Thinking Outside the Lunch Box

Coming up with lunch ideas can be more challenging today than in years past. Some schools may elect to forbid peanut butter on campus if a student has a peanut allergy, which removes the old standby of peanut butter and jelly. And almond, cashew or other nut butters don’t always appeal to tiny palates as a substitute.

My grandchildren, Ariella and Melina, took peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for their first five years of school. Now they take leftovers and heat them up at school — spaghetti with Gorgonzola sauce, tacos, beans and rice — and they have discovered Japanese bento boxes.

School lunches can be more creative and exciting than when my kids went to school, but to make the job easier it’s important to devote time to planning ahead. Make sure the things you put in their lunch box are the things they like to eat at home. Ask them what they would like for lunch, and it’s a good idea to have them help prepare the food.

The search for innovative lunch box ideas led me to Lolly Seidenfeld, mother of three young daughters, and her friend, Elissa Rimmon, mother of six.

If the school offers an optional hot lunch program, Seidenfeld suggests checking the menu and sending along similar items. She also recommends using leftovers for brown-bag lunches — chicken, hamburgers, rice, pizza, lasagna and baked pasta. “We try to use up what we can throughout the week,” she said.

Rimmon says making lunches was a dreaded task each night after dinner, because she knew the kids would complain about it the next day. So she got them involved.

“A few years ago, when my older kids were big enough to reach all the cabinets and find all the food, lunch-making became their task. I always help with the main course, and I ask them in advance what foods to have in the house so they can pack their own lunches,” she said. “Our rule is no junk food in the lunch box.”

Lunch Bag Chicken Salad

5 cups diced poached chicken (or chicken from soup)
1 cup diced red bell pepper
1 cup diced celery or fennel
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 hard-cooked egg, diced
1 cup mayonnaise, or enough to moisten salad
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of cumin, optional

In a large bowl, toss chicken, red pepper, celery and parsley. Add hard-cooked egg and toss with mayonnaise. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cumin, if using. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes six to eight servings.

Banana-Nut Loaf With Streusel Topping

This classic dessert, baked in small individual muffin cups, is one that everyone in our family loves. Put in a few extra to share with their friends.

3/4 cup finely ground walnuts or pecans
2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, margarine or shortening, cut in pieces
2 cups toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans
2 cups (about 5 large) mashed bananas
4 eggs
1/2 cup milk
Streusel Topping (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Grease four 3-by-7-by-2-inch loaf pans, sprinkle inside with ground nuts and set them aside. Or line mini-muffin pans with ruffled cupcake liners, sprinkle inside with ground nuts and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, blend the sugar, flour, baking soda and salt. Add the butter and blend until crumbly. Add the chopped walnuts and mix well with a rubber spatula.

In a medium bowl, beat the bananas, eggs and milk together.

Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture all at once. Stir gently just until all the dry ingredients are moistened; do not over-stir. Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf pans or paper cup-lined muffin tins. Sprinkle each loaf or muffin with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the Streusel Topping.

Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the loaves begin to come away from the sides of the pans.

Makes four loaves or 36 mini-muffins.

Streusel Topping

2 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 cup unsalted butter,margarine or shortening
2 cups choppedwalnuts or pecans
In a large mixing bowl, stir together the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and butter just until crumbly; do not over-mix. Stir in the chopped walnuts or pecans. Cover and set aside.

Makes about 1 cup.

Lunch Ideas

• Bagel sandwich
• Cheese and crackers
• Chicken or soy nuggets
• Edamame
• Fruit, cut up and stored in containers
• Pasta at room temperature, even mac and cheese is OK
• Popcorn
• Salads: Chinese chicken salad, Caesar salad or coleslaw, with dressing in a separate container
• Soup with a soft pretzel
• Sushi (don’t forget the soy sauce packets)
• Trail mix
• Veggies (carrots, celery or bell peppers), cut up and served with dressing/dips in separate container
• Yogurt and granola or nutrition bars

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Morrow, 1999) and “Judy Zeidler’s International Deli Cookbook” (Chronicle, 1994). “Judy’s Kitchen” appears on Jewish Life Television. Her Web site is