Packing a Lunchbox

Packing a Lunchbox
Forest School Lunch Day 2 (I forgot to photograph Day 1)! Fried mackerel, raw carrots and cucumbers (L); leftover crepe with cream cheese and jam (R). 

Forest School Lunch Day 2 (I forgot to photograph Day 1)! Fried mackerel, raw carrots and cucumbers (L); leftover crepe with cream cheese and jam (R). 

It's that time of year (gulp)! And for our family, it's the first time of that time of year. Our 5-year-old, Cash, starts Primary next week (that's Kindergarten for all of you not from Nova Scotia). Since I may be the only parent on earth who is looking forward to packing a school lunch every day, I thought I'd talk a bit about my plans, and throw a few ideas out to all of you parents and caregivers who will soon be facing the same task. 

Last week, Cash attended his first ever full-day camp. From 9-4 each day, he was in the woods at Wild Child Forest School, a fantastic outdoor program we discovered two years ago. So, I had a week of practice at packing him lunch every day. I used the week to try out some of my ideas about school lunch. I had three main principles: foods he would like, foods he would eat (this involves presentation and ease - read on for more!), and foods that are nutritionally dense

Lunch Day 3. From top: cream cheese and jam on bagel, blueberry flax muffin, quinoa-tuna cakes, and cantaloupe.  (I also packed a muffin and cantaloupe for snacks on Days 1 and 2.)

Lunch Day 3. From top: cream cheese and jam on bagel, blueberry flax muffin, quinoa-tuna cakes, and cantaloupe.  (I also packed a muffin and cantaloupe for snacks on Days 1 and 2.)

I knew he would need lots of energy for a full day playing in the forest, so I aimed for a good balance of whole grains, fruit, and protein. He needed a lunch plus two snacks, so I bought a number or versatile, light small containers from nurtured, the excellent baby and children's shop around the corner from us. Throughout the week, I used a mix of leftovers from the fridge (fishcakes, pasta), items I put together that morning (bagel sandwiches, chopped veggies), and baked goods I made the previous Sunday specifically for the week of lunches (blueberry flax muffins). 

I discussed the lunch each day with Cash, and showed him what I had packed and suggested in which order he could eat it. This often occurred as we were heading out the door, which meant me running back inside to switch out an item: for example, the two fishcakes in the Day 3 photo became one fish cake and one small piece of mackerel. He had told me the piece of mackerel from Day 2 (see first photo) was "too big". On Day 4, he asked for a bagel with just cream cheese, because he found the jam "too stringy" (!). I did my best to listen to these requests, if they were reasonable enough (I have no problem leaving a sweet spread off a sandwich!). 

Day 4: Snacks in the tiffin-style stacking container (top and bottom L), and main lunch in the round container. Morning snack: raw carrots, cucumbers and peppers, small piece of mackerel, boiled egg. Afternoon snack: cut-up peaches. Lunch: bagel, adjusted as requested to have cream cheese only (no jam).

Day 4: Snacks in the tiffin-style stacking container (top and bottom L), and main lunch in the round container. Morning snack: raw carrots, cucumbers and peppers, small piece of mackerel, boiled egg. Afternoon snack: cut-up peaches. Lunch: bagel, adjusted as requested to have cream cheese only (no jam).

I think it's very important to present food so it looks appealing in the lunchbox. You're setting yourself off on a good foot: the kid is much more likely to try it. Also significant is to make sure you have containers that your child can easily open and close, and foods that can be easily eaten with fingers or provided utensils. Essentially, I did my best to make the (nutritious) lunch as beautiful and easy-to-eat as possible. I did not use an actual lunchbox this week, but instead packed the containers throughout his small backpack, since I didn't want to give him extra weight on the forest hikes. For indoor school, I will use a lunchbag, into which all of these containers will easily pack. 

Day 5. On L, for lunch: homemade noodles with sesame seeds and lightly roasted chickpeas; On R, for morning snack: raw peppers, cucumbers, carrot and a boiled egg; below, for afternoon snack: a lemon-honey cake, a special treat for the last day. Top, coffee: an essential tool in the lunch-making parent's arsenal.

Day 5. On L, for lunch: homemade noodles with sesame seeds and lightly roasted chickpeas; On R, for morning snack: raw peppers, cucumbers, carrot and a boiled egg; below, for afternoon snack: a lemon-honey cake, a special treat for the last day. Top, coffee: an essential tool in the lunch-making parent's arsenal.

On Day 5, I had run out of bagels and wanted to add some variety anyhow, so I gave him leftover homemade pasta noodles, lightly dressed with a sesame dressing and toasted sesame seeds. I didn't tell Cash I'd put sesame dressing on the noodles, because I knew he would barely notice it; he likes these noodles, but would probably not have tried them if he'd known about the dressing. It added a little calcium and protein from the tahini, and frankly makes them taste delicious. He did eat all the noodles, but wasn't tempted by a single chickpea, so....I'll try to offer those again in a month or two. Lesson: sometimes, less detail is more lunch eaten.

I made the lemon-honey cake the evening before his last day - my blueberry-flax bagels were gone, and I wanted something special for him. He had asked if he could have goldfish crackers, and when I explained why we aren't going to buy them, he wasn't happy - so I promised an alternative. I adapted this recipe from - you guessed it - the wonderful smitten kitchen, and it turned out beautifully. I asked him to please save it for the afternoon snack, which he did, to my delight. I sent along a container of the cakes for him to give to his marvellous Forest School leaders, too, as a thank you for giving Cash an amazing week in the woods.

Lemon-Honey Lunchbox Cake
adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

I'm calling this Lunchbox Cake because of the adjustments I've made: spelt flour instead of all-purpose, honey instead of white sugar, and eliminating both the syrup and the glaze on top. It's very lemony, and the lemon and honey go perfectly together, giving it - I think, ahem - a deeper flavour than the original (which is of course delicious - Cash and I made it in its original grapefruit version for Polly's First Birthday - just not as lunchbox friendly). 

Butter or paper liners for muffin pan
1 1/2 cups whole spelt flour
2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest, from 3-4 large lemons
1/2 to 2/3 cup honey (I used 3/4 cup, and it was a bit too sweet)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice (about half a juicy lemon)
1/3 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt

Spending all that whole foods energy swinging in the forest! 

Spending all that whole foods energy swinging in the forest! 

Heat the over to 350 degrees. Prepare your muffin tin with butter or paper liners.

In a large bowl, whisk the lemon zest, honey and olive oil until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, and whisk until combined. Scrape down the bowl.

Combine the spelt flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a second bowl. In a liquid measuring cup, combine 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and buttermilk or yogurt. Add the flour and buttermilk or yogurt mixtures, alternating between them, to the honey-oil mixture, beginning and ending with flour.

Fill the muffin cups until close to the top (to use all the batter, they will be quite full). Bake for 20-23 minutes, until browned on top and a cake tester comes out clean. These are delicate cakes, so cool completely before removing from the muffin pan.

For more lunchbox inspiration, I recommend this article on Food 52 and Weelicious' page on school lunches. Happy browsing!