By Juliet Ranieri
Lunch boxes. They’re the stuff of nightmares for some parents who are already counting down the days until their child can make their own lunch. While for other parents, this daily event is something they delight in. After all, creating a school or preschool lunch can be the ultimate creative expression session if you’re that way inclined!
Me? I sit somewhere in the middle of this lunch-making spectrum. Though truth be told, as the year progresses, my stance does tend to inch towards the nightmare end!
There are ways you can decrease the burden if you’re finding daily school lunches more of a chore than you’d like. I’m not professing to be a super-mother-chef-organiser here, so don’t worry about needing to have attended training at the coveted Le Cordon Bleu school of all things culinary to create some of the following lunches. I’m just an ordinary mum who readily confesses to a love of baking and her freezer.
Top tips towards lunchbox success
My best tip is to be a fraction organised when it comes to lunches, as this will help you on weekday mornings.
- Think about what your children like to eat and have a ready supply at home – crackers, cheese, carrots, cucumbers, fruit, dry fruit, plain sweet biscuits, home baked treats and the odd chocolate snack are staples in my household.
- Try cutting up some extra raw veggies and cheese (off the block – cheaper and healthier than packet cheese sticks) at dinner time to add to your children’s lunches the following day. Cutting up a carrot might not seem a lot of extra work to do come morning, but if your mornings are anything like mine, every minute is accounted for and I need to don my military gear in order to get everyone ready and out the door on time! Ain’t got no time for cutting carrots at 7.30am!
- Organising lunch containers is vital too. Have a good collection labelled and ready to go. I have two sets for each child as you just never know when your little darlings will forget to bring their empty containers home!
All well and good you’re saying….but what do we fill these containers with and how do we do it cost and time effectively?
Learn to love your freezer
Yep, that white/silver, unassuming worker who sits in the kitchen doing her thing all year round. She can be your best friend and life saver.
I’m a big believer in bulk cooking and freezing. I’ll make the time to spend a couple of hours in the kitchen every few weeks and bake a selection of freezable and lunchbox-friendly snacks. From muffins to slices to cakes to sandwiches. Yep, I’m one of THOSE mums who freeze their children’s sandwiches. Oh the horror!
Some call it lazy and gross, I call it time saving! Every fortnight, I make up two weeks worth of bread rolls or sandwiches and I wrap and freeze them. Easy!
What freezes well though you ask? I’ve frozen without issue: vegemite, vegemite and cheese, jam, jam and peanut butter (yep, my husband has questionable taste, ham and cheese, ham, poached chicken breast, 100s and 1000s (yes, fairy bread rocks as a treat sandwich once in a while), cheese.
Not much veggie variety there though you say – never fear, a container of carrot, cucumber and tomato, avocado too if you’re feeling fancy (that you cut up at dinner time) added to the lunch box in their morning means the ham and cheese sandwich transforms into a salad sandwich at lunch. Or if your children are like mine, the salad is eaten separately…”ewww don’t mix my foods mum!” I get the bread rolls out of the freezer in the morning and they are defrosted and lovely by lunchtime.
My hardworking freezer also contains my baked lunch snacks. Again, if they are removed from the freezer at breakfast, they are ready to eat by morning tea. I freeze in plastic decor or Tupperware containers and these keep the baked treats fresh for at least a month (if they last that long!). I then transfer them straight into the lunch and morning tea containers, no need for pesky cling wrap or plastic bags (the environment and your hip pocket says cheers!).
If you’re feeling motivated and keen to start baking and freezing, here are my go-to recipes that have been proved time and time again to be popular with my little ones and pretty easy to make.
Banana muffins or banana cake – see recipe section below.
Anzac biscuits – I don’t freeze these, but they keep for a week in a glass jar in the pantry. See recipe section below.
Jam drops – I don’t freeze these, but they keep for a week in a glass jar in the pantry. To add variety, you can replace the jam with sprinkles or a choc melt. Both are yummy! Here’s the recipe I use.
Apple cake – I add a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon to the mix too – yum! Click here for the recipe.
Dairy-free carrot cake – always a winner and you can rest a little easier as it has a vegetable in it! Here’s a good recipe.
Magic bean cake – see recipe section below.
Choc chip slice – here’s a good recipe.
Jam and cream muffins – click here for the recipe.
Egg-free lemon crinkle biscuits – I don’t freeze these, but they keep for a week in a glass jar in the pantry. See recipe section below.
