When my youngest was in middle school, I started making him lunch to take to school.
I did this partly because he was a picky eater, partly because I didn’t think the school lunches were particularly healthy, and partly because I’m a skin-flint in some areas.
While the lunches at his school cost $3.50, I could make my own lunch for him for a fraction of that.
Think about it — a pack of hot dog buns costs $1, a pack of hot dogs costs $1, a pound of apples costs $3, peanut butter is $3 a jar and a box of Kroger-brand microwave popcorn costs $2. When you cost out the individual servings, the hot dog on a bun costs a quarter, while a few slices of apple with peanut butter costs about the same, and a handful or two of popcorn costs 34 cents. All told, you’ve just put together a killer lunch for your kid for under $1.
New guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest we all eat more fruits and vegetables, and lay off of the protein and grains. At myplate.org, parents can find an interactive plate that shows how much of what your kid should be eating based on their sex, age, weight and height. For instance, for a 14-year-old male who is 160 pounds and 5-feet, 9-inches, you’d be looking at 2 ½ cups of fruit, 3 ½ cups of vegetables, 7 ounces of protein, 10 ounces of grains and 3 cups of dairy each day.
Ideally, you’ll be able to sneak in some fruits and vegetables into their lunches, and cut back on the fatty snacks like potato chips, soft drinks and Little Debbies. I was amazed to see how quickly my guy changed from snacking on cookies to grabbing handfuls of grapes once he started eating them for lunch.
To plan, we would talk about what he wanted to eat for the coming week. He would usually give me that, “Why are you asking me this? I don’t know what I’m going to want three days from now” look, but eventually, he got into picking out what he wanted.
Instead of buying French fries and a greasy hamburger, I’d make him a buffalo chicken quesadilla with tortilla chips and salsa, and add some grapes. I sent the hot dog, popcorn, and apple slices lunch on the days his brother had baseball games. On some Wednesdays, I’d pack him a taco salad after Taco Tuesday night. One day, it was ramen noodles with chicken and green onions — that was a big hit. Sometimes, I’d even send pancakes, banana slices, syrup and bacon on the days when he was having a rough time of it.
I worried a bit about what everyone else at the lunch table would say — kids can be mean at that age. But what we found though was that everyone was jealous. He said everyone wanted to see what he got to eat for lunch. One girl even tried to steal his lunch every day to make him trade for her school bought lunch. He wouldn’t have it.
There were some slip-ups. The chicken shawarma salad with lemon basil vinaigrette? Not a hit. Tuna salad pitas? Nope. Homemade pimento cheese on whole wheat? Not a thing he wanted.
But overall, the packed lunches were great, for him and for me. He got to eat what he wanted, and every day was a surprise he looked forward to. I got to know he was eating instead of throwing away food I was paying for. And, we got to spend time together planning lunches, going shopping and talking about our likes and dislikes. I think it’s probably one of the reasons we still cook together today.
With just a little advance planning, and a bit of creativity, you can create box lunches your kid will not only eat, but enjoy.
Turkey Apple Swiss Sandwich
2 slices honey wheat bread
Half of a thinly sliced apple
8 ounces deli turkey slices
8 ounces sliced Swiss cheese (Lorraine or baby Swiss, preferably)
Watercress or romaine (optional)
Toast bread, if you want to, you don’t have to. Put mayonnaise on one slice of bread and mustard on the other. On one slice, put turkey and then top with Swiss. On the other slice, put the apple slices and top with the watercress or romaine. Put sandwich together, cut in half and put on the plate. Serve with Sun Chips. Makes one sandwich.
Mini Pizza Handpies
1 can of refrigerated biscuit dough
Shredded mozzarella cheese
Open the tube of biscuit dough and separate into individual biscuits. With your fingers, flatten each biscuit into circles until dough is about ¼ inch thick. Spread pizza sauce on the left-hand side of the circle so that only half of the biscuit is covered. Put pepperoni slices on top of the sauce, and mozzarella cheese on top of the pepperoni. Fold the biscuit in half, so that the un-sauced side covers the sauced side. Using a fork, crimp the edges together. Brush with an egg wash and sprinkle lightly with Italian seasoning. Cook in a 350 degree oven until golden brown — about 10 to 12 minutes. Be careful, the inside will be hot.