The humble sandwich is nearly a no-brainer when it comes to lunchbox options. It’s easy and portable, and most kids like the simple flavors of ham and cheese or PB&J.
Yet it often can be uninteresting and unhealthy, likely made with processed meats and cheeses or sugary peanut butter mashed between flavorless slices of refined-grain bread, thrown together in the morning by harried parents who may lack the time to be more creative.
By lunchtime, too, a sandwich can be soggy; half or more may end up in the trash can.
To add variety, excitement and nutrients to your children’s lunchbox menu this year, consider these recipes provided by four local chefs who have school-age kids of their own. The mini meals, some of which could double as dinner the night before in larger portions, provide a means for sneaking in fruits, vegetables and legumes in a tasty, finger-licking way — sure to make your child’s lunchtime almost as fun as recess.
Japanese meatballs with peach and white sesame “cobbler” and chocolate gelatin
“I try to put together familiar things they like,” Kevin Martinez says of prepping lunch for his two sons, Eli, 4, and Alex, 2. “My kids love peaches, and they like granola bars. So I’ll roast peaches while they’re in season and mix them with granola and sesame seeds, and it all sticks together. Since most schools have a no-nut policy, this makes a good, healthy snack.”
The Tokyo Cafe chef says kids like to play with their food, and anything they can pick up and eat with their little fingers, like his sticky-sweet Japanese meatballs, make for a fun lunchtime meal. And if your child begs for store-bought gelatin desserts, make a preservative-free version without artificial flavors or colors using Martinez’s easy recipe.
Green chile chicken squash “sliders”
Mark Hitri admits that his 8- and 11-year-old boys are picky eaters.
“I generally stick with what they like and add healthier things a little at a time,” says the Billy Bob’s Texas executive chef.
In his cheesy green chile chicken sliders, which are inspired by Billy Bob’s Texas’ signature yellow squash and green chile chicken soup, Hitri uses raw sliced squash as a creative substitute for buns.
“My oldest is gluten-sensitive and that has been the hardest to deal with,” Hitri said. “So part of the inspiration on this dish is to find ways of replacing bread and still making a convenient lunch.”
Note that the number of sliders will depend on the size of the squash “buns.” Also, if you’re concerned about raw squash, Hitri says: “I think children should have no problem biting into the squash. It is not like an acorn or spaghetti squash with a hard shell. It is more like zucchini, as far as texture of the skin.”
Cannellini bean dip with pita chips
“He loves dipping,” said Chandra Riccetti of her 5-year-old son, Luca. “We try to make things that are easy to eat and don’t take a lot of concentration and focus. That’s where the dipping came in.”
Per the advice of her pediatrician, Riccetti started exposing her son to many different foods early. She has kept him away from sodium-heavy cold cuts and gives him Greek yogurt, hummus and peanut butter with dippers like fruits and vegetables instead.
At one point, Luca began resisting some of Riccetti’s menu selections when classmates began “eww-ing” his lunches.
“He’d come home and say, ‘I don’t want to eat that,’” she said. “We put it back off on our pediatrician, saying, ‘Well, she said you need to try everything.’”
To combat the peer pressure, Riccetti continually praised her son for at least trying new foods. Now he prefers broccoli, edamame and spinach to sandwiches. One of Luca’s favorite dips is Riccetti’s Tuscan bean soup-inspired cannellini bean dip, which she pairs with whole-grain pita chips and a side of berries.
Barbecue salmon fillet with cucumbers, tomatoes and feta
“If I know I’m sending lunch, I plan my dinner the night before accordingly,” said Vance Martin, whose West Magnolia Avenue restaurant is named for his 10-year-old daughter, Lili. “She will eat any fish cold, so I will grill an extra salmon fillet. We started feeding Lili fish at a young age and she took to it immediately.”
Martin simply uses barbecue sauce to create a sweet, caramelized glaze and pairs the chilled salmon fillet with crisp cucumbers, sliced tomatoes and feta crumbles. He says the salmon travels well after firming overnight in the refrigerator.
“We are sweet-eaters,” he added. “So after that healthy lunch, I don’t feel so bad about sending a treat, too.”