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.
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.
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.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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