How to infuse midday meals with flavor, creativity, nourishment—and love
With new pandemic-induced school routines come new lunch routines.
Since cafeteria options may be closed or limited, many of us are eating at home more often, regardless of age. Home lunches can be flavorful, creative, healthful, and relatively inexpensive. Many of them minimize plastic, processed foods, and food waste. Here’s what I’ve learned from friends, cookbooks, and six months of near constant cooking with the students who live in my house.
Photographs by Justin Fox Burks
Food Styling by Amy Lawrence
Hot Tip #1: Fall in Love with Legumes
This may seem like a strange place to start, but purchasing and preparing dried beans has been one of my favorite pandemic discoveries. Lynne Rossetto Kaspar, cookbook maven and former host of the radio show The Splendid Table, advises preparing dried beans in the slow cooker. The simplest method is cooking them on high for four hours with no soaking, adding salt at the three-hour mark. The ratio of beans to water is flexible, but make sure you have enough water so that the beans don’t dry out. Still not convinced? Dried beans can be purchased at a fraction of the cost of their canned counterparts and are easily frozen for future meals. But what really gets me is their toothsome texture; I crave it in a variety of foods.
Of course, there is hummus, which works with chickpeas, black-eyed peas, or really any bean. Puree with any spices you like (coriander, anyone?) and some olive oil, salt, garlic, and citrus juice. Or leave them whole, swapping out the olive oil for yogurt, and stir in some chopped raw veg, herbs, and cheese for a refreshing salad. Or start with the beans and add broth, cooked noodles, and a few veggies, and you have a lovely soup. Their versatility is hard to overstate.
Hot Tip #2: Play with Leftovers
I tend to cook dinner with leftovers in mind.
Sometimes those leftovers go straight into a thermos for the next day’s school lunch.
My friend Hester’s biggest lunch game changer is filling the thermos with hot water for a few minutes in the morning and then emptying it before adding the day’s microwave-warmed entree. Pre-warming the metal boosts heat retention, keeping the meal piping hot on the road.
If you or your kids recoil from unmitigated leftovers, try deconstructing pieces of the meal (like cooked chicken or veg) and putting them in new packages: tortillas or rice balls or atop salads. My friend Leah likes to smear tortillas with cream cheese, then add capers and leftover salmon. Rolling the tortillas and slicing them about one-inch thick makes a lunch her girls adore. Or add a new dip or sauce, combining unexpected condiments like mayonnaise and sriracha.
Hot Tip #3: Bulk Prep
My friend Deidre works full time. A stash of weekend-made mini-frittatas makes her daughters’ weekday lunches come together smoothly. She puts cooked vegetables, meat, and/or cheese into muffin tins and then covers that with raw scrambled eggs. After six to 12 minutes (depending on how full the cups are) in a 350° oven, Deidre has a dozen high-protein mains that are delicious at any temperature. Pasta and fruit are also easy to prep ahead. I like to cube melons and put them in a large container in the fridge when I have a couple minutes. A large cantaloupe might last a week, portioned out Monday to Friday.
Hot Tip #4: Don’t go it alone
Watch a few YouTube videos. Or get some cookbooks from the library. One of my favorite finds from my last library trip was Best Lunch Box Ever by Katie Sullivan Morford. Her recipes are simple, nutritious, and whimsical. On my list to try are Parmesan Kale Chips and Chocolate Chip-Pretzel Cookies.
With the kids home so much, it can feel like my husband and I are perpetually cooking, cleaning up, and planning the next meal.
We need a lot of outside inspiration to keep things fresh. Dave gets a weekly email digest of The New York Times weeknight recipes that he scans for dinner ideas. Several friends regularly crowdsource dozens of dinner ideas on social media. I’d rather curl up with a book with gorgeous photos and call it “essential research.”
Hot Tip #5: Have some healthy fun
My family has created entire meals around the concept of dips. We may have been a little pandemic slaphappy when we started, but we have definitely repeated Dippy Dinners, and the concept is a natural fit for a lunch box. There is just something silly and exciting about combining flavors and textures in real time. Classic pairings of fruit with nut butters (and please do try making your own nut butters with roasted nuts and your food processor) don’t have to be the same old, same old. What about pears with cashew butter? Banana slices with almond butter and some coconut sprinkles? Raw veggies go down easy with ranch, sure. But bean dips (see #1), salsas, and plain yogurt spiked with citrus, garlic, and cumin can be palate pleasers too. Try teriyaki, soy, and hoisin for salty richness. Contrast is the name of the game here. Combine salty with sweet, crunchy with soft, etc.
Ivan Orkin, restaurateur, father of two, and author of The Gaijin Cookbook, says that teaching kids to eat well is a balance of offering them good choices and trusting them to have good taste.
“Kids need to feel that food is a source of joy as well as sustenance,” he says.
For Ivan, this translates into handheld food or food that is constructed as it’s eaten. Think of a healthier version of a Lunchable, that old standby that lets kids make their own cracker “sandwiches.” Anything on a toothpick is automatically interesting: alternating orange and banana slices, cheese and cubed cucumber, etc. Ivan’s mantra works equally well for adults, who can be pretty serious about food. Add touches that are meaningful to you: a pretty cloth napkin, a handwritten note or joke, a radish cut in the shape of a rose. (OK, that last one is definitely not my thing, but I bet somebody here can do it.)
By modeling a playful attitude with lunches, you can release some of the stress of these unprecedented and—let’s face it—stressful times.
Whether you are cooking for yourself or others, infuse your meals with kindness and a little creativity. We all could use a lunch box full of love about now.
To ensure that all Memphis kids are getting lunch, Shelby County Schools is offering free boxes filled with bread, meat, cereal, milk, fruits, and vegetables to all school-aged children. These are available whether or not the children are enrolled in Shelby County Schools and regardless of income level. These components offer a canvas for creativity, nutrition, and flavors and can be customized with many of the ideas in this article. For more information visit scsk12.org/nutrition.
Heidi Rupke finds pleasure in maintaining the practical skills her grandmothers loved: quilting, gardening, keeping chickens, and cooking from scratch. She enjoys biking around Midtown with her family and will drop everything for a good plate of Japanese-style pickled vegetables. @rupkeheidi
Justin Fox Burks has been a professional photographer for 20 years, but that’s not all. He photographed and co-authored two vegetarian cookbooks, The Southern Vegetarian: 100 Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Table and The Chubby Vegetarian: 100 Inspired Vegetable Recipes for the Modern Table. He feels fortunate to be able to make interesting images for a living. @justinfoxburks
Amy Lawrence is the co-author, along with her husband Justin Fox Burks, of three vegetarian cookbooks, The Southern Vegetarian (2013), The Chubby Vegetarian (2016), and The Low-Carb Vegetarian Cookbook (2020). She’s an avid gardener who loves to incorporate into recipes what she grows in Memphis at home, at the Colonial Park Methodist community garden, and in North Mississippi at Concord Farm with her dad.