J.M. Hirsch

7 lunch duty lessons I learned the hard way

Lunch duty is a trial-and-error (and trial by fire) sort of thing. Sometimes you just need to try things and hope you learn something along the way. So in that spirit, here are seven highs (and lows) I learned last week over at LunchBoxBlues.com.

  1. Purchased crepes only sound like a good thing. You know the ones I’m talking about. The grocers sell packages of them in the produce section. Got me thinking how creative and delicious it would be to wrap a few of those around some fruit and pop them in a lunch container. Except they act like sponges when wrapped around anything moist. Which means you end up with a big pile of mess by lunch. If you want to pack crepes for lunch, be smart (unlike me) and pack them and the fillings separately, then assemble at lunch.
  2. Graham crackers rock. Seriously. Last week I put them to use in all sorts of ways that won approval from both my son (the dude forced to eat my many lunch creations), as well as readers. Start by using them as a stand-in for bread with PB&J. Then turn them into a strawberry “cheesecake” — sandwich low-fat cream cheese and strawberry jam between two crackers. You get a graham cracker crust, creamy filling and strawberry topping in every bite. They also are a great addition to yogurt parfaits. I did layers of fresh fruit, plain nonfat Greek yogurt and crumbled graham crackers. This let me create all sorts of dessert-inspired parfaits, including banana cream pie.
  3. Frozen fruit can be your friend. Turn bagged frozen fruit into easy sauces that can be packed cold or warm (in a small thermos) for use with pancakes, waffles, yogurt, applesauce, or even be used for dipping pretzels. Just dump a bag of frozen fruit (I like mango chunks, but any berry is great, too) into a saucepan with a tiny sprinkle of sugar and a splash of lemon juice. Simmer until tender. You can use it as is for a chunky sauce, or puree it for a smooth consistency.
  4. Eggs — if McDonald’s can wrap them, so can you. I made Parker a pretty basic omelet. Beaten eggs cooked and folded over cheese and ham until melty and yummy. I gave him half for breakfast, then plopped the other half onto a whole-wheat tortilla and rolled it up to make an egg, ham and cheese wrap. You can do this with just about any egg, no matter how it’s cooked.
  5. Popcorn is a whole grain. Even when it’s coated in caramel or “cheese” powder, it’s still a better choice than most potato chips. So embrace popcorn as a fun and filling lunch treat you can feel good about. Pop a bag in the microwave during breakfast, then let it cool and dump it into sandwich bags. Or turn it into trail mix by adding some nuts or seeds and dried fruit. Or take the easy route and buy sweetened or “cheesed” popcorn. No shame in whole-grain convenience.
  6. Novelty matters. I got a sample this week of sugar that pops in your mouth. Think Pop Rocks, but without the chemical flavor and colors. Parker was blown away by the stuff and begged to bring some in his lunch to “freak out” his friends. Normally, I’m not a big fan of packing a baggie of pure sugar in anyone’s lunch. But 1 teaspoon of sugar has about 15 calories. And packing that 1 teaspoon got him so excited he didn’t care that I also packed shrimp in the same lunch. Give a little, get a little.
  7. Cheese masks many sins. Like popping sugar, a little bit of cheese can go a long way to winning approval for unpopular lunch items. Parker is no fan of spinach. Shocking for an 8-year-old boy, I know! But once I’d chopped it up and mixed it with egg and feta cheese, then baked it in his favorite mini phyllo pastry cups, he was willing to eat it. It’s the same reason a salad — or salad wrap — is way more likely to be eaten when cheesed up. Ham and chicken help, too.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at LunchBoxBlues.com. His upcoming cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, will be the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.

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