I’m sitting here wondering how many people who will read this post are, like me, the product of lukewarm tuna sandwiches and soggy PB&J.
It’s no knock on my Mom or her cooking skills; my mother was, and is, a fabulous cook. But I grew up in an era where school lunches just didn’t get the same kind of glamor treatment they tend to get nowadays. Sometimes I got a thermos full of Campbell’s soup; sometimes, cold Totino’s pizza rolls that would go limp before lunchtime. Most of the time, until I rebelled against sandwiches somewhere around the 4th grade, it was tuna, egg salad, or PB&J – on white bread, of course. After that, I remember lots of Triscuits with cheddar cheese and apple slices.
I LIKED my lunches, for the most part, or at least, I can’t remember complaining much about them (or even thinking about it, to be honest – lunch was lunch, and that was that). And my mom was packing pretty much what every other mom was packing, with the exception of the one friend who got several junk food items next to a Lunchable, when those horrible icons of thoughtless feeding hit the market. Oh, and the one friend whose mom seemed to be a hippie, and who ate WHOLE-WHEAT BREAD when such a thing was far from commonplace. I don’t think my mom experienced any kind of lunch anxiety, and certainly no parental guilt about the contents of our brown paper sacks.
Times have changed, huh?
Now, it seems like the parent-guilt-du-jour is a big serving of lunchbox shame. People are anxiously scouring the internet for images of beautiful bento lunches and impulse-clicking on Amazon to stock their lunch supply drawers. (Lunch supply drawers? I think my mom’s contained…brown paper bags and some plastic baggies.) A Martha Stewart-esque collection of cookie cutters and adorable Hello Kitty toothpicks are becoming some sort of status symbol that allows us to prove to people that we’re caring, committed lunch-packers. And while I’m the first to admit that I think all the bento lunches are SUPER cute, and I own my own stash of cookie cutters (which I employ with EXTREME rarity), I’m starting to get worried about how the average parent feels when they can’t measure up to the blissful bento model.
If you can do it – awesome. I bow to your craftiness and organization. But if you can’t, and like me, you’re just trying to keep lunch a notch above the old tuna-salad model without resorting to packaged and processed foods, it’s really okay. You’re still a loving and committed lunch-packer. The sheer act of will required to get into the kitchen some mornings and squint your way through the food foraging process before you’ve had a decent cup of coffee earns you a lunchbox badge of honor, in my book.
As a fabulous foraging lunch-packer of the highest order, you don’t need cookie cutters and food-grade markers; what you need, my friend, is ingenuity and leftovers. Repurposing last night’s random leftovers in a lunchbox-friendly way will score you cool points with the kids and keep you secure in the knowledge that you may not be the Van Gogh of the lunchbox, but you’re a pretty good MacGyver.
Today’s leftover dinner item is meatloaf. Think cold meatloaf can’t be the star of a great lunch? Think again.
Meatloaf sliders. Cut the meatloaf into slider-sized bites (square is fine. No need to make circles if you don’t want to). Put the meatloaf sliders on whole-wheat dinner rolls, squares of whole-wheat toast, or even mini-bagels or corn muffins. Add cheese, if your kids like it, or pickles, lettuce, tomato…you get the idea.
Meatloaf burritos. Crumble a slice or two of meatloaf and mix it with your favorite salsa. You can add anything you have on hand – cooked corn, shredded cheese, brown rice, tomatoes, beans – and wrap it all up in a whole-wheat tortilla. No tortillas? Put it all over a bed of lettuce and call it a salad. Bonus points from the kids if you serve a few chips on the side.
Meatloaf subs. Come on…we all know meatloaf is really just badly shaped meatballs. Cut it into big cubes and mix it up with some marinara sauce. I highly recommend putting it into a thermos, for two reasons: first, it’ll stay nice and warm for the kids; and second, this is the kind of meal they should assemble when they eat it. Send the shredded mozzarella and a whole-wheat bun on the side so they can make their sandwich at lunchtime. Or skip the bun and the cheese, and throw some whole-grain pasta into that thermos.
Meatloaf gyros. If you’re Greek, don’t throw things at me, please. Stuff a whole-wheat pita with strips of meatloaf, baby spinach leaves, cucumbers, and sliced tomatoes. If your kids are adventurous, add some feta cheese or olives. Send a container of yogurt dip on the side – just a little plain yogurt mixed with some dill and lemon juice will do, if you don’t have the time or inclination to make tzatziki.
None of these lunches will take more than, say, 5 or 6 minutes to assemble, and all of them are perfectly good ways to fill up a hungry kid with some real food that won’t make their friends go “Ewwww…what’s THAT?” Fabulous foraging lunch-packers, take heart.
Photo Credit: Bri DeRosa
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