Selecting lunch gear used to be simple. Stuff your lunch into a paper bag or pick the box decorated with whichever movie, television or toy character your kid was most smitten with. Done.
Things are a bit more complicated today. Lunchbox styles vary from soft-sided cooler bags to Japanese-inspired bento boxes, even Indian tiffin canisters. They can have built-in ice packs. They can be microwaved. They can be made from recycled bisphenol-A-free, lead-free, phthalate-free, PVC-free plastic. They can be forged from 18-gauge stainless steel. Some adult versions even come with their own cheese boards and wine glasses. So how do you choose? Much depends on the types of foods you pack and how you pack them, as well as when and where you eat them. But there are some general tips that can help you sort it all out regardless.
• Dishwashers rule
If it isn’t dishwasher safe, don’t buy it. Even if you don’t use the dishwasher, this tells you something about the quality and durability of a lunchbox item.
• Multiples matter
Get more than one of everything. This makes life much easier on those days when you forget or just don’t have time or energy to wash the gear used the day before.
Soft-sided insulated cooler bags are the way to go. They are affordable and come in all shapes and sizes. They also are durable and easy to clean. Look for one with two compartments. This makes it easier to segregate items, such as easily bruised fruit, or a thermos of warm soup and a cold yogurt cup.
• Food containers
These are the jars, boxes and other containers the food goes in. Be sure to get a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate different foods. And at least some should be watertight for packing sauces, dips, puddings and other liquids.
For a budget option, go with plastic food storage containers, which are cheaper to replace if lost. If you don’t care for plastic, there also are plenty of stainless steel options. These tend to be pricier, but are indestructible, kid-friendly and dishwasher safe. My favorite is the LunchBots brand, available in every conceivable size and shape.
Plenty of companies also sell lunch “systems,” or sets of small containers that fit together and pack easily in an insulated bag. These sets offer less versatility than when you assemble your own collection of containers, but they work great. Laptop Lunches makes a wonderful food-safe plastic bento kit.
• Drink bottles
Even if all you ever pack is water, an insulated drink bottle is a good idea. Insulated bottles don’t sweat. They also give you the flexibility to pack warm or cold drinks, such as hot cocoa or smoothies.
It’s best to have two: a conventional narrow thermos for soups and other easily spilled items, and a wide-mouthed jar for larger foods, such as warm sandwich fillings or meatballs.
When selecting a thermos, be sure to check its thermal rating, which indicates how long it will keep items hot or cold. This is important information you’ll need to keep the food you pack safe to eat.
Perishable cold foods must be kept below 40 F. Hot foods should be held at above 140 F. Once the temperatures go outside these ranges, the food is safe for another two hours. To use this information, figure out what time of day the lunches you pack will be eaten. Count back to the time of day the lunches are packed. This is how long you need to keep the food hot or cold. One final tip about thermoses. They hold their temperatures best if you prime them before adding food. Packing soup or another hot item? Fill the thermos with boiling water for a few minutes to heat it up, then dump out the water and add the food. Filling it with yogurt or something that needs to stay cold? Place the empty thermos in the freezer for a few minutes first.
This is not the time to break out the good silverware. But I’m also not a fan of disposable plastic, which breaks easily and has a lousy eco footprint. Instead, grab some inexpensive stainless steel utensils at the bargain or second-hand shop.
• Ice packs
Even if you’re using an insulated lunch bag, an ice pack is a good idea, especially when packing lunches when it’s hot out. As with everything else, get several so you always have one ready to go. I prefer rigid packs, rather than soft. The soft ones puncture more easily and can freeze in odd, hard-to-pack shapes.
Easy, delicious lunch packing relies on leftovers. This is why there are certain dinner foods I always make sure to cook too much of: chicken, steak, pasta, rice, and grilled or roasted vegetables. They’re all easily transformed into something fresh. That’s why dinner is the best time to start thinking about the next day’s lunch. If supper leftovers could be easily repurposed, you might as well make a little extra.
So the following dinner recipes for America chop suey and bacon-cauliflower mac and cheese are intended to make too much. I designed them to leave you with ample leftovers to use for lunches.
AMERICAN CHOP SUEY
All the built-in vegetables help make this dinner staple a true one-dish meal. And for picky eaters (big and small), all the robust flavors help mask the fact that you’re using whole-wheat pasta. I like pancetta because you can buy it already diced. It also has an amazingly big, bold flavor. But you also could use chopped bacon. Want something lighter? Substitute finely chopped ham steak.
Because pancetta is so rich, I lighten things up on the other end by using lean ground bison instead of the more common ground beef. Ground turkey also would be great.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Servings: 4, plus ample leftovers
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 red bell peppers, cored and diced (about 3 cups), divided
15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
3-ounce package diced pancetta
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds ground bison
14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 cups beef broth
12 ounces whole-wheat elbow macaroni
Salt and ground black pepper
In a blender, combine the onion, two-thirds of the diced bell peppers, the tomato sauce, soy sauce and Italian seasonings. Puree until smooth. Set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, brown the pancetta for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and remaining bell pepper and saute for 3 minutes.
Add the bison and brown, breaking up any large clumps. Add the onion-bell pepper mixture from the blender, the diced tomatoes, broth and pasta.
Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
LEFTOVER LUNCH IDEAS:
Don’t be afraid of carb-on-carb. Leftover American chop suey is delicious warm or cold on a bun (think sloppy Joes).
If you want it warm, just heat the chop suey and pack it in a thermos (with the bun packed separately). At lunch, just spoon the chop suey onto the bun and enjoy.
Rather not bulk up on bread?
Pack a thermos of warm chop suey with some large Boston lettuce leaves on the side for DIY lettuce wraps!
BACON-CAULIFLOWER MAC AND CHEESE
The bacon and four cheeses make this mac and cheese seriously indulgent. But the cauliflower and whole-wheat pasta make it virtuous. For speed, you can skip the breadcrumb and broiling step, making this an easy stovetop meal. I’m a big believer in have-it-your-way. I like elbow pasta for mac and cheese, but substitute whatever you have. Ditto for my selection of cheeses.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 dinners, plus leftovers
1 pound whole-wheat elbow pasta
10 strips bacon, chopped
1/2 medium head cauliflower, cored and cut into small florets
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 tablespoon mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated gruyere cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted
Heat the oven to broil.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large, deep oven-safe saue pan over medium heat, cook the bacon for 2 minutes. Add the cauliflower and saute until lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Add the drained pasta to the pan and mix well. Add the milk, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, black pepper and cayenne. Mix well and heat until the milk is hot.
Add the cream cheese, stirring until melted. Sprinkle in the cheddar, gruyere and Parmesan, stirring until melted. Season with salt. Leave the pasta in the pan.
In a small bowl, toss the breadcrumbs with the melted butter, then scatter evenly over the pasta. Broil for 2 minutes.
LEFTOVER LUNCH IDEAS:
Use leftover mac and cheese as the filling for a grilled cheese. It was my son’s idea. It’s a little crazy, but it’s a lot delicious. Or pack it warm in a thermos and use it as a topping for DIY nachos. Just accompany with tortilla chips and other toppings, such as bacon or sausage chunks, salsa and a package of guacamole. At lunch, spoon the warm mac and cheese onto the chips.
(Recipes from J.M. Hirsch’s “Beating the Lunch Box Blues” Rachael Ray Books, 2013)