Treat your kids to a lunchbox makeover
Derek E. Rothchild, Brand X Pictures, Getty Images
There's no reason why a lunchbox needs to be the same cheese and pickle sandwich, bread gone slightly soggy and stale at the same time (how is that even possible?), an apple that's spent too long being bashed about and has gone furry and brown, and a packet of crisps, day after day. You can mix things up - salads, soups, wraps and snacks are easy to prepare, much more tasty than the usual and also a little bit interactive - to get your kids thinking about food. If, from a young age, they're able to get even a little involved in the cooking side of things, you'll make young chefs of them - and useful little helpers in the kitchen!
The first rule of making lunchboxes more exciting is simply to cook more - if you're doing a roast, get a bigger joint - you'll reap the benefit all week. If you're braising meat - again, use more. If you're cooking pasta - make extra, dress it with oil once cooked and set aside to cool. Do the same with rice - although with rice you may want to dress it while hot and ensure you cool it very quickly. And don't forget lentils - exactly the same principal applies to them. Cook more than you need, cool and store. There's a raft of different things you can do with them - salads can be thrown together in an instant from a little fridge raiding. (I actually keep a packet of ready-cooked puy lentils in my cupboard for busy nights when I don't really feel like cooking - just chopping!)
Packed lunch rules
Once you've done those things, remember a few rules: keep your meat covered in gravy or stock or similar and tightly wrapped to keep it moist. Don't dress anything until you have to - salad dressing will make everything go soggy, breaking down the salad to yucky mush. Get little pots to put in your kids' lunchboxes - get them to dress the salad themselves, add a sprinkle of nuts to a salad or scatter over some sesame or pumpkin seeds or crumble over some cheese. The interaction will get them thinking and get them making things the way they like them - or at least customising them to a point where you can still control things like fat content and salt.
Salads made using grains like bulgar wheat and pulses like tinned haricot beans are ideal for lunchboxes.
So, some easy salad ideas for the lunchbox: a Greek-style lentil salad is delicious, healthy and filling - toss cooked cold lentils with chopped tomatoes, cucumber, olives (if they'll have them) and a little finely sliced red onion. In a small tub mix olive oil, red wine vinegar, dried marjoram or oregano leaves and salt and pepper. Pop some feta in another tub. When it comes to lunchtime they can crumble the feta in to the lentils, spritz over the dressing and dig in with pitta bread.
With rice, if you're young 'uns will have it, go Asian - mix cooked rice with leftover roast chicken, pork or beef, chopped cucumber, grated carrot, spring onions and sesame seeds. In a small tub, make a dressing using sesame oil, a little sugar, lime juice and soy or fish sauce. Then pop some chopped coriander in another tub. At lunchtime, all that's required is to mix the lot together. And if you, like me, can't cook rice, buy some ready-to-use rice noodles. You could even pop in some whole lettuce leaves for the kids to wrap everything up in themselves.
It's a great idea to get the kids involved in the preparation of their lunchbox to encourage them to eat whatever's going on inside it. And remember that lunchboxes aren't just for kids - all of these ideas are perfectly good for adults, with a few twists and tweaks for the grown-up palate. Throw some chilli into the Asian salad, chuck some chorizo into the Greek one for a lunchtime snack that's a million times better than a shop-bought sandwich.