Lunchbox Basics — Simple Scratch Cooking

School finally started up again here in New York City, and with it came the reality that I'll have to pack 500+ lunches between now and the end of June 2014. Given the alternative of the poor-quality food offered at my daughters' elementary school, I'm thankful I can provide them with a healthy lunch on my own. The task is still daunting, though, and it's hard to stay inspired when I've been on this lunchbox merry-go-round for five years now. As luck would have it, Catherine McCord's new cookbook, Weelicious Lunches, arrived on my doorstep when we came home after the first day of school. It remedied my lunchbox blues and reminded me that every day I get the chance to send my girls off with a little reminder that Mommy loves them.

Here are a few tips and tricks I keep in mind when psyching myself up for the lunch challenge during the week.

Think Outside the (Bread) Box

There's more to making sandwiches than simple sliced bread. Use lettuce leaves or tortillas to make wraps. Pita pockets are perfect for filling with sandwich fixings. Waffles and pancakes aren't just for breakfast — they're yummy slathered with peanut butter, then topped with bananas and a drizzle of honey. They also make a great substitute for sliced bread. Here's my recipe for Cheddar and Dried Basil Waffles, inspired by Catherine.

Shed the Sandwich Habit

Yes, I know, I just gave you some new ideas for making sandwiches, but the truth is lunch doesn't always have to consist of two slices of bread with fillings. My kids love when I pack dips like hummus and guacamole, or even a little cup of peanut butter, along with carrot sticks, crackers and apple slices. Mini-antipasto plates are a hit too. I cut up wedges of cheese and tuck them into a container with dried fruit, nuts and a slice of baguette. You can throw in some salami, turkey or ham if your kids are meat eaters.

Keep It Cool

Frozen yogurt tubes help keep lunches chilled. They usually thaw out by the time the kids get to the cafeteria, making them a healthy treat to finish off lunch. You can also do this with fruit pouches, like Plum Organics or Ella's Kitchen, as Catherine suggests in her cookbook.

Find more make-ahead meals, after-school snacks, one-bowl sweets and breakfasts from scratch on Back-to-School Central.

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