Break out of the school lunch doldrums with a thermos. It's an ideal way to get out of the sandwich rut and increase the economy and nutritional value of packed lunches. And don't let your kids have all the fun – make yourself a nice lunch, too.
Packing your thermos
Preheat the thermos with boiling water for about five to 10 minutes. When adding food, make sure to fill it completely in order to best retain heat. The key part of making thermos lunches awesome is all the little extras that go with them like shredded cheese, sour cream or a side of fruit salad. I've found that simply packing these alongside the thermos can result in slightly warm, unappealing fruit and soggy cheese – to prevent this, place a thin ice pack in the bottom of the lunch bag, place the container with chilled toppings on top, followed by a cloth napkin or dish towel, and finally, the thermos on top.
Soups are the obvious choice when packing a thermos lunch, and while they may seem like unexciting lunch fare, when combined with colorful toppings the end result is fun, interactive and way more nutritious than a sandwich. Use silicone muffin cups to hold toppings in a larger flat container – it's cute and easier than fussing with lots of little individual containers with lids.
Some of my favorite soup/topping combinations include:
• Loaded baked potato soup with bacon, scallions and shredded cheese
• Taco soup with avocado, shredded cheese, cilantro and scallions, cherry tomatoes, Greek yogurt and tortilla chips
• Cheeseburger soup with buttered croutons, cherry tomatoes, shredded cheese, green onions and bacon
• Butternut squash soup with Greek yogurt, bacon and scallions
Burritos and wraps
A thermos can hold so much more than soup. To help speed up busy mornings, burritos can be made ahead and frozen, wrapped tightly in foil, for up to a month. When preparing them, use room temperature tortillas and make sure cooked fillings like rice and meat have cooled before assembling. I often make several at a time and stack them in gallon zip-top bags in the freezer. When ready to reheat, remove the foil and wrap in a damp paper towel. Microwave for two to three minutes (depending on your microwave), then rewrap in the foil and pack into a preheated thermos. Send with salsa, Greek yogurt or sour cream and salsa.
Opt for smaller pasta shapes like macaroni, shells or rotini. Be careful not to overcook the pasta and be generous with the sauce as the pasta will soak it up while it sits. For this reason, you also want to avoid packing the pasta too tightly in the thermos because it will expand as it soaks up the sauce. Dress it up with a side of grated cheese and small green salad.
Casseroles or saucy dishes
Leftover are great for lunch. You already did the work, so why not get two meals out of it? Dinner leftovers like lasagna or rice and beans will hold just fine in a thermos (avoid seafood – it doesn't hold well and the smell of fish is a bit of a lunch room faux pas). It is imperative that leftovers be cooled down quickly after they've been prepared (not sitting out on the counter for a few hours) and reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 160 degrees before packing into a preheated thermos. Send along some cut fruit and veggies to keep it fresh.
Cheesy Taco Soup
Make this nourishing, kid-friendly soup ahead of time and freeze it in individual portions. It's also a perfect potluck or game day recipe.
1 pound lean ground beef, pork or turkey
1 large onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 each red and green bell pepper, diced
½ teaspoon each salt, paprika and garlic powder
1 teaspoon each cumin and oregano
8 ounces cream cheese
1 can Rotel tomatoes (mild if you're making for kiddos)
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup frozen sweet corn kernels
1 quart low-sodium broth
Heat a heavy bottomed soup pot over high heat. Add the meat and brown, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. When the meat is brown add the onion, garlic, peppers, salt and spices. Cook until the vegetables soften slightly and begin to brown. Add the cream cheese and stir until completely melted. Once melted add the tomatoes, beans, corn and broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking on the bottom. Serve with tortilla chips, shredded cheese, scallions, cilantro, diced cherry tomatoes, Greek yogurt and avocado.
Ashley Meyer is a Springfield mom of two and chef who tries to keep things interesting with her daughters' school lunches.