to cracking if handled incorrectly. That might be too much to ask of a kid. Lester says that the average container lasts four to eight months.
$43.99 for the system. Available at Whole Foods Market, Wanderland, Eco Shoppe, Baby Earth and Wheatsville Co-op.
The basics: Bento box, five containers, including lids and a tiny-size box for sauce, plus silverware, insulated case, beverage bottle, user's guide with lunch recipes. Dishwasher and microwave safe.
Pros: Everything you'd ever need to pack a lunch, except for maybe an ice pack, but the insulated case has room for one of those, too. The multiple size boxes (and ability to buy another set) mean that you can send any food with your kid, including soup. Easy to clean and easy to close, so leftovers don't fall out. Slim profile is easy to carry and store in the refrigerator the night before. Adorable designs. My kid was smitten , and there was a lot of her begging to take her lunch to preschool, which does not allow outside food.
Cons: Price. This is clearly the most expensive option, and I worry some about losing parts. A survey of moms who use the system say the boxes and silverware always come home, since there is no packaging to toss. No way to label the black interior boxes . A lot of dishes to wash.
Peanut Butter Berry-wich
Here's one way to dress up an old standby, provided peanut products are allowed at summer camp. This one uses strawberries, but you can use any fruit that is in season.
2 slices of whole wheat bread
1 Tbsp. natural peanut butter
1 Tbsp. softened Neufchâtel (reduced-fat) cream cheese
2 medium strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 tsp. honey
Lay slices on work surface. Spread peanut butter on one slice and cream cheese on the other. Arrange strawberry slices in an even, single layer on top of peanut butter. Drizzle the honey on the berries and then place the other slice on top. .
— Adapted from "Real Food for Healthy Kids" by Tracey Seaman and Tanya Wenman Steel ($29.95, William Morrow)
Chicken and Veggie Rolls
Repurpose your leftovers, or make extra the night before to make this tasty, quick roll.
2 or 3 oz. chicken breast, cooked
5 or 6 cooked baby carrots, broccoli pieces or green beans
Pinch of salt and pepper
About 1 Tbsp. flour
Flatten chicken breast with a rolling pin, put a few veggies on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roll up and fasten with a toothpick. Dust with flour and sauté until crispy. Cut into 2 or 3 rounds, remove toothpicks and arrange in bento box, with extra veggies around the rolls.
— Adapted from "Yum-Yum Bento Box" by Crystal Watanabe and Maki Ogawa ($16.95, Quirk Books)
Asian Pasta Salad
This pasta salad makes six servings . If your kid is into dipping, reserve the dressing and send in a small container.
8 oz. of your child's favorite pasta
1 cup broccoli in bite-size pieces
11/2 cups green beans, sugar snap peas, cabbage or zucchini, cut into bite-size pieces
3/4 cup carrots in bite-size strips
1 clove minced garlic
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. sesame seeds
2 Tbsp. fresh cilantro
1/2 cup bean sprouts, optional
Boil pasta in large pot until half-cooked. Add all vegetables except bean sprouts, and boil until pasta is al dente and vegetables are tender. Drain and place in a large bowl. Make salad dressing by mixing garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce. Add dressing, sesame seeds, cilantro and sprouts to pasta and toss well.
— From "The Laptop Lunch User's Guide"
When it comes to food, the danger zone for bacteria is between 40 and 140 degrees. So, perishable food transported without an ice source won't stay safe long — especially when Texas temperatures soar close to 100 degrees. Here are some food safety tips for lunches from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It's fine to prepare the food the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator. Freezing sandwiches helps them stay cold. However, for best quality, don't freeze sandwiches containing mayonnaise, lettuce or tomatoes. Add these later.
Insulated, soft-sided lunchboxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunchboxes and paper bags can also be used. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double-bagging to help insulate the food. An ice source should be packed with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box.
Prepare cooked food such as turkey, ham, chicken and vegetable or pasta salads ahead of time to allow for thorough chilling in the refrigerator. Divide large amounts of food into shallow containers for fast chilling and easier use. Keep cooked food refrigerated until time to leave home.
To keep lunches cold away from home, include a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. Of course, if there's a refrigerator available, store perishable items there upon arrival.
Some food is safe without a cold source. Items that don't require refrigeration include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.