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Nov. 26, 2022

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Out-of-the-box ideas for lunchbox

Two new books urge parents to incorporate good nutrition – and fun

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"Lunchbox" by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson.
"Lunchbox" by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson. (Workman Publishing Company) Photo Gallery

The right foods and a good strategy can make even the pickiest of eaters look forward to the midday meal.

Now that we’ve worked out the wrinkles in the fall schedule and are cautiously optimistic that everything is under control, it’s time to add some fun to our routine. And there’s no better place to start than in the kitchen.

Lunches tend to get the short end of the stick, often put together hurriedly with prepackaged foods. But two new books provide a lot of help with little effort on your part.

“Lunchbox,” by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson, and “Dictator Lunches,” by Jenny Mollen, offer relatable parenting stories, lighthearted tips and ideas and recipes for midday meals. And although the books are geared toward kids, there’s no reason it can’t be for adults, who often put their lunch needs on the back burner.

But no matter whose lunch you’re making, there are some basic rules of thumb:

  • The food groups: The authors agree that each lunch should have these components: protein snack, crunchy snack, main dish, fruit and vegetable and a tiny treat (or the bribe, as Mollen calls it).
  • Box it up: When choosing your lunch-packing vessel, know your audience. If they don’t like foods to touch, choose a bento box-style container. (It’s also used in a majority of lunches in both books.) Be sure to pay attention to the size of the compartments. A box with lots of compartments means that each one is small, which can be good for tiny bite-sized eats, but not for bigger items like sandwiches. Also make sure containers are easy to open and close.
  • Keep it cool (or warm): Invest in hard-sided ice packs for the entire lunch-eating family. The soft gel packs are great — until one breaks. Thermal containers are handy, too, and if you’re willing to invest, there are bento-box style versions, like the Omiebox, that allow you to pack both hot and cold in one box.
  • Tools of the trade: Both authors have a variety of tools at their disposal, from bento picks and candy eyeballs to food cutters and silicone cups. Food coloring pens and X-Acto knives can come in handy, and use pumpkin-carving kit tools year-round. Or tweezers, a small paring knife and Sharpies work just fine, too.
  • The most important lesson: Despite what your parents and teachers might have told you, it’s OK to play with your food.

Eat the rainbow

Whether you’re trying a new trick for picky eaters or just want to pack an out-of-the-box lunchbox, Hanel and Stevenson suggest going the colorful route. Color-coordinating lunches can also keep older kids occupied — and helpful — at the grocery store. A red box could contain: strawberries, grape tomatoes, mini sweet peppers, cherries and raspberry yogurt with pomegranate seeds, and beet crackers, meat sticks and Babybel cheeses.

For extra points, cut shapes out of the wax around the Babybel. Once you have the color theme down, try organizing by shape, letter, food group — all is fair in the lunch wars.

Here we gyoza!

Hanel and Stevenson took their cues from a potsticker-loving 4-year-old for this dumpling-centric lunch. While frozen gyoza are readily available — and certainly acceptable — making dumplings can be a fun family project, too. Delicious hot or cold, gyoza are a solid foundation for a lunch that’s finger-licking good.

Rounding out this lunch: raspberries, classic chocolate-dipped Pocky sticks, edamame, carrot cutouts, cucumber salad with sesame seeds and chocolate button candy. Making a special guest appearance are tiny sea-life bento picks.

It’s pasta lunchtime

Who doesn’t like noodles? With fun shapes — letters, wagon wheels, rotini — a simple pasta salad can be a quick and filling lunch. But tortellini caprese sticks bring it to a new level. Hanel and Stevenson are stealthy and healthy with this box, using spinach-stuffed tortellini and sneaking zucchini into the meatballs. Add some almonds, pesto for dipping and a sweet bite-size treat (these are Quadratini) and it’s a lunch you can pack for yourself, too. A caveat: You know your child best. If skewers are a sword-fight temptation, leave them at home.

Off to a good start

Bestselling author Jenny Mollen offers a candid and humorous take on feeding her two kids in “Dictator Lunches.” But before you think about lunch you have to get through breakfast, which has its own set of challenges. Mollen offers some nutritious grab-and-go suggestions for eaters of any age, including Quiche Cups. If you’re not a breakfast eater, grab a container and pack some of the quiches along with fruit, yogurt and a mini muffin (or two) and voilá! It’s breakfast for lunch. Two missions accomplished with one recipe. You may even want to make a double batch.

