Livening up lunch boxes

GOOD TEAM: Kim McCosker with sons Hamilton, 6, Flynn, 4, and Morgan, 10, and inset, one of their healthy, tasty lunch boxes. BACK to school doesn’t have to mean a return to the boring lunch options with just a Vegemite sandwich and an apple.

Think outside the lunch box and get kids into the kitchen and involved in choosing, making and even growing their food and you might be surprised at what you can come up with together.

Author of the 4 Ingredients cookbooks and mother of three boys aged 4, 7 and 10, Kim McCosker knows better than anyone the challenges of preparing school lunches.

But even she was astounded by the number she makes each year.

‘‘Out of curiosity, I sat down one night with the annual calendar and I calculated an average of 210 school mornings – and it gets worse: multiply it by three and that’s 630 lunch boxes,’’ she said. ‘‘I was overwhelmed, and I write cookbooks, for goodness sake!’’

‘‘It’s made even harder because one [of her sons] won’t have sandwiches, no bread at all in the lunch box. And I’m not alone.

‘‘There are so many fussy eaters and limitations from the school because of children with allergies and intolerances … it’s a juggle.’’

McCosker sat down with her kids one night in the lead-up to school starting and asked them to list the foods they like in their lunch boxes.

When one replied that he wanted ham, salami or chicken sandwiches, McCosker turned the everyday sandwich into something a bit different with recipes such as lunch box sushi.

The ‘‘sushi’’ is made with soy linseed bread (cut the crusts off and freeze to make bread crumbs), a little bit of mayonnaise, avocado and cucumber or whatever fillings take your fancy.

‘‘The kids were like, ‘oh mum, that looks fantastic!’ and really it’s just a sandwich, it took me two seconds,’’ she said.

‘‘Food is first eaten with the eye. If it looks nice, they might try it.

‘‘If it doesn’t look so good, it’s…guaranteed to come home.’’

The other thing her boys requested were dips. McCosker devised ‘‘go to’’ recipes such as two tablespoons of light sour cream, the same amount of whole egg mayonnaise, with some crushed garlic and salt and pepper. Another easy option is sour cream simply mixed with corn relish.

Pop the dip in a small container, along with some vegies (McCosker’s kids love cauliflower, carrot and red capsicum) and you’ve got an easy and nutritious lunch box item.

Next, McCosker adds some seasonal fruit to the lunch box, along with an ice brick in warmer weather. Think watermelon, grapes, bananas for this time of year when the seasonal fruit is naturally at its sweetest.

McCosker does add a few treats in the lunch box from time to time, including dried apricots drizzled with a little chocolate, or the 4 Ingredients Kids M&Ms slice recipe (made with blended Arrowroot biscuits, condensed milk and M&Ms).

But the cookbook author’s top tip is to prepare the lunches the night before.

‘‘Breakfast time is my absolute crush hour.

‘‘It is so busy because I’m trying to get out the door, my kids are trying to get out the door, my husband is trying to get out the door …

‘‘So if I had to face the clean-up after breakfasts, plus the clean-up after three lunch boxes, I would be a mental wreck. ‘‘

David Hunter, national executive chef at The Golden Door Australia, including Pokolbin’s Elysia Health Retreat, recommends getting kids involved in planting and growing their own food.

‘‘Get them interested in the growing process by rostering them on to water and weed the garden. And when it comes time to harvest let them pick and prepare the fruit and vegetables so they are more inclined to give it a try,’’ he said.

Setting up a salad bar at home can also get kids interested in making their own lunches. Have bread or wraps on hand with spreads like hummusand cottage or ricotta cheese, along with some vegies to complete the meal.