I made an art of packing lunches when my children were little and found it to be an exciting way to introduce them to new and flavorful food. Nothing made me happier than to clean out their empty lunch boxes when they returned from school each day. I knew I had passed the test when the only thing left were the wrappers and sticky remnants that their tiny hands had left behind.
Growing up in Latin America meant that my own childhood lunches often included whole grain salads, hand-held morsels—such as empanadas and croquetas—and thermoses filled with warm sopas. So, when it came time to making my children’s meals, I thought nothing of letting flavor and nutrition take precedence over pre-packaged convenience.
Slapping two pieces of bread together with something in the middle may be the simplest thing to do—trust me when I tell you that I’ve made plenty of sandwiches in my lifetime—but kids get tired of eating the same lunch every day. Wouldn’t you? According to industry experts, the average American eats almost two hundred sandwiches each year. Sometimes, a little variety goes a long way.
Younger kids tend to be a bit pickier about what they eat than older children. That’s okay. I had one child who wouldn’t eat food that wasn’t decorated with chopped parsley and another who wouldn’t touch anything that had a speck of green on it. Like me, you may have to do a bit of customizing, but when your children eat every single bite of goodness you send with them to school, you’ll know it was well worth the effort.
Read Related: Kids in the Kitchen: Nutritious Avocado Bites
Packing a wholesome lunch every day can appear to be a challenge, particularly when it’s meant to be gobbled up by a child, too distracted to truly appreciate the nuances of a carefully balanced meal. My tips for you are these: First, work around your children’s pet peeves so that you can start shaping their palates early on without getting into a power play. Start with the things they like and find new ways of showcasing them. Second, fall back on the abundance of produce and the goodness of whole grains available today. Most kids outgrow pickiness at some point. Slowly familiarizing them with new ingredients will lead to more adventurous eating later on. The trick is to keep food simple while interesting at the same time.
I learned early on that even though my kids claimed to dislike salads, they’d devour julienned vegetables such as carrots and bell peppers without a problem. As they grew up, I began to incorporate these beloved ingredients into whole grain salads. Ingredients like bulgur and whole wheat couscous that reminded them of pasta, and farro that was similar to rice, became instant favorites. As long as I kept the other ingredients uncomplicated, they were willing to give them a try. By the time they were in middle school, their lunch boxes were most likely to hold containers of corn salad or chilled farro topped with grilled chicken, than a sandwich.
As your children go back to school, I envy you the task of preparing their meals every morning and of making sure that they have plenty of glorious surprises hiding within their lunch boxes. The recipes that follow are kid-approved, with lots of flavor that won’t intimidate most young palates, plus they can be made the night before. Lucky are the teachers who get to see your children’s expressions of joy as they uncover the culinary treasures that await them each day.
Farro is one of the ancient grains making a strong comeback. It’s very high in protein and in soluble fiber, which makes it an ideal addition to a child’s diet. The sweet dressing is a favorite with kids and the almonds provide an additional portion of protein to the mix. Farro is nutty and when cooked properly, offers a bit of resistance to the bite, giving it a pleasant texture that children like. Cook farro as you would rice or pasta. If you make this salad for older kids, add a sprinkling of chopped cilantro or Italian parsley. Purchase farro in specialty and health food stores.
FARRO SALAD WITH HONEY & LEMON DRESSING
¾ cup uncooked farro (spelt)
4 cups water
¾ cup shredded carrots
¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted
2 TBSP lemon juice
1 TBSP red wine vinegar
2 TSP honey
1 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Freshly ground pepper, to taste
- In a large pot, combine the farro and the water. Bring to a boil; cover and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook farro, about 10-12 minutes or until it’s cooked through but still has a bit of a bite.
- Fill a bowl with iced water. Drain farro in a sieve and immediately, place it (sieve and all) in the iced water to stop the cooking process; let it sit for 5 minutes, then drain well.
- In a large bowl, combine the farro, carrots and almonds. In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, red wine vinegar, honey, salt and pepper; slowly, drizzle the olive oil into the dressing and mix to combine. Stir the dressing with the farro salad, until well combined.
When my kids were very little, I would send this salad broken up by ingredients: a mound of couscous, a cup of miniature tomatoes, a container of chickpeas, and a box of raisins. Once they learned to like each one of the components separately, I began to incorporate them into this salad.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 TBSP fresh lemon juice (or to taste)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 cup whole wheat couscous
1 cup boiling chicken broth (or water)
½ cup halved grape tomatoes
½ cup cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained (may use canned)
¼ cup raisins
1 TBSP finely chopped Italian parsley (optional)
- In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, lemon zest, salt, and pepper; set aside so flavors can blend.
- Place the couscous in a large bowl and pour the boiling chicken broth over it; cover and let it stand for 8 to 10 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed. Fluff the couscous with a fork.
- Pour the vinaigrette over the couscous and mix well. Add the chopped tomatoes, chickpeas, and parsley (if using), stirring well. Chill the salad for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight before serving.
The flavor profile of this refreshing salad features sweet, sour, and salty undertones ideal for children’s palates. This is a great choice for kids who like monochromatic food. You won’t find a touch of green in this one! I’m particularly fond of the smokiness lent by grilled corn; however, if you prefer, use frozen and thawed corn kernels instead. Older kids can add grilled chicken, cubed ham or cooked shrimp to the mix. When my kids were teens, they loved stuffing this salad into hollowed out tomatoes and packing them in their lunch boxes.
CREAMY CORN SALAD WITH CHEESE
2 ½ cups grilled corn kernels (about 3 large ears)
¼ cup light sour cream or low fat Greek yogurt
2 TBSP freshly squeezed lime juice or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
2 TBSP grated Cotija or parmesan cheese
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the light sour cream (or yogurt), lime juice, salt, and pepper; stir in the corn kernels and mix until combined.
- Sprinkle with the Cotija cheese and parsley (if using) and stir to combine. Chill well before serving.
Note: Grilling corn is easy; simply place the peeled ears directly onto a hot indoor or outdoor grill. Grill the cobs for about 2 or 3 minutes per side, or until you get a slight charring. Then slice the kernels off the cob.
Sandra A. Gutierrez is a mom, cookbook author, and a culinary instructor; even thought her kids are grown up, she still loves to pack lunch boxes.