When my sister and I were at school our lunchboxes never contained any food that wasn’t homemade, aside from the occasional little packet of raisins. Did I know how lucky I was? No, I didn’t.
When you are a kid, the need to feel you fit in is paramount – let nothing differentiate you from the tribe.
Having all our food homemade made me feel a bit like a back-country hick. I longed for stuff you could buy – anything in a packet somehow seemed so much more fashionable. So the store-bought snacks of my cohorts were treats I was happy to get my hands on whenever they’d agree to swap.
Luckily my mother’s baking talents established me high up in the ranks of lunch swaps at school. Biscuits were her specialty – she made four or five different kinds each week, and I never had any shortage of friends happy to part with their packet biscuits in return for one of my mother’s cookies.
But the sandwiches – well, they were another matter. If they didn’t end up in the bin at school, then they returned home soggy and inedible in my lunchbox.
So when our own kids were heading off to school I could see that the lunchbox challenge would be just that – a challenge.
Over the years I learned that the trick with sandwiches is to buy the freshest bread, no matter what kind, put it into the freezer straight away and then make your sandwiches with frozen bread. A little soft butter prevents any sog getting into the filling and as long as they are tightly wrapped and kept cool, the sandwiches will be fabulously fresh come lunchtime.
But no matter how fresh the bread, finding something to put into the sandwiches was another challenge. Egg, canned tuna or salmon were a no-no, as other kids would rib them about the smell. Tomatoes were out, as they went soggy (you have to deseed tomatoes if you plan to use them as a sandwich filling, or make the sandwiches as you serve them so they don’t sit around and get soggy). Avocado went brown; peanut butter was boring.
Cucumber? Well, maybe with cheese. And ham, yes ham was popular, but then I started thinking about all the nitrates, so ham was on the menu less frequently.
Finally we hit a period of pasta and noodle salads, which proved amazingly successful. Basil pesto with a few cherry tomatoes and grated parmesan… tick. Chicken pasta salad with celery, peppers, spring onions and a gingery vinaigrette… tick (but only if the chicken can be kept cold).
Here are a few ideas for livening up your kids’ lunchboxes – and your own!
- Pasta with Asian Pesto and Roasted Pumpkin – use shop-bought pesto if it's easier
- Deli Pasta – make with spiral pasta so it’s easy to eat
- Corn and Feta Fritters – make bite-sized fritters for little kids
- Bacon and Egg Pie – kids just love this classic pie
- Cheese and Ham Twists – make these at the weekend, freeze them and pull them out as you need them.
- Pan Bagna – swap the eggs for ham or cold cooked chicken if you prefer
- Chicken and Mint Salad Rolls – pack with a frozen water bottle to keep them cool in summer
- Corn and Israeli Couscous Salad – pack in a little container and provide a fork
- Couscous with Roasted Vegetables – swap out the veges to suit your family's tastes