Keeping packed lunches fast and easy doesn't have to condemn you to a day-after-day-after-day PB&J. If you're willing to be a little creative, it's easy to find fast, simple and delicious lunches that will keep both the lunch packer and eater healthy and happy.
The biggest roadblock to that usually is mental. We think of packed lunches in terms of what we grew up with or what lunches are "supposed" to be. And that usually translates into the same dull sandwich or salad over and over again. The solution? Stop thinking in terms of packed lunches. Think of this as just another meal and pack what you — or your little one — loves.
The point isn't to work hard, just to get creative using the foods you already have on hand. Leftovers should be your No. 1 starting point for any lunch. Look at what you have, then find a fresh way to use it. Did you make too much bacon and eggs at breakfast? Pop some cheese on them and roll them in a whole-wheat tortilla for a breakfast-inspired burrito.
Got leftover steak? Pack it. Slice cold, leftover steak as thinly as possible. Then you can pack it as is, perhaps with lemon wedges and a slice of sourdough bread. Or toss the sliced steak with chopped romaine lettuce and a bit of Caesar dressing (pack the dressing on the side and drizzle just before eating to keep the greens fresh). Or layer the steak into a grilled cheese.
Leftover cooked chicken (variety is irrelevant) also is great in salads. Or pop it into a wrap with some greens. Also try it chopped or shredded and tossed with leftover cooked pasta or couscous or rice and a bit of vinaigrette and some sliced cherry tomatoes. Got more veggies (maybe some leftover roasted or grilled ones)? Add those, too.
Still prefer to stick with peanut butter and jelly? That's fine, but who said it has to be on sandwich bread? Mix it up by substituting whole-wheat tortillas, frozen waffles (they'll thaw by lunch), graham crackers, even leftover pancakes. Or swap out the peanut butter with cream cheese. Or pair cheddar cheese with your strawberry jam and toast it for a fresh take on the grilled cheese.
To help get you thinking creatively, here are two simple lunches that come together in minutes using whatever you have handy — an instant gazpacho (chilled tomato and vegetable soup) and a funky any-way-you-want-it version of "sushi" (don't worry, neither seafood nor seaweed are involved).
Keep it simple or make it exciting. Make the gazpacho as directed, then accompany with chopped cilantro, sour cream, shredded cheese or croutons that can be added at lunch. And don't limit yourself to cucumber. Add whatever vegetables you have handy. Canned or frozen corn, leftover grilled veggies, even grated carrots all would be great.
Start to finish: 5 minutes
1/2 cup purchased tomato soup (not condensed)
1/2 cup chunky salsa
1/2 cup diced cucumber
Salt and ground black pepper
Combine the soup, salsa and cucumber in a food container with a water-tight lid, then stir well. Season with salt and pepper.
No, this isn't real sushi. It is a whole-wheat tortilla filled with meat, then rolled up and sliced into maki-style sushi rounds. It's fast, easy, delicious and healthy. If you like, add vegetables (leafy greens and grated carrots work particularly well). You can even accompany this with containers of honey mustard or barbecue sauce for dipping the "sushi." Want to take this in a different direction? Substitute peanut butter for the cream cheese and a banana for the meats. Sprinkle in a few mini chocolate chips, then roll and slice.
Start to finish: 5 minutes
1 to 2 tablespoons cream cheese
8-inch whole-wheat tortilla
1 to 2 ounces thinly sliced meat (salami, steak, cooked chicken or turkey, or deli meats, such as ham or prosciutto)
Spread the cream cheese evenly over one side of the tortilla. Be sure to spread the cream cheese all the way to the edge, as this helps seal the roll shut and keep it from unwrapping. Arrange the meat (and any vegetables you want to add) in an even layer over the tortilla. Be sure to leave about 1 inch of cream cheese exposed along the edges.
Roll the tortilla and fillings into a tight bundle. If the tortilla won't stay sealed shut, spread just a bit more cream cheese along the edge to help glue it tight. Use a serrated knife to cut the roll into 1-inch rounds.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch