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Adventurous fare makes winter lunchbox less dreary

Mid-winter and everyone is sick of everything. No sunshine, not enough snow — or too much snow, or not the right kind of snow, depending on your perspective.

If your perspective is that of a 13-year-old boy, everything looks glum this time of year, and nothing tastes good, either.

It’s the time of year when we need a major overhaul in the lunchbox, to prevent the sandwich from coming back home uneaten, the OJ coming home undrunk and the apple sauce container unopened.
My boy is a little fussy in the lunchbox department anyway, and I am constantly looking for ways to spruce up his lunch. I’m happy when his insulated lunch bag comes home with just a couple of crusts and an apple core in amongst the empty containers.

I am sad when the sandwich has been rewrapped with what looks like little mouse nibbles taken out of one side, the drink bottle is as full as it was when it left home and the tangerine is unpeeled.
More food for the chickens, but it is the boy I’m trying to nourish.

So mid-winter, we go for variety, for the change of pace.

Sandwich suspension

We’re on a sandwich hiatus. It’s time for pasta salad with cheese and peas in a bowl with a lid. Or a container of sliced celery and carrots, with a tiny tub of hummus as a dip. Maybe sliced pork with a chili sauce for dipping.

Generally speaking, this boy doesn’t like to eat hot foods cold, so he’s not big on burritos or leftover pizza in his lunch box. But he will eat eggrolls cold, so if a colleague is heading out for Chinese food at lunch time, I’ll ask for a couple of takeout shrimp rolls.

My daughter was a lot easier when she was still of lunchbox age. She’d eat a salad, or slices of avocado with salsa, or cold rice and beans, or wraps or sandwiches or just about anything but peanut butter.

The boy is trickier. He craves meat, and while his dad and I don’t eat much, we figure he’s a growing boy who needs his protein. It does put me in the odd predicament of heading to the Italian deli to buy slices of things I never heard of and won’t eat myself, just to make him a sandwich he’ll relish. I have to trust the deli guy when he says things like “dry-cured sweet pancetta? He’ll love it!”

My son also has a lot of talking to do at lunch time, so he can’t be bothered with too many things that need utensils, and he doesn’t want anything too weird because of that time in first grade when one of his classmates said “Eeeeew” when he pulled out a container of steamed broccoli.

Variety of vittles

Online there’s a lot of advice about dressing up the lunchbox food, but most of it seems to do with cutting the same old stuff into cute shapes. That might work on second grade girls, but it doesn’t on middle-school boys.

I tried rolling up sandwich meats and cheese into a tortilla and slicing it into rounds — he complained it was too soggy. He will go for a plain roll-up — say, turkey and cheese slices, with a dab of mayo or mustard inside — at least occasionally.

In this time of winter doldrums, what he really craves is something that’s different from what he had the day before.

So we’re pulling out all the stops. Ants on a log one day (that’s celery slices with peanut butter and a few raisins, in case your were wondering). Thinly sliced cheese — he’s suddenly into Swiss — with rice crackers another. Grilled sandwiches (if I call it a panini instead of grilled ham and cheese, he goes for it!) or cheese and salsa melted into a toasted tortilla, folded over. But it’s got to be toasted enough so it doesn’t get soggy because, you know, “eeeeew.”

For the record, despite the first-grade trauma, he will eat steamed broccoli in his winter lunch. Just not every day.

Hopefully he’s home today, enjoying a snow day and the adventure of scrounging for leftovers he can heat up. But it will be back to the lunchbox tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. You can reach us at

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