Is there anything more exciting for an elementary-school child than the purchase of a new lunch box for a new school year? And is there anything more burdensome for parents than filling that lunch box every day with a wholesome-but-pleasing lunch?
I am not so old that I've forgotten the lunches my own mother lovingly packed for me. A big sandwich, a piece of fruit, a box of pretzels and a Devil Dog or Yodel for dessert: Enough food to fuel a longshoreman. Every day, I'd skip straight to the snack cake and dump the rest in the garbage.
With that memory in mind as I pack my own daughters' midday meals, I first of all save the sweets for after school. When there are no Ring Dings, they're more likely to eat the other stuff. Since they're not big on sandwiches (the apples don't fall very far from the tree, I guess), I'll often give them a dip or spread instead. It's healthy food disguised as fun food. To kids, everything, including pureed chickpeas or goat cheese, tastes better on a chip.
The following recipes take minutes to prepare and will keep for several days or up to one week in the refrigerator. Make a couple of dips on Sunday night, keep a bag of baby carrots, a box of cherry tomatoes, some celery sticks, baked corn chips and whole-grain crackers or pretzels in the house, and packing several days' worth of lunches will be a snap. (If your child is big on sandwiches, you can use any of these dips and spreads on a tortilla, supplemented by baby spinach or lettuce, and/or sliced turkey or ham, to make a quick wrap.)
Yields will depend on your child's age and appetite. One recipe of hummus might make four servings for a picky and petite kindergartner who eats lunch at 11 a.m., or two servings for a ravenous fourth grader who eats lunch after playing kickball at recess.
PEANUT BUTTER HUMMUS
Pita chips and baby carrots make good dippers for this kid-friendly hummus recipe.
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
6 tablespoons water
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Combine chickpeas, water, peanut butter, lemon juice and garlic in work bowl of a food processor and process until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Scrape into an airtight container and season with salt. The peanut butter hummus will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Rice crackers (I like the ones with sesame seeds) are a good match for this Asian-inspired dip.
1 (12-ounce) bag frozen shelled edamame, still frozen
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
1 tablespoon orange juice
1. Place edamame and water in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover and microwave on high until edamame are tender, 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Combine edamame, cooking liquid, sesame oil and orange juice in work bowl of food processor and process until smooth, adding more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if necessary, to achieve desired consistency. Scrape into an airtight container and season with salt. The edamame dip will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
WHIPPED GOAT CHEESE SPREAD
Pack whole-grain crackers and some cherry tomatoes with this tangy and fresh-tasting spread. Adventurous eaters might like herbs or pesto added to their spread.
4 ounces goat cheese, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil or 1 tablespoon pesto (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Combine goat cheese, cream cheese, basil or pesto if desired, and lemon juice in a medium bowl and beat with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Scrape into an airtight container. The cheese spread will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Makes 2 to 4 servings.
AVOCADO AND YOGURT DIP
Corn tortilla chips (look for all-natural chips) and raw vegetables are the natural choices for this simple dip with Tex-Mex flavors. Thick Greek yogurt is best here; other yogurts are too thin and watery.
1 (8-ounce) container plain Greek-style yogurt
1 small avocado, peeled, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Combine yogurt, avocado, cumin, garlic powder and cayenne pepper, if desired, in the work bowl of a food processor and process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice as necessary. Transfer to an airtight container. The avocado and yogurt dip will keep in the refrigerator for several days. Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Pimiento cheese calls out for celery sticks (and maybe some whole grain pretzels) for dipping.
4 cups (8 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese
1 (4-ounce) jar pimientos, drained and finely chopped
1/4 cup low-fat mayonnaise
Combine cheese, pimientos and mayonnaise in a medium bowl and mix. Scrape into an airtight container. The pimiento cheese dip will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Makes 4 to 6 servings.