Brown-bagging it in style
Lessons learned after thousands of school lunches
Top of the class: Grown-up flavors for the older kids, such as salami and cream cheese sandwich, left, and our sunny carrot sandwich, work well. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
The biggest lesson learned? Make lunches the evening before; there's never enough time in the morning. So after the dinner dishes are done, the kitchen counter transforms into a sandwich shop, with options to customize.
Most lunches brought from home make less waste and cost less than the school cafeteria options, and prove speedier than standing in lines. Perhaps the best reason to fill the lunchbox: It's easier to eat healthy.
With a little encouragement and trial, our kids learned to prefer whole-grain breads, and low-fat cheeses and meats on their sandwiches. As they matured, they actually ate the fresh fruit, cut vegetables and homemade, higher-fiber, lower-sugar cookies.
Getting the kids involved at an early age helps. My son loves to build sandwich masterpieces — his PB&A (peanut butter and apple butter) on cinnamon-raisin bagels got him through middle school. His salami and cream cheese just might be his all-time favorite lunchbox sandwich; we made it at least once a week throughout high school.
At the beginning of the week, we assemble nibbles into small reusable containers. Bagging your own crackers, popcorn, mini-pretzels and rice cakes proves more economical than store-bought snack bags. Fruit and vegetable grab bags might include mixing dried fruit with cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, grapes or celery sticks. I pile the bags into a larger container in the pantry or fridge for everyone to grab as they fill their lunch bag.
Kids always enjoy dipping their food — who doesn't — so we purchased reusable, resealable plastic bowls with covered sections for dips. Ideas to fill the dip area include honeyed yogurt, dilled hummus, mild salsa and low-fat spinach dip. The other section can hold mini-pita breads, sliced apples (sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning), sliced and peeled carrots, cucumber and jicama.
Two secrets to avoid soggy sandwiches: assemble them on frozen bread slices and pack the garnishes separately. The bread thaws during transport, and a bag of lettuce, sliced tomatoes, thin cucumbers or pickles can be easily added just before eating.
A quick, highly seasoned topping, such as the curried carrot recipe that follows, perks up any sandwich or salad. This simple dish takes just five minutes if you use a package of shredded carrots sold in the produce department. It keeps several days in the fridge. Pile it on wheat bread spread with sunflower seed butter for a meatless sandwich.
Salami and cream cheese sandwich
Prep: 10 minutes
Makes: 1 hearty sandwich
Note: Sausage buns or a 5-inch section of a French baguette can be substituted. Split and freeze the pretzel roll in advance so you can build it on the frozen bread and transport it in a lunchbox.
1 oblong pretzel roll, about 5 ounces
2 to 3 tablespoons light cream cheese
1 tablespoon chopped chives or finely chopped drained giardiniera, optional
8 to 10 super-thin slices salami (peppered salami is great here)
2 large romaine lettuce leaves