School’s out… But lunch duty continues…

Because a 180-day school year isn’t enough, right?

You think you’ve served your time. Good, healthy (or at least edible) lunches five days a week from September to June. Now you’re in the clear for a few months.

Except you aren’t. Because for many parents, summer camp looms. And day camps often mean more days of lunch duty.

Sure, it’s a blast for the kids. But for parents, summer lunches bring a whole new cluster of packing problems.

Because suddenly whatever you were packing in September, December, or even May, may not work nearly so well when the temperatures soar into the 80s, 90s or beyond.

Mmm… Nothing says yummy like a PB&J simmering in the sun, right?

So let’s start with some packing basics.

First off, an insulated lunch box/bag is pretty much essential. Even if you pack nothing but dry goods — nothing that technically needs chilling — nobody wants pretzels that have steamed in a plastic bag all day.

Second, invest in some inexpensive ice packs. The rigid ones are better than the soft ones, which tend to freeze in awkward shapes. They also tend to leak when careless (read as young and tiny) hands are rough with them.

In the heat of summer, a freezer pack will keep foods crisp and tasting fresh even if they don’t require refrigeration (note the aforementioned steamed pretzels).

Third, let’s talk thermoses. For drinking, an insulated (double-walled) drinking thermos is a must. Save the single-walled water bottles for cooler weather. They tend to sweat in the heat, and that’s not good for anything else in the lunch box. And grubby summer camp hands grabbing a wet bottle… Do I even need to explain how gross they (the hands and the bottle) can get?

And this probably goes without saying, but for active kids running crazy at camp during hot weather, water really is the best beverage. Pop a few ice cubes into it and you’re good.

If the kids really want something with flavor to drink, try my “recipe” for cheater lemonade. For my son, I spike plain water with a generous squirt of bottled lemon or lime juice and a drop or two of liquid stevia (a natural no-sugar sweetener — most grocers sell it near the sugar). This also works with seltzer water, but you need to make sure your thermos can handle carbonation.

Also consider getting a thermos jar, the type with a wide mouth for holding food. No, it isn’t soup season. But if you pack yogurt or pudding, this is how you want to pack it. To keep it extra chilled, pop the thermos in the freezer for a few minutes before filling it.

Or maybe it is soup season… No reason a nice cool gazpacho couldn’t go in that thermos jar. Mix purchased tomato soup with purchased tomato salsa and you have thermos-ready gazpacho in less than a minute.

Now that you’ve got the gear, how do you fill it?

In summer, I tend to stick with classics – sandwiches of meats and cheeses, or peanut butter and banana, or a wrap with hummus and greens or cucumber. Dull? Perhaps. But they all hold up well, provide lots of energy, and are fast and easy to eat outdoors.

And if you have leftover plain pasta from dinner, here’s a great excuse to whip up a cold noodle dish. Toss leftover pasta (any shape) with peanut butter (you can substitute a nut butter alternative), a splash of hot sauce, some soy sauce and a splash of vinegar. Cold peanut noodle salad. Add chopped cold veggies for a complete meal.

Need to pack a treat? This isn’t the time for chocolate. Talk about melty mess. Stick with chopped fresh fruit. A container of watermelon or strawberry chunks is perfect for a hot day.

And if you want to pack something really special and refreshing? Make the lemonade I mentioned above, but pop it in the blender with some of those watermelon chunks. It’s amazing!

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.

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