Upgrade Your Kids' Lunch Boxes This School Year

3 years ago

There is a lot to think about as the school year gets under way—it's time to buy school supplies, new outfits for the kids, and find out who will be this year's set of teachers! But one of the biggest daily challenges (besides getting sleepy kids out of bed) is figuring out how to feed them delicious, nutritious lunches that they'll actually eat.

Photo Credit: Chronicle Books

Registered Dietitian Katie Morford of Mom's Kitchen Handbook comes to the rescue with Best Lunch Box Ever, which is packed with recipes for salads, sandwiches, and other treats that kids will love to find when it's time to refuel midday.

Photo Credit: Jessica Antola

In the introduction, Morford explains how she hopes parents will use the cookbook:

This book is a toolbox full of fresh ideas to help you break from the lunch box rut that plagues the best of us. Most of the recipes are quite flexible, intended for tinkering to suit your family’s preferences and whatever happens to be in your pantry. Capers too fancy? Use chopped relish. Tofu too “healthy foodie”? Substitute chicken. Chocolate chips not “healthy foodie” enough? Leave 'em out. Your child, your cooking, your lunches.

Even Marion Nestle of Food Politics approves:

She was a great writer even then. Now she has kids…

I asked Katie about her childhood school lunches, the recipes that have been the biggest hits with her own kids, and why she decided to write the cookbook. Read on to learn more!

Genie Gratto: There are lots of great cookbooks out there geared at making it easier for parents to feed their kids. What made you decide to jump into the fray with this resource?

Katie Morford: The number one complaint I was hearing from parents around feeding their families was about packing school lunches, which made me think the resources out there weren’t meeting their needs. It seemed to me that three main areas needed to be addressed:

  • What does a nutritious lunch look like?
  • What practical tips could make the job easier?
  • What are some fresh ideas to break out of the rut of packing the same foods over and over?

I tried to address all three areas in the book in a way I’m not sure other books had done before, particularly the nutrition part of the story, since I come at this as both a mom and a registered dietitian.

GG: One of your suggestions in the book is to start a "Try It on Tuesday" tradition—one day a week when kids get a new ingredient somewhere in their lunch. What inspired you to do that with your kids? Have there been ingredients they've agreed to try that especially surprised you?

KM: Since my kids were very little, I have always experimented with adding new foods to their lunch boxes. I’ve often been surprised by what they like. I started putting different vegetables in their lunches—jicama, radishes, snap peas—and more often than not, they liked them over time. The idea of formalizing it into “Try It on Tuesdays” is something I did for the cookbook, especially for parents who have kids who might be slow to adopt new flavors. It turns the idea of branching out into a little adventure.

GG: You offer great advice for troubleshooting when kids aren't eating the great meals their parents pack for them, but you don't specifically address picky eaters in that section. What would you suggest for parents trying to make sure a finicky kid stays well nourished?

KM: The topic of picky eaters is such a big one, and one that can’t be addressed in just a paragraph. In general, I think it’s best if you can avoid getting too worked up over food—you don’t want meals to become a battleground—but it’s challenging. I feel for parents who have kids with very limited palates. Getting kids involved in planning, shopping for, and prepping lunches is a good idea. Several moms have shared stories of bringing my cookbook home only to find their child has picked it up, flipped through the pages, and found recipes they want to try. I also think “Try It on Tuesday” might be a useful tool for parents of picky kids.

GG: Have you ever had a time when you had difficulty getting any of your daughters to eat what you were sending with them for lunch?

KM: Of course—they’re kids! One of my daughters went through a phase where she wanted the same lunch every day. It was a turkey sandwich on a baguette, celery and grapes. I tried not to make a big deal about it since I figured it would be short-lived, and I knew she was eating variety at other meals. She’s moved on from that routine and now mixes it up at lunch.

GG: If you had to prioritize one nutrient when packing school lunches, what would you consider to be the most important to get kids through their day?

KM: It’s really all about balance and having all of your nutrition bases covered. However, I think it’s easy to overlook protein in lunch. If you think about it, a typical lunch might have, say, a bagel, chips, fruit, and carrots, which is really all carbohydrates. You’ve got to make sure you have a solid source of protein—whether that is beans, or yogurt, or chicken, or sliced turkey—to provide a steady source of energy in addition to the carbohydrates.

GG: Though I know every kid has slightly different tastes—and I'm guessing your three girls are no exception—are there any recipes in the book that, no matter what, leave all three of your daughters cheering for more?

KM: They do all have different favorites in the book, but recipes that always go over well are the Italian Picnic Sandwich, Takeaway Taco Salad, Sour Cherry Oatmeal Bars, and surprisingly, the Parmesan Kale Chips.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Martiné

GG: How much prep time do you spend on weekends getting ingredients and single servings ready for the week's lunches? What advantages do you see to spending that time?

KM: I might spend 30 minutes to an hour on a Sunday doing a couple of lunch box chores, which could be anything from washing salad greens or cutting up raw carrots to cooking a pot of applesauce, hard-boiling some eggs, baking a batch of cookies with the kids, or even just organizing the drawer where we keep our reusable lunch containers. It doesn’t take much time, really, to just do a few things that can take some of the burden out of the weekday morning scramble.

GG: What were your favorite brown bag school lunches when you were growing up? Do you share any of those sentimental favorites with your daughters?

My lunches growing up were very basic. They started with one of four sandwiches: tuna, liverwurst, cream cheese and jelly, or peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread. They would also include a piece of fruit—and occasionally a homemade treat—in a brown paper bag. My mom is an excellent cook, but saved her energy and creativity for dinner. She also was pretty tuned into nutrition, so we never had chips or packaged sweets. If we had a goodie in our lunch, it was a couple of homemade cookies.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Martiné

GG: Do you have any lunch ideas you're particularly excited about trying with your girls this coming school year?

KM: Now that I have all my lunch recipes organized into this cookbook, I’m excited to have it at my fingertips to get inspired. You sort of forget, sometimes, recipes you’ve created and liked. I was flipping through the book the other day and had completely forgotten about the chocolate pudding. I made a batch and the kids loved it. Next on the list is to make the Take Two Tabbouleh, because all those ingredients will be in season when school starts. I also look forward to seeing my kids use the book to pick out what they want to make for lunch.

What great lunch ideas are you planning for the school year ahead? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Genie blogs about gardening and food at The Inadvertent Gardener, and tells very short tales at 100 Proof Stories.

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