Portable Meals

Summer means picnics, and lots of other occasions when you need to carry a meal with you. Ball games, trips to and from camp, lake days and concerts in the park — summer involves a lot of eating al fresco (outside!).

There’s nothing wrong with a sandwich and an apple, but parents get tired of packing sandwiches and kids get tired of eating them. Here are a couple of alternatives.

Not really spring rolls

Spring rolls are a delicious traditional Vietnamese food. But spring roll wrappers are an amazing thing that can turn sandwich fixings into something much more exciting. It’s a cross between lunch and an art project.

For faux spring rolls like these, you need four things:

  • Spring roll skins, from your grocer or Asian market
  • Flat things like lettuce leaves
  • Long thin things like narrow slices of cheese, deli meats, or vegetables
  • Small, sprinkle-able things like cooked ground meat, herbs, or chopped eggs

Put warm water onto a dinner plate. Dip a spring roll skin into the warm water for a couple of seconds and then lay it onto a cutting board or similar flat surface.

Lay your ingredients out across the spring roll skin in patterns that you like, leaving a couple of inches bare at the top and bottom. For example, you could put strips of deli turkey across the center of the skin, alternating with narrow strips of cheese. Add a row of lettuce across the center and edge the lettuce with grilled tomatoes. The flat things (like lettuce) help keep your rolls smooth and sturdy.

Turn the bare edges down toward the center. Then begin rolling the spring roll skins from one side very tightly into a roll. The skins will behave like cling film, sticking tightly together. Tuck each one into a snack-size Ziplock bag and you can carry them with you in a cooler wherever you go.

Not really bento boxes

Bento boxes are a Japanese tradition, and you can find some wonderful examples of very artistic bento boxes online. The boxes themselves are special lunch boxes with compartments to make packing the traditional meal of rice, meat, and vegetables easy.

The basic idea, however, is to pack a container tightly with a nice balance of small portions of food. That’s perfect for portable lunches with kids.

There are three basics to successful faux bento box lunches:

  • Include a variety of flavors and a good nutritional balance. We used crusty bread for our grains instead of the traditional rice, added pre-packed almond butter and cheese (bring a picnic knife for spreading), and tucked in a little bit of fruit and vegetable.
  • Pack different foods separately. Our plastic sandwich box is less cute than a traditional bento box, but it holds just enough for a small child. We used a cupcake liner to keep cantaloupe cubes from making the bread soggy, and took advantage of individually-packaged goodies.
  • Pack tightly. In a typical lunchbox or picnic basket, food items may be in plastic bags of their own, but they shift and roll and can easily get squashed. Pack each bento box so full that nothing moves as the bento box is carried through the day.

Enjoy these portable lunch ideas as an alternative to sandwiches for the rest of the summer… and they might make an appearance in lunchboxes come back to school time, too!