Pro Tips for Packing Healthy, Fresh and Satisfying Lunches
In this excerpt from Lunchbox, author Aviva Wittenberg shares how to create and pack healthy lunches you and your family will be actually excited to eat.
Even after years of documenting packed lunches, talking about lunches casually with friends, and answering questions on lunches in newspapers, on the radio, and on TV, I still spend the first week of September wondering how I am ever going to manage to pack 190+ of them (x2) in the school year to come. After the first few days (and a few moments of forced meditation/deep breathing in front of my fridge), I always go back to the same strategies, and, I always keep this high-level lunchbox plan in mind to help me think about the who, what, why, and how of packing lunchboxes.
Think about who you are packing for, whether it’s for yourself or for others, and what they most like to eat midday. While I love to regularly introduce new foods to my children, I don’t ever do this at lunchtime because it’s more important for lunch to nourish them for an afternoon of school than to expand their culinary horizons. Or, for me, if I were still at a particular office job with a strict no-smelly lunch (or popcorn!) policy, I’d resist packing anything overly fragrant—no one likes that person in the open-plan office with the funky feast!
What and Why
I loosely reference recommended food guides for guidance on what to pack for lunch. I’m looking for lunches that are balanced between food groups and that will provide the nutrients and fuel needed for the long stretch between lunch and dinner. That means something:
- Satisfying: Meat, eggs, tofu, yogurt, cheese, beans, etc.
- Starchy and filling: Grains, noodles, rice, bread or crackers, etc.
- Crunchy and fresh: Raw, steamed, or roasted vegetables
- Sweet: Fruit and/or a baked treat
Sometimes some of these components are combined in a grain bowl; other times they’re wrapped up together in tofu and vegetable dumplings; and yet other times I’ll make sure the veg component is covered with a side of raw vegetable sticks and a dip. However it comes together, I try to check off each of these categories on my mental lunch packing list.
The logistics of how to get lunches from your kitchen counter into your lunchbox really has an impact on how much the food will be enjoyed come lunchtime. These may be less exciting but are important details of how to pack a lunch:
Keep hot foot hot: Pack hot food in a pre-warmed thermos (filling the thermos with hot water while you prep lunch is a good way to do this) or in a microwave-safe container so that it can be warmed up again before eating
Keep cold food cold: Pack food that must stay cold with an ice pack. Even better, pack food that must stay cold the night before, and put the whole lunchbox in the fridge (then add an ice pack in the morning before you go).
Avoid sogginess: Allow items like pastries, samosas, egg rolls, or panini-style grilled sandwiches to cool down before packing them, to prevent them from getting soggy in your lunchbox.
Freshness first: Separate sandwiches, waffles, pancakes, or any of the warm items noted directly above with some parchment paper or reusable wax wrap, or in a sealed-off section of your lunchbox, to keep them nice and fresh.
Leak prevention: If you are using a bento-style lunchbox that has a divider but is not sealed at the bottom (like the LunchBots bentos), line sections with parchment paper or reusable wax wrap or use a silicone cup to contain anything that could leak from one section to another (like juicy fruit). Similarly (and this I share from experience!), be sure to seal off sections containing salads or sushi that you will drizzle dressing or soy sauce over from other sections to prevent anything from migrating over to the fruit or muffin you have packed!
Make It Pretty
You know what they say, we eat with our eyes first, so presentation is really key. The quickest and easiest route to making your lunch look gorgeous is to inject it with color and texture! Add some colorful carrots, a few mini sweet peppers, some cucumber sticks, and some berries alongside a sandwich; add color to a green salad with ribbons of zucchini, carrot, radish; add a handful of fresh herbs alongside a handpie for a beautiful edible canvas (and some variety for your taste buds).
Excerpted from Lunchbox by Aviva Wittenberg. Copyright © 2022 Aviva Wittenberg. Photography © 2022 Aviva Wittenberg. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.