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It’s just lunch: What’s in the box doesn’t have to be ‘kid food’

A typical lunch for AP food editor J.M. Hirsch's 6-year-old sisn't always so typical. It often includes leftovers such as

A typical lunch for AP food editor J.M. Hirsch's 6-year-old son isn't always so typical. It often includes leftovers, such as quiche. (Courtesy J.M. Hirsch)

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Leftovers. No need to be a short-order lunch packer. Think about what you cooked last night or are going to cook tonight. Your kid might like to eat that for lunch the next day.

Preparation. Pack what you can — which conceivably could be almost everything — the night before to save time in the morning. If you’ve really got your act together, portion off dry and shelf-stable items such as crackers at the beginning of the week.

Temperature. Keep perishable foods that are meant to be cold (dairy, meat, etc.) cold inside the lunch box using ice packs and frozen water bottles. Keep hot foods hot with an insulated container. Or, just stick with foods that can be at room temperature. You could do worse than a grazer’s lunch of, say, fruit, trail mix, cut-up veggies, popcorn and crackers with peanut butter or jam.

Variety. Want to try out a new food on your kid? Sure, throw it in there. But add a few items you know your kid will eat.

Janet Rausa Fuller

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:43AM

Remember when packing a lunch was so simple? Sandwich, chips and apple in a brown paper bag.

That sandwich was probably peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese. Or braunschweiger. Those chips might have been stuffed in the sandwich (your move, not Mom's), which was wrapped in a plastic throwaway baggie.

Somewhere along the line, lunch got complicated. Nut-free lunchroom policies were drawn up, and PB&Js went the way of the dodo. That holy trinity of sandwich-chips-apple wasn't cutting it. Is the bread whole grain? Is the apple organic? Are the chips baked? And where's your BPA-free, insulated, reusable lunch kit?

And then came the bloggers, who dutifully documented the fantastically creative things they packed in their kids' lunchboxes - BPA-free, insulated and reusable - raising the bar (ire?) for other parents. Carrots carved to look like swans. Heart-shaped risotto cakes. Fruit-skewer snowmen. None of which, by the way, looks half as pretty after sitting an hour under a lid.

I know when lunch got so complicated: when I became a parent. My two kids ate well in utero, I made sure of that. But when they were finally out in the world, it crystallized: As parent, I am the architect of their palate. How can I not be invested - obsessed even - in what they eat for lunch?

An editor's leftovers

I have found a kindred spirit and lunch box role model in J.M. Hirsch, food editor for the Associated Press and father of 6-year-old Parker.

Parker is not like other kids in that he reads food magazines and can pick out the flavor of truffle in a compound butter. But in so many ways, he's just like every kid you know.

"He doesn't like most vegetables," says Hirsch.

In addition to churning out food articles and cookbooks, Hirsch writes the blog,, in which he photographs the contents of Parker's lunch each day.

His entries are refreshingly concise, and the photos are not of cutesy food carvings that look like something else - the "Happy Meal syndrome," Hirsch calls it - but of whole foods that look like food. Because, as he says with a chuckle, "I have no more time in my day than anyone else."

"I think we overthink it," he says. "We feel like it has to be something special and/or something specifically for a kid's lunch box.

"It doesn't have to be special. It has to be tasty, but it doesn't have to be lunch box food."

Here's the thing: Hirsch doesn't make separate food - kid food - at mealtime. What he cooks is what everyone in the house eats.

As a result, Parker's lunches often include portions of last night's dinner. Hunks of steak, slices of sausage and wedges of quiche are common. He might shred extra cooked chicken or pork loin, toss it with barbecue sauce and pack it with tortillas or bread.

Two of Parker's favorite lunch box items: leftover pasta carbonara and alfredo.

"I try to bear in mind, is this going to taste good cold?" says Hirsch, who packs the bento-style lunch box after dinner, while the food is still out.

He also respects his son's "honest dislikes."

"He just doesn't love tomatoes, and so I'm not going to fill his lunch box with them," he says.

But he does jam it with fruit, which Parker loves. Produce is produce.

Other lunch box favorites are simple and atypical - bread slathered with Brie and honeycomb, PB&J on whole-wheat pancakes or graham crackers.

You often hear that to get kids to eat well, you should involve them more. Hirsch does that to a degree. He takes Parker grocery shopping and lets him pick out foods and help cook. But he generally doesn't let Parker decide lunch; if Parker enjoyed that night's dinner, chances are it'll be in his lunch the next day, anyway.

Every now and again, though, he'll give the boy the floor. One of the younger Hirsch's creations that's become a staple is peanut butter and thin pretzel sticks on whole wheat bread.

"People get trapped in this idea that it has to be conventional," Hirsch says. "I'm not afraid of my son being a freak in the lunchroom, because if he enjoys it and it's something I feel comfortable feeding him, who cares?"

Roll with the changes

I started slipping strips of bacon in my 6-year-old's lunch box last year, taking a cue from Hirsch. Bacon is a staple in his home and mine, too. My girl loves bacon. Six-year-olds expend a ton of energy. Why not?

Lunch was easier when she was in preschool and couldn't fully verbalize her likes and dislikes. She would eat cold fried rice and neatly rolled-up slices of turkey (she dislikes anything in sandwich form) without comment.

But things shifted in kindergarten. My protein-packer turned up her nose at turkey and temperature-sensitivity. Hot things, she reasoned, should be eaten hot, like fried rice, which, I might add, she still loves - but only hot. (And yes, I tried a Thermos. Still didn't work.)

An unexpected hit last year: prosciutto and grated Parmesan rolled up in puff pastry. I usually break these out at grown-up parties. But it's easy enough to make a big batch - sometimes with just cheese or with a good jam - freeze the unbaked slices and pop several in the toaster oven during our morning rush. My husband didn't complain at having his favorite hors d'oeuvre at his disposal, either.

Of course, kids being the fickle creatures they are, those puff pastry swirls may have run their course. Or maybe not. Kids keep changing and coming around.

A year ago, my girl would have spit out a cherry tomato in disgust, waving her arms dramatically and lambasting its seedy flesh. This year, we're growing our own and the other evening, as I sliced a few for BLTs, she came up beside me, plucked a tiny, juicy tomato half from the cutting board and popped it in her mouth.

"Here," I said, sprinkling another half with a tiny bit of sea salt. "Try another one."

She did. "Mmm, I love tomatoes," she said brightly.

If you don't make a habit of involving your kids in the kitchen, it's not too late to start. Take them with you to the grocery store. Let them choose a recipe from a cookbook or the Food Network, then make it with them, Hirsch suggests.

And remember: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to lunch box fare. What works for Hirsch's kid won't necessarily work for mine, or yours. And what works this week (hurray for noodles!) might not next week (noodles - ick).

That's not to say I'm going to give up on fried rice this school year. While I'm at it, I'm going to see how leftover pasta carbonara goes over. And you can bet cherry tomatoes will be making an appearance. It may even be worth blogging about.

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