Parenting has taught me many things. But mostly, I’ve learned that I can turn just about anything into a taco.
Steak and ground beef? Obviously. Barbecue pulled chicken or pork? Of course. Shrimp and haddock? Yup. In fact, I’ve taco’ed just about anything that walks, crawls, or swims.
And my son loves it.
That’s because tacos have near mystical powers at pretty much any meal involving children. Why?
First, there is the fun of eating with your hands. Second, there is the DIY aspect. Taco night is all about setting a table full of options, then letting folks assemble their own as they see fit.
Finally, there is the cover-it-up factor. Which is to say, an ingredient that otherwise displeases young eaters (vegetables, anyone?) generally is more acceptable once covered in guacamole, sour cream, cheese, and who knows what else.
So taco dinners are a gimme. But the allure of tacos also works at lunch. In fact, steak tacos are one of my 9-year-old’s favorite packed lunches.
It makes total sense. Think about those packaged lunch kits sold at the grocer. They aren’t popular because they’re delicious (and certainly not because they’re healthy). Kids like them because of the DIY factor.
And tacos make it easy to harness that appeal to get kids to buy into whatever healthier, and potentially less expensive, lunches you want to pack for them.
Where to start? Here’s the game plan.
1. Pick your taco “shell.”
For taco dinners, hard corn taco shells are a common choice. But these can be tricky to pack without breakage. You’ll need a special container if you plan to pack those.
However, there are plenty of alternatives. Soft corn tacos are easy and familiar. There’s also flour tortillas, which come in healthy whole-grain options, too. And large flour tortillas can be cut in half or even quarters to make them easier for little hands to handle. While you’re at it, check the grocer’s bakery section – just about any soft flatbread will work.
2. Assemble your toppings.
Think about what your kid likes to dump on tacos at dinner. Most of these require little or no prep and are simple to pack. Guacamole, salsa, and low-fat sour cream are easily spooned into small containers, but also are available in single-serve cups. Shredded cheese is just a matter of dumping some in a cup or bag. Same for lettuce or sliced olives. Sliced roasted red peppers can be packed right out of the jar.
Making bacon for breakfast? Cook a little extra and crumble it into a bag for a topping. And don’t forget to work with your leftovers: If you’re having tacos for dinner, prep extra toppings. After dinner, your lunches almost pack themselves.
3. Pack your main filling.
This is where leftovers really come into play. Making steak for dinner? Cook a little extra, then slice it thinly. You can heat it and pack it in a thermos, or pack it cold. Delicious either way. Got leftover roasted or grilled chicken, turkey or pork? Heat it in the microwave and toss with a bit of bottled barbecue sauce, then pop it in a thermos. Leftover baked breaded fish (fish tacos!) or stir-fried shrimp work great, too.
No leftovers? Roast beef from the deli is a pretty good stand-in. And if your kid isn’t quite a carnivore, rice or refried beans also are easily heated and packed.
The point, of course, is that just about anything goes. Work with what your kids like, slip in some veggies and whole grains, then let the little ones assemble as they see fit.