The school lunch box stares up at me with vacuous vacancy. It’s maddeningly indifferent to the anxieties it provokes. Doesn’t it understand that I’m beginning the very long (seemingly endless) school lunch creation process without any ideas? My school lunch brain is vacuously vacant.
The kids aren’t helpful; although they are quite good at telling me what they don’t like. Sandwiches, for instance (they get too soggy; one kid doesn’t like lunch meat, the other doesn’t like cheese; one kid loathes egg salad, the other wouldn’t be caught dead with the sulphurous odours emanating from their lunch (that’s akin to leprosy in the grade seven classroom), ditto for tuna or salmon. Salads are a no go for both kids (they don’t like lettuce, or any leafy greens (though strangely I catch them eating it straight out of the garden out back – apparently you can only eat lettuce furtively, like a rabbit, maybe that’s the draw….) and grain salads are just unrecognizable as a palatable edible.
I’m quite good at telling them what I don’t like: pre-packaged snack foods; crackers with more ingredients that I can’t pronounce than those that I can; any yogurt specifically promoted to kids that most often isn’t actually yogurt but, because of some miraculous marketing genius for milk powder, has been transformed into something electrifyingly pink and, I suspect, equally good as putty for filling holes in walls (at least, it worked on the walls in my house, the gearhead, incidentally, was not impressed). Canned soups are far too salty. Canned pasta is a vehicle for sugar. These things (and many more), dear reader, I refuse to buy. And so the grocery store tug of war begins, but, because I’m the adult [wife edits: parent!] I have the most pull and I win [gearhead edits: most of the time].
The gearhead thinks I’m too militaristic about this [wife edits: left to his own devices I think the gearhead would be content with coffee, potato chips, bacon and eggs … and still survive]. He insists that when I’m away at conferences and such, the kids are perfectly capable of making their own lunches. But are they healthy lunches?! [wife edits: these desperate wails do nothing to support my cause….apparently I’m a slow learner]. If the gearhead took charge of school lunches [gearhead edits: that won’t happen], he would make them what he calls the Tim Walmsley Special [gearhead edits: Tim was my best friend in grade school], this consists of two slices of white bread [wife edits: yes, white bread!!], toasted and spread with a layer of peanut butter [wife edits: not the natural kind!!] at least as thick as the bread slice, a layer of butter and another of thick honey, smashed together and presented oozingly with sticky fingers (don’t bother with a plate). And we all know what would happen then. The children would be sent home in shame, shoulders bent under the weight of their close encounter with homicide, after trespassing the school’s no nut zone.
So what does this leave us with? Deconstructed sandwiches with bread and fillings separate. Fruit and vegetables, cut and separated. Home made soups (if I get the time to make them, and yes, sometimes I do), whole wheat pasta (no sauce or on the side), perogies (but not the supermarket ones, the more home made ones we can get from the Polish deli), treats that I insist we make at home (muffins, bars and cookies that have half and half whole wheat flour), dried fruits and real yogurt (I have, on occasion made my own).
The bar, however, has been set over at Food 52. Amanda Hesser please tell me you accomplish these creative lunches with an army of minions in your kitchen. I can’t stand to be awarded with yet another medal of parental inadequacy [wife edits: I’m starting to look like a general with all these ribbons!]. Amanda, you know what I really want to see? You’re kids’ lunch boxes when they get home from school. I just breezed through the beautiful photographs of your kids’ lunches and recognise the creativity flowing from leftovers from dinner the night before. Perhaps this is my failing ….dinner the night before at my house doesn’t include home made aioli and often, those dinner leftovers are transformed into my own lunch. You have set the bar high; I will try to do better. I think I can reach it if I step on my tippiest toes and stretch till my tummy shows.
This year, the kids are helping to make their lunches. We make them the night before. At least, we have the last two nights. We’ll see if the pattern takes. I know I’m obstinate about good food but it is a position I’ll continue to defend. It’s important! Just don’t get me started on the lunch containers, I’ll save that soap box speech for another day [gearhead edits: phew, that was close].
In an effort to keep the “bread” part of lunch whole wheat (the kids are remarkably adept at detecting shades off white) I’m offering up this small, simple success: toasted whole wheat pita bread. I discovered this would work as an alternative when I was making Fattoush the other day and the toasted pitas kept disappearing before I mixed them with the salad. The beauty of these is that you can brush the pitas with different herbs or seeds to alter the flavour: dried or fresh rosemary and minced garlic, sesame seeds, sumac for a sour edge, thyme, fresh or dried, fennel or anise seed for a small liquorice kick. You could even sprinkle, sparingly, some cinnamon, and then dip the pieces in ricotta mixed with a little honey…hmmm…my creative lunch brain is beginning to fire. I buy whole wheat pitas that are very thin, with a pocket. This recipe is adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl.
Toasted Pita Bread
4 (6-inch) whole wheat pita breads
about ¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper and any additional herbs or spices (see paragraph above)
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Split the pitas horizontally to make 8 rounds. Put in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, brush the rough sides with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and herbs/spices/seeds if using. Arrange rounds in one layer on two baking sheets and bake pitas until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes, until crisped. Be careful not to burn them! [wife edits: as simple as this is, I have left them unattended and come back to find bits of charcoal dust in the oven]. In a pinch, you could produce a similar result in a toaster but they don’t seem to crisp up the same way. Remove toasted pitas from the oven (or toaster), and break into uneven bite-sized pieces.