Pikelets – I add a bit of butter and jam to these and freeze in pairs. Recipe here.
Crazy Chocolate Banana Cake
Great for when you’ve run out of eggs, butter and milk. This recipe uses none of these!
There are now stacks of websites and Facebook pages devoted to school lunches and snacks so spend a little time googling and taking screenshots of recipes your little ones might enjoy – it’s a quick and easy way to keep recipes that you can then refer to when doing the supermarket shop.
Sophia, a super-talented Hills District Mum comes up with some amazing recipes! They’re easy to make with or without a Thermomix (just use a hand beater or wooden spoon where it says to combine in the Thermomix). Here are some of my favourite lunch box recipes she has written (lots more on her blog Twins and a Blog).
Crunchy Lemon Muffins
These are a healthier alternative to a deep fried doughnut and are delicious. Bet they don’t all make it into the freezer – wink wink!
These are great for lunchboxes or as a “oh my gosh, we have 20 mins to get dressed and get to school” breakfast on the go!
Vanilla Butter Cake
I make these as sweet little cupcakes. They are super yummy!
Vegemite and Cheese Muffins
A great recipe for children who aren’t fond of sandwiches or who like a change!
At the end of the day (or beginning, since we’re talking about making lunch!) if all else fails and you just can’t stand the thought of putting together a lunch box for your child, the school tuckshops around the Hills do a fine job of preparing the quintessential vegemite sandwich for the hungry school children they serve. I’ve heard some are even branching out to include such delicacies as sushi and fruit salad on their menus – how times have changed!
The odd multi-pack of teddy biscuits and fruity bars also has its place in my pantry. On those days when the world is conspiring against you and school lunches are so far down your priority list, you’re far better off stuffing the school lunch box with packet snacks than nothing at all, right?!
We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have to outsource some onerous task every now and then, would we!
Happy baking and lunch boxing mums and dads of the Hills! Share your hints, tips and kids’ favourites with us!
Juliet Ranieri is a stay at home Hills mum of 3 boys. In a previous life, she was teacher but is now experiencing schooling and education from an entirely different perspective – that of a parent! Juliet loves organising and labelling and is a self confessed stationary addict. She adores all things pink and spending time shopping with her boys.
BANANA MUFFINS / BANANA CAKE
3 large mashed bananas, a tsp or more of cinnamon, 125gm melted butter, 1.5 cups SR flour, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 eggs. (You can add some choc chips for a bit of excitement too!)
Melt your butter on the stovetop or in the microwave in a large bowl.
Add all other ingredients and mix.
Poor into a lined loaf tin or lined muffin/cupcake tray
Bake at 180C for 20-45 mins (depending on whether you make muffins or a loaf).
Let cool and slice then freeze.
1 cup rolled oats, 1/2 cup SR flour, 1/2 cup plain flour, 3/4 cup coconut, 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp bicarbonate soda, 2 tbs boiling water, 125gm melted butter, 2 tbs golden syrup.
Mix all dry ingredients.
Dissolve soda in the boiling water and add to melted butter and golden syrup.
Add wet to dry ingredients.
Roll mixture into small balls.
Bake at 160C for around 10-15 mins.
(A classic recipe from the Nursing Mothers Association of NSW).
MAGIC BEAN CAKE
Tin of kidney beans (around 400gm), 1 tbs water, 1 tbs vanilla essence or a squirt of extract, 50gm cacao or 70gm of cocoa (cacao is a stronger taste), 1tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda, pinch of salt, 125gm butter, 5 eggs, 150gm sugar.
Drain and rinse the beans.
Place the beans and all other ingredients in a food processor and combine until blended and chocolatey.
Pour into a lined cake tin or lined muffin or cupcake trays and bake at 180C for 15-40 minutes, depending on the tin size.
Yummy iced with a buttercream.
Let cool then slice and freeze.
EGG FREE LEMON CRINKLE BISCUITS
125gm butter, 3/4 cup caster sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract/essence, 1 tbs golden syrup, 1 tsp lemon zest, 1 tbs lemon juice, pinch salt, 1.5 cups SR flour.
Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl with beaters.
Add all other ingredients and beat until mixed.
Rolls mixture into balls (I use a level tbs for each ball) and coat in a little extra sugar.
Place on a lined baking tray and flatten slightly with a fork.
Bake at 180C for approximately 5-8 mins.