Lunch box shortcuts that will make your life easier

Cool lunch box ideas coming your way.
Cool lunch box ideas coming your way. Photo: Getty Images

When my own child was small, I used to roll my eyes at all those parent-magazine lunchbox tips. "All kids love dipping things! Send them to school with vegetables and a little container of ranch dressing!" Oh, really? My kid hated any form of dip - especially ranch dressing.

"Tuck a fun note in with lunch!" He would have gouged his own eyes out if he'd had to open a note from his mother in front of his friends. "Cut sandwiches into cute animal shapes!" If I had turned his bologna into bunnies, he would have run away and joined the circus.

And you know what? I got it: Lunch is personal. It's the oasis in the day, a meal we get to tailor just for ourselves. The lunch box is our own turf.

It isn't even just for kids. Adults probably carry lunch even more often than kids do. Given the time, cost and calories of the lunch options near most workplaces, packing your own is often your best choice.

To figure out the best way to game lunch for me and my kids, I dug into cookbooks and websites in search of ideas for loading up those lunch boxes. Writer Amanda Hesser documents what she packs for her twins' lunches every day. Yes, Hesser's kids apparently are willing to eat asparagus sandwiches, cold haricot verts, pickled onions and Milanese rice salads with tuna for lunch. In front of their friends.

Told you - not all kids are built alike. I bet Hesser's kids are really happy. I hear the circus can be a really good career.

Keep these on hand

Tortillas. Wraps are the fastest sandwiches you can make, and tortillas often keep longer than bread. You can get all kinds of flavours to change it up, too, from flour or corn to green spinach or roasted red pepper.

Hummus. It's nutritious and filling. Even better: Try some of the non-traditional versions, like Roots' lima bean hummus or Trader Joe's edamame hummus. Change it up: Take a whole-wheat roll, cut a sliver off the top, hollow out the centre and fill it with a little hummus and salsa.

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Tiny tomatoes and bocconcini. If you need something to fill out a bento box, toss little tomatoes and bocconcini (little balls of mozzarella) with a little olive oil, some dried oregano and a little salt.

Grapes. To keep a lunch box cold, freeze little baggies of grapes. When they thaw, they make a good fruit serving.

Blueberry jam and goat cheese. Pack a couple of slices with a bag of crackers. (Don't spread it on in advance or the crackers will get soft.) Or make your own: Combine 2 tablespoons goat cheese or cream cheese and 1 tablespoon jam (blueberry or whatever flavour you like). Microwave for 10 seconds, just until soft enough to spread. (From Little Bento by Michele Olivier; onoma Press, 2016.)

Apples and oranges. Together: Combine apple slices and orange slices, squeezing one orange wedge over the apple slices. It will keep them from browning without having them taste like lemon juice.

Packing tips

From "Little Bento," by Michele Olivier:

Plan leftovers into your lunches. Save some roasted chicken for quesadillas later in the week, or make a big pot of chili you can send in a thermos.

Find a time that works. If morning is too stressful, pack lunches while you're making dinner. Or do it while you're cleaning up the kitchen after dinner.

Double up. Plan lunches around things both the kids and adults can take. It saves time, money and stress.

Pack rainbows. Try for something red, orange, yellow, green and blue or purple to balance "beige," like bread or meat.

 - MCT