I am unqualified to talk about your children’s lunchboxes. This usually doesn’t stop me, of course, especially since the two topics running neck and neck around the office cooler are the great summer just ending and the lunch-packing headaches just beginning.
Less than a week into the school year and already I’m overhearing the litany of complaints. A Thermos of leftover chili or spaghetti is not cool enough to take to high school and it’s too heavy anyway. Nobody else has dried fruit and nuts. The insulated bag won’t fit in my backpack. There’s always a lineup to use the microwave. Why can’t I buy my lunch every day?
Channeling my inner school child, surely I can come up with a couple of things worth saying. First, let’s get the safety aspect of all this out of the way.
They may be uncool, but insulated containers are the safest way to transport food that must be kept hot or cold — between 40 and 140 F — to minimize the growth of things you don’t want the kids to eat. Paper bags, unfortunately, are not as safe and should never be reused for food.
There are a few pack-as-they-come-from-the-store options that you can consider. Fresh fruits and vegetables (washed thoroughly, of course); peanut or other nut butters (assuming the school hasn’t issued allergy alerts); crackers, breads or cereals; butter, jam, marmalade or other spreads that won’t hurt sitting at room temperature for a while; packaged dried meats; baked goods like cakes or biscuits; and canned foods with easy-open lids that are palatable at room temperature and can be eaten at one sitting.
If you can talk them into safe salads and carrying a proper container, then you rule. If you haven’t been able to accomplish that, I offer to you a couple of sandwich ideas that maybe you haven’t considered but that might appeal to your kids.
At the very least, they might put up with the old frozen drink box trick, and that should keep these cold enough to be safe at lunch time.
Grilled Bologna and Cheese Sandwiches
You know you would so eat these, hot or cold. For a low-stress morning, plan to make them the day after some night you’re serving bologna for supper.
I always have pickled jalapeno peppers around and they make an absolutely fabulous addition, but leave them out if your kids will balk. This is for one sandwich, but scale up or down as you must.
2 thick slices of any firm sandwich bread
1 tbsp. soft butter or margarine (divided)
2 thin slices cheddar cheese (or process cheese)
2 slices leftover cooked bologna or sandwich bologna
2 tsp. finely chopped pickled jalapeno peppers
Spread half the butter on one slice of bread and place, buttered side down, in a cold non-stick frying pan. Top with one slice of cheese, bologna, jalapeno peppers and another slice of cheese. Butter the outside of the remaining slice and place, buttered side up, on top. Turn up the heat to medium and fry on one side until golden brown. By that time the cheese should be pretty much melted and will hold everything together while you flip. Brown the other side.
If serving cold later on, then allow the sandwich to cool to room temperature before wrapping so the fried bread doesn’t sweat and get soggy. Don’t forget to include a big pickle.
Lunch Taco Wraps
These include all the flavours we love about tacos with no fuss, and no need to figure out how to serve them hot. This one may not be for you if the only thing your children will put in a taco shell is ground beef, but if they are in the least adventurous, give this recipe a try.
As an added bonus, this mixture is great stirred into cooked rice to make a tasty cold salad, or into hot rice as a light supper. If you’d like to try either of those ideas, add more salsa to taste. Doing so means you can go ahead and open the can of beans and not have them hanging around the fridge all week. If you used all this as sandwich filling, count on getting a tray that will easily serve 6 or 8 people. If you are serving them at home instead of in lunch boxes, try throwing them on the barbecue or in a hot oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese and crisp up the tortillas.
One more admission: I don’t bother to cook the onion and peppers — I like them raw. Your choice, of course.
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 14-oz. can black beans, rinsed and thoroughly drained
1 small can pineapple tidbits, preferably with no sugar added, drained
1 cup grated medium or old cheddar cheese
1/2 cup bottled salsa
1/4 cup chopped olives (optional)
2 tbsp. fresh chopped cilantro (optional but yummy)
12 medium flour tortillas
12 crisp lettuce leaves, washed and thoroughly dried
Fry onion in olive oil until soft and starting to colour. Add red pepper and cook another minute. If serving hot, stir in remaining ingredients and fill tortillas. If serving cold, refrigerate onion and red pepper mixture until well chilled.
Combine with beans, pineapple, cheese, salsa, olives and cilantro. If the person for whom you are packing a lunchbox is so inclined, consider placing the filling in a container separate from the tortillas, then there’s no chance of sogginess.
If that seems like too much trouble, lay one lettuce leaf on top of each tortilla — this will really help reduce the sog factor — and divide the filling among them. Roll them up to enclose the filling and wrap tightly in plastic.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, NL, A1E 4N1.