My sanity was saved by phyllo. And other lunch tips

I did the math and I’m not much impressed by myself.

I have survived the packing of a daily lunch for my little demon for roughly five years now. It feels as though the tally ought to be substantial.

But even with generous rounding, I can’t get a decent count. You figure 180 school days a year, times five years, plus a few months of camp each summer… And maybe we’re at 1,100.

Which is not insignificant. And I don’t know what number I was expecting. It just seems that for all the pain, suffering and yogurt cups I’ve contributed to landfills, it should be… I don’t know… Something bigger.

Still, those 1,100 lunches have helped me squirrel away a few tricks and tips to make serving time in the lunch box trenches a little easier on the sanity.

My No. 1 tip is, of course, the most obvious: Learn to love leftovers.

Seriously. The biggest obstacle most people face when trying to muster the oomph to pack lunch for themselves or their kids day after day? Their own preconceived notions of what lunch is supposed to be.

It’s pretty easy to get sidelined by thoughts of what lunch should be. I’ve had people tell me they are stumped because they grew up eating PB&J every day, but their own kids’ schools don’t allow peanuts. Now what?

Thing is, lunch is just another meal, so in my book that means anything goes. Steak tacos? Sure. Leftover pasta carbonara? Pack it cold and call it an Italian version of an Asian noodle salad. Baked potato stuffed with the works? Please!

Which is why I say the first rule to keeping your sanity about you as you pack lunch is to embrace leftovers. If it was good enough for dinner, it’s good enough for lunch.

When I make dinner, I always make (or at least prep) too much. It rarely requires any extra effort. But it sure saves a lot of effort the next morning when I have something ready to go.

For example, my little guy happens to be crazy for steak. So any time I make it for dinner, I season an extra one and set it aside (uncooked) for use the next morning. Then I just sear it off in a skillet in the morning (I use the same pan I made breakfast in), slice it and pack it in his lunch.

My son prefers his rare — almost raw, actually — but cook yours however you like. And however you cook it, you can get seriously creative in how you use it. Let it cool and use it to beef up (pun intended) a salad or a wrap. Or pack the slices warm in a thermos and accompany it with a bun and cheese to assemble a warm steak grinder at lunch.

The result is a beefy, satisfying lunch that took just minutes to assemble thanks to thinking ahead during dinner the night before.

My No. 2 tip? Figure out which go-to food item you should never be without, then never be without it.

For some people, this is flatbread. Because no matter what they have on hand, they can stuff it in a flatbread, roll it up and have a satisfying wrap for lunch.

For others, it might be granola. Because just add fruit (warm applesauce in a thermos?) or yogurt or both and you have a seriously substantial lunch parfait.

Whatever your go-to food, it should be versatile enough to work with whatever you happen to have. It also should keep well (flatbread can be frozen, granola lasts forever, etc.).

For me, this food is mini phyllo pastry cups.I could put almost anything in these little pastry cups and my son would devour them, so I try to always have four or five packages of them in the freezer.

Parker’s favorite filling is quiche (leftover meat, cheese and a bit of whisked egg, baked at 400 F for 10 minutes), but he also loves yogurt and fresh fruit. I’ve even turned them into pizza cups by filling them with cheese, chopped salami and sun-dried tomato, as well as peanut butter and banana cups (filled with — are you ready? — peanut butter and banana).

The cups are inexpensive (usually less than $2 for a package of 15) and have about 12 calories per cup. You’ll find them in the grocer’s freezer section near the frozen pastry. Yet you don’t even have to cook them. Fill them with yogurt or such directly from the freezer and pack them that way. They’ll thaw and be perfect by lunch. And if you’re packing a thermos of warm chili, these cups make great scooper chips.

Do you have a go-to lunch item? Would love to hear what it is and what you do with it! For more of my go-to lunch staples, check out my running list here.

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 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.

What's Fresh from @RachaelRay

Rachael Ray