It’s strange how things work out sometimes. Just a couple of months ago, a friend and I were bemoaning the lack of school-lunch cookbooks. A while later, dietitian and blogger Katie Sullivan Morford’s “Best Lunch Box Ever” shows up. And shortly after that, J.M. Hirsch’s “Beating the Lunch Box Blues” and Catherine McCord’s “ Weelicious Lunches” arrive. I tell you, sometimes it’s spooky.
School lunch is having a moment. And for those of us with young ones, it’s no surprise. We all want our kids to eat better — even when we are lucky enough to have good school cafeterias. But it’s just plain tricky achieving the trifecta of tasty, healthful, and packable, all accomplished before most of us have even had our coffee.
Morford’s book is the one I ended up testing. This is a first cookbook for the San Francisco blogger (Momskitchenhandbook .com) and mother of three daughters. She takes a practical approach to the lunch problem. Perhaps the most valuable part of the book is a chapter called “Getting the Job Done,” which analyzes what you need in the pantry and what you can do ahead (tip: the night before, pack anything that’s not going to go squishy or turn brown). After a week with “Best Lunch Box Ever,” I was packing my 7-year-old’s Laptop Lunches box (a compact, reusable set of containers) like a lunchbox ninja.
And the food? Mostly, it’s kid-friendly without being pandering. An “Italian picnic sandwich” pairs prosciutto (even kids love it) with baby arugula tossed in balsamic vinaigrette, all in a bit of crunchy baguette. There are “pinwheels” made of lavash and short skewers of fruit or vegetables.
Salads — room-temperature, cobbled together from whatever you’ve got around — are perfect lunchbox fare, but it’s hard to get excited about the same pile of leaves every day. Morford’s many colorful variations are welcome: a nutty, crunchy Waldorf-type chicken salad, a vegetarian chickpea fattoush, a slaw of slivered red peppers and cabbage with a soy vinaigrette. A chive-green ranch dip with raw veggies goes over swimmingly, although mine turned out looser than the one in the picture.
Morford has a knack for dreaming up cute but easy sides and additions, like watermelon hearts (use a cookie cutter) and “applewiches” (cross-sections of apple sandwiching peanut butter and granola). And making grilled cheese in a waffle iron doubles the crunchy surface area without adding more time or fuss.
And then there are the leftovers, grains and soups and beans and pasta that easily pack up for the next day. Morford’s sesame noodles are less sweet than I prefer, but that’s easily adjusted, and anyway they’re a hit with the kids. Desserts are in the good-for-you range: pumpkin gingerbread cupcakes that are really mini muffins in disguise, but still a small treat that’s sweet to find in your lunchbox.
And what about the other lunchbox cookbook contenders on the market? Well, briefly, there seems to be one for every taste. Hirsch’s “Beating the Lunch Box Blues” is a cook’s book — dinner-worthy recipes that make good leftovers. At about 30 minutes each, they’re fast for dinners, but maybe a bit much for the morning of. The “Weelicious” book is a comprehensive reference: big, print-packed, and attentive to special diets but not especially health-conscious.
I’m very taken with “Best Lunch Box Ever,” although I wish the type were twice as large (it’s so tiny it’s hard to cook from). The book is also small, but it’s well-curated and thoughtful, with photographs that somehow inspire confidence even at 6:45 a.m. Like my kids, I just need a little inspiration and encouragement — and voila! I’m good to go.T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.