Fresh and healthy lunch box meal ideas

healthy lunch - vegetable tortilla roll-up

They’ve got the latest backpack, spotless sneakers, new notebooks and a handful of No. 2 pencils. Now some fresh ideas for the lunch box!

If you’re the lunch packer, there may be times when your kids ask for the same old, same old, day in and day out. Your job is figuring out how to slip in some healthy new items that they will like, without straying too far from the norm. (“What is this? Some sort of vegetable cupcake?”)

At my house, the ideal mix usually involves a sandwich, salad or soup, a few complementary side items, a “treat’’ of some sort and a water bottle. While it might be tempting to grab prepackaged lunch items, it’s almost as easy to come up with your own go-to versions that are healthier, less expensive and more satisfying.

Lunch stackers

You’re probably familiar with those ready-to-eat deli meals with little stacks of meat, cheese and crackers. You can go one better with this idea by packing a variety of crackers and toppings in reusable containers. Look for whole-grain crackers and lean proteins. Round out the lunch with some fruit, cut-up veggies and skim milk or water.

Tortilla roll-ups

These are a fun way to add variety. Simply spread fillings on the tortilla and roll it up, securing it with toothpicks if necessary. You can serve it whole or slice it into pinwheels. Even a die-hard peanut butter and jelly kid can branch out with a roll-up. Try adding some sliced strawberries or bananas to liven things up, and maybe a sprinkle of cinnamon.

An even quicker roll-up favorite is great hot or cold. Spread a tortilla with a handful of shredded cheese. Microwave it 30 seconds, then roll it up while it’s all melty. Let it cool before slicing.

More sophisticated palates will appreciate tortilla roll-ups spread with veggie cream cheese, hummus, chutney or another flavorful base. Try adding spinach or lettuce leaves, shredded veggies, cheeses and/or deli meat. The combinations are endless!

Layered dip

This Mexican-style salad is another kid-pleaser, and it can be assembled from leftovers. In a sandwich-sized sealable container, layer mashed beans (refried, pinto or black beans), taco beef or chicken, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, lettuce, chopped tomatoes and olives. Yes, it’s OK to leave out some of those layers, or add different ones! I know a kid who includes sliced mango.  Pack nacho chips in a separate container so they don’t get soggy.

Layered dip is nicely followed by a “dessert” of homemade cinnamon chips. Slice a tortilla into triangles and place them on a cookie sheet. Spritz the triangles lightly with spray butter or a butter-flavored cooking spray, then sprinkle with a blend of cinnamon and sugar. Pop in a preheated 350 degree oven for eight to 10 minutes. Let them cool before packing in a lunchbox.

(At home, these are yummy served warm with honey or vanilla ice cream!)

Pasta

This option offers endless variety. If a lunchroom microwave is available, add marinara or another hot-served sauce for a hearty meal. If not, go for a cold pasta salad that will stay ice-pack fresh until lunch.

Tortellini or elbow macaroni are great choices for a cold salad, or try fun pasta shapes or even leftover spaghetti. You may even be able to sneak in some whole wheat or veggie-infused pasta. Mix cooked, cooled pasta with cubed or shredded cheese; some protein, such as diced ham or leftover rotisserie chicken; and raw, steamed or pickled veggies. You can let kids choose their own add-ins for their pasta. Toss the salad with pesto, light mayo or a favorite salad dressing — at my house, the favorites are bottled Italian and ginger-miso.

Sometimes, a menu item will pass muster based on its name alone. Some kids are more likely to try Peanut Butter Pasta than Thai Peanut Pasta, but it’s the same recipe. I just cleverly changed the name! You can use some leftovers in this recipe, and it has lots of optional ingredients. Add in everything if your diners aren’t picky, or let them choose their own “if desired” ingredients.

Peanut Butter Pasta

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
3/4 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon canola or sesame oil
1/3 cup hot water
1 clove minced garlic (jarred or fresh)
12 ounces spaghetti or angel hair pasta
Dash of red pepper flakes or sauce

If desired:
Tofu or cooked chicken
Shredded carrots
Sugar snap or snow peas
Chopped green onions
Chopped peanuts
Fresh cilantro
Lime wedges

Mix the peanut butter and hot water. Add the remaining liquid ingredients and garlic. Stir until smooth and well blended. Meanwhile, cook the pasta (or reheat, if using leftover noodles). Drain the noodles, top with peanut butter sauce and toss to coat. If desired, top with protein or veggie selections, cilantro, a sprinkle of peanuts and a squirt of lime.

— By Mickey H. Gramig