With a new school year in full swing, it helps to have some lunch box recipes on hand. Many of these options, from a taco salad to fancy cream cheese sandwiches, are easy enough that children can help pack the lunch or lend a hand in the kitchen. But you can still slip in a surprise: a poem from Shel Silverstein, a riddle, a sticker or a seashell from your family's summer beach excursions. Also, it's okay to pack yourself a serving. These five recipes are so good, you may not be able to resist.
Homemade hummus box
Hummus is the centerpiece of this Lunchable-inspired meal. Because it's so easy to make — it's all assembly — even younger children can pack it themselves. Let them choose their favorite veggies: cherry tomatoes, cucumber sticks and carrots are especially good with hummus. For crunch, they can decide whether they want pita chips, pretzels or crackers. Use a cookie-cutter to cut slices of a cheese of your choice into small circles. To make homemade hummus, drain and rinse 2 cups canned chickpeas. Pour them into a food processor, along with the following ingredients: ½ cup tahini, with some of its oil; ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil; 2 cloves peeled garlic (or less if your kids want it milder); and the juice of 1 lemon. Season with salt and pepper. Puree the ingredients, adding water if necessary, until hummus is smooth. Taste — you can always add more salt, pepper or lemon juice. Recipe adapted from the New York Times and the Kitchn.
With this salad, your kids can celebrate Taco Tuesday every day. Depending on everyone's preference, you can use either lean ground beef or ground turkey. To flavor the meat, try this homemade taco seasoning (it's fairly mild, but you can cut down on the paprika if necessary): Mix 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 teaspoon dried cilantro, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, ½ teaspoon onion powder and ¼ teaspoon paprika. Set aside. Then, cook 1 pound of your chosen meat in a large skillet over medium heat, seasoning with salt and pepper. Use a wooden spoon to break up the meat so that it browns evenly, which should take about 5 minutes. Add in 2 tablespoons of your taco seasoning and ½ cup water, and reduce heat to a low simmer. Continue to cook the meat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until liquid is mostly gone and the meat is cooked through. Set aside. While the meat cools, set out four meal prep containers. You're going to place the taco salad ingredients in each container separately: a clump of chopped romaine lettuce, a line of cooked corn and black beans, halved or quartered cherry tomatoes, a helping of seasoned taco meat, a generous sprinkling of grated cheese. You get the picture. Recipe adapted from Kristine's Kitchen and Your Kid's Table.
Cream cheese sandwiches
When I was a kid, I loved cream cheese sandwiches. But you don't have to be a child to enjoy these four variations on the classic tea sandwich, ranging from the traditional sweet jam filling to a savory salami-and-pickle version. Pack with fruit (grapes, apple slices), yogurt and graham crackers.
Option 1: Spread some cream cheese on one slice of seeded bread, then top it with jam. Something like apricot that's just different enough to pique your child's interest but still safely in the realm of sweetness.
Option 2: For the fanciest variety, slather whole wheat bread with cream cheese, then top with slices of cucumber and a couple fresh mint leaves. It'll transform the cafeteria into a high tea.
Option 3: Adorn rye bread with cream cheese, then top it with sliced salami and pickles. Is it daring? Yes. This is for your adventurous eater.
Option 4: Add sliced tomato to cream cheese on pumpernickel bread and season with salt and pepper. It's deceptively simple.
Recipes adapted from Bon Appetit.
Rainbow pasta salad
Here's the best part of this salad: You can make it for dinner and pack the leftovers for lunch the next day. It's easy to customize for pickier eaters, but you can also reserve some special toppings (extra peppers or an unusual fruit, like figs) for yourself. Start by preparing whatever antipasto ingredients your kids will eat. Some suggestions: diced cheeses such as mozzarella, diced Italian meats such as salami, cherry tomatoes, olives, artichoke hearts, pepperoncini, roasted red peppers or toasted nuts. You could even try diced cantaloupe or grapes. Whatever your children enjoy, prepare and chop about 4 to 6 cups of it. Also, peel and thinly-slice one-quarter of a small red onion. Set aside with the rest of the ingredients. Now make some homemade Italian herb seasoning. Combine the following dried herbs: 1 ½ teaspoons oregano, 1 teaspoon marjoram, 1 teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon basil, ½ teaspoon rosemary and ½ teaspoon sage. (It makes 4 teaspoons, so you can store the extra in a sealed container.) To make the vinaigrette, mix 2 teaspoons of your herb seasoning with ? cup extra-virgin olive oil, ¼ cup red wine vinegar, ½ teaspoon kosher salt, ½ teaspoon pepper and ¼ teaspoon garlic powder. Set aside. For the pasta, salt a large pot of water and bring to a boil. Cook 1 pound rotini pasta until it is al dente, following package instructions. Drain pasta, then rinse under cold water for about 20 to 30 seconds until it's no longer hot. Wash and chop 1 cup fresh kale or spinach. Place it in the bottom of a large mixing bowl and pour in 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Massage the vinaigrette into the greens for about 1 minute. Now add the cooked pasta and the chosen antipasto ingredients, plus the onion. Toss with more of the vinaigrette, to taste. It'll keep, covered, in the fridge for up to 3 days. Recipe adapted from Gimme Some Oven.
Crispy chicken fingers
Consider these a healthier version of chicken nuggets. These chicken fingers come with a side of honey mustard sauce, but you can also use ketchup. Pack the chicken fingers with veggies such as baby carrots and cherry tomatoes. You'll start with 1 ¼ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into ½-inch-thick strips. Pour ½ cup buttermilk in a shallow dish and dip the chicken in it so each piece is coated on both sides. Leave the chicken in the buttermilk and cover the dish, placing it in the fridge to soak for 15 minutes. While you wait, choose your kid's favorite whole-grain corn cereal (such as Corn Chex or corn flakes). Pour 4 cups of cereal in a sealable plastic bag and use a rolling pin to crush it. This is what you're going to be dipping your chicken in. Transfer the cereal crumbs to a shallow dish and season with ¼ teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. When the chicken is done chilling, dip each piece in the cereal. It should be fully coated in the crumbs. Arrange the breaded chicken on two baking sheets coated with cooking spray, and bake in an oven heated to 400 degrees. It should take about 8 minutes for the chicken to cook. You can cut one in half to make sure it's cooked all the way through. To get extra crispy chicken, leave it on the baking sheets to cool slightly. For the dipping sauce, combine ? cup Dijon mustard with 2 teaspoons mayonnaise. When it's smooth, stir in 2 tablespoons honey. It will keep for about a week in the fridge. Recipe adapted from Serious Eats.