Denise Neil

Get creative for back-to-school lunch ideas

Mignon Brewster prepares healthy lunches for her girls that include wraps made with high-fiber tortillas plus easy-to-carry veggies, fruits and crackers.
Mignon Brewster prepares healthy lunches for her girls that include wraps made with high-fiber tortillas plus easy-to-carry veggies, fruits and crackers. Correspondent

Sage, age 11, and her 8-year-old sister Sloane, take their lunch to school every day.

But they almost never eat sandwiches. In fact, the head lunch packer in the house, Mignon Brewster, says she rarely buys sandwich bread.

Instead, she experiments with stuffing high-fiber tortillas with all types of ingredients her girls will eat. As a result, no one gets bored and no food comes home wasted.

“Sandwiches get so boring,” Brewster said. “I try to mix up their lunches and make them healthy yet fun.”

As students across the area prepare to head back to school, moms and dads are contemplating a common dilemma: How to fill up lunchboxes with travel-friendly, healthy food that kids will actually eat.

Local parents who responded on Facebook said that getting creative is the key.

Many report using tortillas to make healthy wraps. The options are limitless, from sweet to savory, from veggie-filled to meaty.

Bento boxes also are becoming popular lunchbox replacements. Designed to resemble the multi-compartment trays popular in Japan, modern bento boxes are made out of plastic or metal and allow kids to carry several courses to school. The new-fangled bento boxes are available in several local stores and on websites and help keep food the way most kids like it: Separated.

“I think it’s great because it looks pretty and keeps everything separate,” said Adriene Rathbun, who owns the local cooking school Social, whose class lineup includes sessions designed for budding cooks and their parents. “You can have different compartments and put hummus in one, pita bread in another and some kind of meat in another.”

At the Brewster house, tortillas are the most important school-year ingredient, and the kitchen grill is the most important tool.

One of Sage’s and Sloane’s favorite lunchbox treats is a tortilla filled with a fried egg made fresh that morning and dressed with a squirt of ketchup, a slice of cheese and some low-sodium deli turkey, then folded and toasted on both sides on a grill coated with coconut oil spray. The recipe also works with an all-white meat turkey hot dog sliced down the middle, placed in a tortilla, topped with cheese, ketchup and pickle relish and folded and toasted.

Brewster likes to treat the girls with some sweet surprises, too. One of their favorites is chocolate chip waffles slathered with Nutella then folded up like tacos. Nutella also makes a kid-approved tortilla filling.

Leftovers are always fair game, too, Brewster said, especially on the morning after taco night. Brewster assembles tacos for dinner in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. The next morning, she slides extras into lunch boxes.

“I’ll pack them up with some Doritos,” she said. “A cold taco is pretty dang good.”

Serving foods cold that typically are eaten hot frequently works well too, Brewster said. The girls like cold pasta that’s been cooked the night before and mixed with butter. And grilling the tortilla wraps gives them a nice chewy texture, even if they’ve cooled off by lunchtime.

To deal with temperature concerns, Brewster often packs frozen water bottles and frozen yogurt tubes into lunches. They keep the rest of the contents cold and melt into a consumable state by lunchtime.

Rathbun said that she also remembers lots of leftovers in her lunchbox, and she loved it. She grew up in a Lebanese family and was thrilled to find leftover kibbeh in her lunchbox.

Working with kid cooks has taught Rathbun that they like to be involved in the process. Teach kids to help make their lunches, and they’ll often lead the way in coming up with new things to try.

She suggests parents try ideas such as fruit skewers, made with fruits in a rainbow of colors like watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple and green grapes. Cut meats and cheese up using fun-shaped, small cookie cutters. Homemade hummus and veggies are good, too, and homemade chicken fingers, baked with panko instead of fried in oil, are tasty and healthy.

“I think people forget that kids will eat things other than mac-and-cheese and chicken nuggets, but you have to make it look pretty, make it look cute and fun,” Rathbun said. “They’ll be more intrigued.”

Here are more back-to-school lunchbox ideas from local moms:

Homemade Lunchables: “I basically make my own Lunchables for my boys. I used to try to make something new every day, but learned that young school kids usually appreciate predictability. I roll up deli meat and slice it so it comes out in strips. I also include carrot sticks, a sliced veggie, a cookie and Goldfish crackers. I also have become a fan of the shelf-stable milk after educating myself as to how the heck milk can be shelf stable. It isn’t exciting but they tell me they enjoy the lunches.” – Kari Tovar

Mighty meat wrap: “My son likes an ‘all meat wrap’ which is every type of sliced meat I have layered on a tortilla and rolled up. He also likes peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches.” – Tami Shermer

Roll it up: “Tortilla rollups, popular with school children and college volleyball players alike: tortilla, softened cream cheese, slice of ham, slice of cheese and a dill pickle in the center. Roll it up and slice it like sushi.” – Jeanie Hans

Sushi that’s not stinky: “I make sushi without fish so it won’t be so stinky (cucumber and avocado).” – Jan Jarman

Healthy fare: “I do sammies, hummus and veggies or pretzels. Pasta salad with salami, cheeses, olives and cucumbers.” – Abby Jo Brookshire

Vegetarian ideas: “We’re vegetarian, so I find it more challenging than I did when we ate meat. We do salads, wraps, PB&J, cheese sticks, veggies, fruit, etc. But their favorite was when I surprised them with yogurt/granola parfait and blueberry muffins. Although that was trickier to pair a veggie with.” – Alison Spurgeon Babb

Ants on a log: “Celery stuffed with peanut butter and topped with raisins (ants on a log) travels well and is tasty.” – LaVeda Finley

Homemade sushi: “Our son Johnny was in the hospital most of second grade, and when he got out, he could not have any food with hard edges, so I made him vegetarian sushi every morning, hand-rolled. On Monday, I made a big pot of sushi rice and cut all the veggies, and I would just make a roll in the morning before school. It kept really well, and he loved it.” – Julie Fitzthum

Tasty tortillas: “My son likes thin sliced pepperoni and sliced mozzarella rolled up in a tortilla, microwaved for 30 seconds, and then cut in half. It is cold by lunch but he says it is still yummy. My daughter likes peanut butter and jelly or honey rolled up in a tortilla and cut in ‘wheels’ or just in half.” – Angela Mehl

Burritos on the go: “For lunchbox burritos, take a can of refried beans, mix with a can of enchilada sauce and some shredded cheddar cheese. Spread bean mixture on tortilla, roll up like a burrito, wrap in a paper towel, wrap in foil. I do this until I run out of tortillas or bean mixture or both. Then they go into the fridge. In the mornings, just grab a burrito, some veggies and fruit and go. If you’re near a microwave, it only takes 30 seconds or so to warm it up. If not, they’re good cold, too.” – Kimberly Lund