Beating the back-to-school
lunch box blues

When our children started school my wife and made a deal: I would do breakfasts and dinner, she would take care of lunches.

At the time, I had no idea how good a deal that was for me. Our kids are the furthest thing you can get from being picky eaters, but I know by mid-September they’ll be laying down the law about what they want in their lunches and what they never want to see again.

There’s something particularly frustrating and guilt-inducing about a lunch bag coming home full of uneaten food—you worry your child has been hungry all day, that your cooking has fallen short, and then there’s the food waste (never mind the ick factor of an apple that’s been turned to mush inside a crowded, heavy backpack).

With the school year almost upon us, here are some ideas of how to make lunch planning a little easier on parents and more engaging for kids.


As we approach year seven of sending lunches to school for our kids, we’ve found the trick with sandwiches is variety—kids quickly get bored of ham, turkey, pastrami. I know I wouldn’t want to eat ham and cheese on rye day after day.

We aim for brighter flavours and different ingredients. This pickled tomato sandwich is a great vegetarian option. The herbs, lemon zest and olive oil make for great flavour and texture.

Pickled Tomato Sandwich – enough for 2 sandwiches (courtesy RICARDO Magazine)

2 red, yellow or orange tomatoes, thinly sliced
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1/4 tsp chopped fresh thyme
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
4 slices bread, toasted or not
Mayonnaise or mustard to taste
Salt and pepper
Cheese (optional)

1. Spread the thinly sliced tomatoes across a plate, sprinkle with the lemon zest, thyme and drizzle with the oil. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with cling film and refrigerate until ready to serve.
2. Spread mayonnaise or mustard or your bread or bun of choice—it works best with a heartier bread as the tomatoes will soak into the sandwich—remove the tomato slices from the fridge and place on the bread. For extra flavour, add the cheese of your choice to the sandwich: goat, cheddar or brie.

Chicken Wrap – makes 1 wrap (courtesy RICARDO magazine)

A perfect and quick way to use up leftovers and the mayonnaise-hoisin combo is a surprisingly zingy, tasty condiment.

1 tablespoon (15 ml) mayonnaise
1 teaspoon (5 ml) hoisin sauce
1 large tortilla
1 leaf Boston lettuce or baby spinach
English cucumber, cut into thin strips
Carrot, peeled and cut into thin strips
1/2 cup cooked chicken, thinly sliced (see recipe)

1. In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise and hoisin sauce, mix well.
2. Spread the tortilla with the mayonnaise mixture and top with the lettuce. Layer with the cucumber and carrot. Add the shredded chicken. Roll up tightly and wrap in parchment paper. Close to seal, cut in half (the parchment will keep the wrap from unrolling in the lunch bag).

Chicken Banh Mi (courtesy RICARDO magazine)

This one also uses leftover chicken and can make a nice mid-week dinner too.

60 ml (1/4 cup) mayonnaise
1 tbsp (15 ml) mirin
2 tsp (10 ml ) hoisin sauce
1/8 tsp ground five spices
Hot sauce (optional)

1 baguette
500 ml (2 cups) cooked chicken, lightly packed, cooled and shredded into large pieces
1 cucumber, cut into julienne
1 carrot, cut into julienne
1 green onion, thinly sliced
A few cilantro leaves, to taste

1. In a large bowl, combine mayonnaise, mirin, hoisin sauce, five spice and any hot sauce.
2. Cut the baguette in half horizontally, without completely detaching both sides. Spread the inside of the baguette with half the mayonnaise.
3. In a bowl, combine the remaining mayonnaise and the chicken and coat well.
4. Spoon the chicken mixture into the bread and garnish with the cucumber, carrot, green onion and cilantro.


An Alternative to Lunchables

My daughter, who is going into grade seven, loves to pack her own lunch. This is a great development; however, she likes to use about half a dozen small containers each and every day. Both of my kids like to take a variety of smaller snacks to school to eat over lunch. Rather than buy an off the shelf version, we’ll provide them with a variety of ingredients so they can build their own. We’ve had success with:

  • Dips such as hummus, baba ganoush, guacamole
  • Mini pitas, lavash, crackers, naan
  • Pitted olives, pickles, dolmades
  • Dried fruit, apple slices, pear slices
  • Meats like dry cured salami,
  • Mild cheeses such as Cheddar, Gloucester, Gruyere, and Comte


Thermos lunch

Inevitably, one of my kids will come home and demand what they call a thermos lunch. Tired of sandwiches and wraps, they want something warm and tasty.

One of the best tips for keeping their lunch warm is to put the kettle on in the morning to fill the thermos with boiling water while you’re making breakfasts and lunches. This gets the thermos up to temp, helping to keep their food warmer, longer. Tip out the boiling water in the thermos right before filling it with re-heated pasta, chile, soup or a biryani.

I’ll often make a lasagna or pasta on Sunday night to provide the kids with a few lunches for the week ahead. The boy’s absolute favourite is penne with sausage.

Penne with Sausage

1 box Penne (about 450 grams, or 1 pound)
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 pounds Italian sausage
1 cup Onion Chopped
3/4 cup Red Wine
3 cups (750 ml) tomato sauce (I like the tall jars of passata)
2 Bay Leaves

The timing for this on a gas stove is perfect. It takes about 30 minutes for the water to boil and the pasta to cook and the sauce takes about 30 minutes to be ready. Water comes to a boil quicker on an electric stove, so you’ll have to start the sauce about 10 minutes earlier—of course, there are worse fates than having a nice tomato sauce slowly simmering on your stove.

1. Warm the olive oil in a very large skillet or sauté pan and cook the sausages over medium heat, turning occasionally, until they brown.
2. Put a large pot of salted water on high heat.
3. Add the chopped onions, stirring occasionally, until they turn silver.
4. Turn up the heat, add the wine and gently shake the pan (or stir) until the wine is almost completely reduced.
5. Return the heat to medium-low, add the tomato sauce, bay leaves and bring to a simmer
6. Once the water from step 2 is boiling, cook the penne or other pasta according to package directions and drain.
7. Combine pasta and sauce, mix well, remove the bay leaves, taste and adjust seasonings (More salt? Pepper?)

Here’s to keeping lunch interesting this school year!

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Michael Forbes

About Michael Forbes

Michael, a communications professional by day, is a father of two, an avid (but bad) hockey player, and an amateur cook. He finds it incredibly challenging to write about himself in the third person. View all posts by