Hold the sandwich

Creative sack lunches for kids

February 11, 2008

The worst thing about living in a communal household with a combined seven children is, without a doubt, packing lunch. Most mornings find me standing in front of the refrigerator, trying to figure out what I can pack that will make all the kids happy. Actually, happiness is a lofty goal; I’d settle for just finding something they’ll all eat.

Thankfully at the moment, only four of the kids need to bring a lunch. But just try to get them to eat off the same menu: Ronan’s school doesn’t allow peanut butter or nuts in any form, Declan likes turkey but not roast beef, Erika likes roast beef but not turkey, and Hilary — well, Hilary doesn’t eat much.

To top it off, none of the kids like sandwiches. (How is this possible? Who doesn’t like sandwiches?) And there is no way I am going to pack four different lunches for four kids.

I have my standby staples — organic cheese sticks, tubes of organic yogurt, Annie’s cheddar bunnies — but these always make me feel guilty. I want to nurture the kids, to cook for them, so feeding them prepackaged yogurt and cheese (even if they are organic) is, to my mind, only a short step from Lunchables.

Frogs in a bog . . . or savory sausage muffins.

But “cooking” and “lunchbox” don’t often go hand in hand. The kids’ favorite foods — pancakes, pasta, mashed potatoes, gnocchi, scrambled eggs, sausages or hot dogs — aren’t easily packaged. (Yes, I know, we’re talking very advanced palates here.) If I could figure out how to make these foods portable, I’d be in business.

The solution? Foods that, like sandwiches, hold up well under transport, don’t require much (if any) assembly, and are satisfying eaten cold as well as warm.

My first foray into creative sack lunches focused on quiche. Forget all those 1980s slurs on quiche and girly men; the truth is, quiche is nothing more than scrambled-egg pie. And what kid doesn’t want pie for lunch?

When I first started making quiche, I played it safe and put in some strips of American cheese slices. (So sue me; the slices were organic, at least.) Since then, the kids and I have expanded our repertoire, and I’ve found that simple combinations of flavorful ingredients work best — smoky turkey and sharp cheddar, for example.

I love quiche because it meets all the essential sack-lunch criteria: it’s eminently portable (it fits nicely in a lunchbox), and it can be eaten at virtually any temperature with no utensils necessary. Though at home I encourage knife-and-fork use with quiche, at school the kids eat their quiche slices just like pizza triangles.

This meal-in-one-hand approach to lunches inspired my Frog in a Bog Muffins, a blatant ripoff of the traditional English dish called toad-in-a-hole. The English version consists of Yorkshire pudding wrapped around a sausage; it’s kind of like pigs-in-a-blanket on steroids. Wrap meat in pastry and you’ve got something kids will love. Which is why it makes sense to have an American version, in miniature, for tiny hands to hold.

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My version replaces the English Yorkshire pudding (an airy popover flavored with beef fat) with cornbread, and the greasy pork sausage with leaner turkey sausage. The cornbread — slightly sweet and cakey, therefore perfect for kids — is baked into muffins, with chunks of the turkey sausage pressed into the batter just before baking. The muffins rise up around the sausages, leaving the sausages to peek out like, well, little frogs in a bog.

Another thing I’ve learned about kids is that they love to dip. Whether it’s baby carrots in dressing, French fries in ketchup (or even mango in ketchup, as my nephew Jonah prefers), or pasta in sauce, kids simply like to be in control of their food. So, I’ve started sending the kids in with my version of chips and dip: toasted pita chips with ‘purple’ dip. Essentially a black-bean dip (which turns a lovely shade of purple when puréed), the kids like the smooth texture and mild flavor. And for dessert, honeyed yogurt makes a great dip for fresh fruit.

These lunches have gone a long way towards assuaging my guilt, which makes it easier to send the occasional cheese-stick-and-yogurt-tube lunch when I run out of muffins or quiche. But the truth is, just once in a while, I wish they’d eat a friggin’ sandwich.

Cookbook author Keri Fisher (One Cake, One Hundred Desserts) has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, and Cook’s Illustrated. She lives outside Philadelphia with her sister, her husband, and her three children, and keeps a blog about living in a communal household.

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by Carrie Floyd on Feb 11, 2008 at 12:09 PM PST

My kids won’t eat sandwiches either, not even the classic PB & J. They will eat bagels with cream cheese, but that makes me crazy day in, day out! Other things that go over well: hummus with veggies and pita chips, banana muffins, leftover veggie fried rice in a thermos. Thanks for some new ideas.

2. by Rachel on Feb 11, 2008 at 2:00 PM PST

Those look so cute and yummy. I may have to pack some in MY lunch

3. by Sally Parrott Ashbrook on Feb 19, 2008 at 5:37 PM PST

Yes! I cannot eat corndogs anymore (at least not any I can find) due to allergies to eggs, wheat, cow dairy, and soy, but I can make corn muffins with (organic, grass-fed beef) hotdogs tucked in them. What fun. Thanks for the idea.

4. by anonymous on Feb 20, 2008 at 12:59 PM PST

Add frozen chopped spinach or grated carrots to those “bogs” and you’ve got an even better lunch. As long as your kids don’t fear unidentifiable bits.

5. by whatscooking on Mar 4, 2008 at 7:18 PM PST

Great ideas, Keri! We have also had lots of success with mini frittatas! My daughter (the picky one in our family) doesn’t even mind a little spinach in hers, as long as there is lots of cheese :-)

6. by Tiah on Aug 4, 2008 at 12:11 PM PDT

Thank you so much for these great ideas! I love to make wraps for the kids too, I mix cream cheese and a tsp of bbq sauce to spread on the tortilla, then layer meats and cheese and cucumber or whatever inside. And they think they’re getting spoiled with my dipping sauce for celery: peanut butter mixed with syrup!

7. by Sylzmom on Jun 2, 2009 at 9:45 AM PDT

Thanks so much for this info. My daughter starts kindergarten in August. Because she is a vegetarian, she is unable to get the hot lunch at school. (No vegetarian menu)This would be okay if she ate sandwiches -- which, of course, she doesn’t. These suggestions are helpful because I can use meat substitutes. I’ll give them a try!

8. by Heidi on Aug 30, 2009 at 9:07 AM PDT

great ideas! I’m adding frog in a bog ingredients to my shopping list now!

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