Logs aren’t just for ants anymore

These creatures are a fun way to incorporate raw veggies that don’t typically get as much air time on their own, writes Mollen, adding that what they lack in sugar they make up for in cute.

There is no wrong way to build these. Use filling, seasonings and embellishments you like. Mollen offers these suggestions to get you started, but encourages experimenting with whatever’s in your fridge and pantry.

  • Log options: Cucumber slices, celery slices, carrot slices.
  • Filling options: Sunflower seed butter, almond butter, cream cheese.
  • Topping options: Thinly sliced cucumbers for wings, sliced grapes or cherry tomatoes for wings or humps, chives for antennae, sesame seeds or other black seeds for eyes, thinly sliced radishes (any variety) for wings, cashews for heads, blueberries for faces or humps, strawberry slices for wings, orange slices for wings, pitted olives for heads.

Gyoza

Makes about 25.

If there are any extras of these small bites, place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze until firm. transfer to a resealable container and freeze for up to 1 month. From “Lunchbox: So Easy, So Delicious, So Much Fun to Eat,” by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson (Artisan, 2022).

2 cups finely chopped or grated green cabbage

2 teaspoons kosher salt

½ pound ground pork

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions

1 tablespoon grated peeled fresh ginger

1 teaspoon grated garlic

1 teaspoon light soy sauce

½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil

25 gyoza wrappers

Vegetable or avocado oil, optional

In a large bowl, toss the cabbage and salt together and let sit for 15 minutes. Gently squeeze dry with a clean kitchen towel. Add the pork, green onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil and mix together.

Spoon a scant tablespoon of the filling into the center of each dumpling wrapper, then dip a finger in water and run it around the edge of the wrapper to moisten it. Fold the wrapper in half (like a taco), and use your thumb and forefinger to pleat and press the dumpling shut.

To fry the dumplings: In a large lidded nonstick skillet, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium-high heat, until it’s hot but not smoking. Add half the dumplings and fry until the bottoms are golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add ½ cup of water, cover the skillet and cook until the water has evaporated and the dumplings are cooked through, about 5 minutes. (Cut one open to make sure it’s done.) Remove lid, shake the skillet to loosen up the dumplings and let the bottoms re-crisp, 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dumplings.

To steam dumplings: Steam them in a bamboo or stainless-steel steamer lined with parchment paper until cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Chicken Zucchini Mini Meatballs

Makes 40.

From “Lunchbox: So Easy, So Delicious, So Much Fun to Eat,” by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson (Artisan, 2022).

1 zucchini, finely grated (about 1 cup)

½ pound ground chicken or turkey

1 large egg, lightly beaten

½ cup breadcrumbs

¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon onion powder

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

Extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Wrap the grated zucchini in a clean kitchen towel and gently squeeze to remove excess moisture, then place in a large bowl. Add the chicken, egg, breadcrumbs, cheese, salt, garlic powder, onion powder and parsley and mix together with clean hands. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Use a melon baller or a rounded teaspoon to scoop the meatball mixture into clean, wet hands. Form into meatballs and place 1 inch apart on the prepared pan. Brush tops with olive oil. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until cooked through and beginning to brown. Let cool, then transfer the meatballs to the lunchbox or an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or the freezer for up to a month.

Quiche Cups

Makes 12.

“These easy-to-assemble quiche cups are a great grab-and-go morning meal that will have your dictator thinking you studied at Le Cordon Bleu,” writes Jenny Mollen in “Dictator Lunches” (Harvest, 2022). “Feel free to experiment with the ingredients depending on what you have on hand. I made these with frozen peas and carrots.”

Olive oil spray

4 sheets of phyllo pastry

8 large eggs

6 tablespoons milk

¼ teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup chopped spinach leaves or frozen peas and carrots (see Note)

2 frozen turkey patties, or 4 turkey breakfast sausage links, chopped into cubes

⅔ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with olive oil spray.

Cut each sheet of phyllo into six (4-inch) squares, or 24 squares total. Press 2 squares of phyllo into each well of the prepared muffin tin to cover the bottom and sides.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, onion powder and salt until combined. Add the spinach and set aside.

Distribute the sausage and cheese evenly over the bottom of each quiche cup. Pour the egg mixture on top.

Bake for about 15 minutes, until the tops are lightly browned. Let cool slightly before serving. The quiche cups will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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