Published July 27, 2005

Building a better lunchbox

FRANCESCA CHAPMAN, NYT Regional Newspapers

When Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring set out to build a better lunchbox, they didn't approach the project as inventors or designers or marketers.

They did it as moms.

The two Northern California women, who didn't consider themselves to be any more health-conscious or eco-aware than their Santa Cruz friends and neighbors, were volunteering at their children's school four years ago when they began to pay attention to what kids were bringing to lunch.

The tidy lunch boxes encourage portion control, a boon to parents concerned about childhood obesity. The boxes let parents parcel out individual servings from economy-sized items.
Photo: Courtesy photoS

The traditional sandwich or Thermos of hot soup from the women's own school days was being replaced by pre-packaged, processed foods, like snack-packs of fatty lunch meats and salty crackers, and tubes of sweetened yogurt.

"The kids would take a few bites, and then throw them away, because you couldn't seal them up and save them for later," Pelstring said.

"Amy and I were pretty shocked, because not only did those pre-packaged foods create a lot of trash, but they're pretty poor nutritionally."

Conversations with students and their parents led Hemmert and Pelstring to conclude that harried parents, egged on by commercial-saturated kids, might assume that supermarket granola bars were a handy equivalent to whole-grained breads or cereal, or that a meaty snack-pack was a valid approximation of the ham and cheese sandwich.

"They were really relying on marketing images from corporations," Pelstring said, instead of their own common sense.

She and Hemmert resolved to find a way to present a nicely packaged lunch that would appeal to kids and carry an easy and nutritious meal to school.

Family input

Hemmert, who had taught and lived in Japan for five years, thought of that culture's age-old bento boxes -- beautifully finished, lacquered boxes that fit together in a small tray. She remembered seeing commuters carry the boxes wrapped in kerchiefs, which, unwrapped, served as an impromptu placemat. But they found nothing that would withstand the rough-and-tumble of being carried to school by a second-grader.

With some help from Pelstring's husband, an engineer, and their own children -- the "guinea pigs" -- plus a lot of research at the public library, the two women dreamed up a modern, kid-friendly, dishwasher-proof bento box: five small, colorful boxes, two with lids, nested in a plastic carrying case, with a drink bottle and child-sized metal fork and spoon. The presentation is a bit like an airplane meal -- something kids, at least, can still get excited about eating.

Fitted into an insulated carrying case, the kit resembles a tiny computer, so Hemmert and Pelstring dubbed it the Laptop Lunch. Their corporation's name, Obentec, is a play on the inspirational bento boxes.

Today, the privately owned, Santa Cruz-based firm has sold "tens of thousands" of the kits, Hemmert said, mostly through toy stores, health-food stores and grocers like Whole Foods, as well as online at, for $33.99. She adds that Obentec will soon bring to market a larger model, for grown-up lunch toters, and a more stylish carrying bag for women.

The unconventional lunch boxes have brought glowing reviews from parents who are no longer obligated to put lunch between two slices of bread. The sealed containers make it possible to pack dips, salads, stews, leftovers, chopped fruits and vegetables and other loose or goopy items that would be a disaster in a plastic bag.

The tidy boxes also encourage portion control, a boon to parents concerned about childhood obesity, and let them parcel out individual servings from economy-sized items.

Kids plan

It might take some convincing to steer your children away from the fatty or sugary treats they see on television, says Mary Beth Gilboy, a registered dietician and nutrition educator in suburban Philadelphia, Pa. The key is to involve them in shopping and cooking at an early age.

"You can involve a younger child by letting him write the shopping list," which is a bonus exercise in penmanship, she said, "or clip the coupons." Older kids can research recipes in cookbooks or online, and may be especially interested in finding foods from other cultures they're studying in school.

At the market, begin in the produce aisle, and let a small child select one special, new fruit to try. They'll be eager to try it at lunchtime, and the deal gives you a little more leverage when you need to say "No."

"It's important to engage them in the discussion," said Gilboy, mother of three boys. "If they're asking for something you don't want to buy, you can acknowledge, 'This is in a fancy container, but we'd like you to try this other item. It'll taste good, too, and it's good for you.' " If your child is ready for an economic discussion, you could compare the costs together.

After dinner, create a family assembly line to put together lunches for the next day -- or, if you're really organized, do it once a week and make food for all five lunches.

"It's very hard to think about it in the morning before school," Gilboy said. "Set aside 15 minutes, and everybody can help."

Gilboy, like the creators of the Laptop Lunch, encourages parents to think beyond the workaday sandwich "to make sure that their child is going to eat the lunch, not throw it away or trade it." She has snuck bananas and raisins into a peanut-butter sandwich, and replaced lettuce with spinach or apple slices. It's "a fun way to get in fruits and vegetables, as well as add some new flavors," she said.

Laptop Lunch co-creator Hemmert said her own lunchroom research found that, when parents talk with their children about making lunches, "Kids definitely buy into the message. They're interested in the environment and their health."

What to pack in that lunch box

All of the following recipes were adapted from "The Laptop Lunch User's Guide: Fresh Ideas for Making Wholesome, Earth-friendly Lunches Your Kids Will Love" (Morning Run Press, $8.99) by Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring:

Cold Pasta with Peanut Butter Dressing

Makes 6 servings

8 oz. of your child's favorite macaroni or spaghetti
Water for boiling pasta
1 cup each shredded red and green cabbage
1 carrot, cut into 1-inch sticks
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/3 cup peanut butter
1 clove minced garlic, or garlic to taste
1/2 cucumber, diced
4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup chopped scallions or red onions (optional)
3/4 cup bean sprouts (optional)

Boil pasta for half of recommended cooking time. Then add the cabbage and carrots and cook all together until the pasta is al dente and the vegetables are tender but not mushy.

Drain in a colander and rinse with cool water. Transfer to a large bowl.

In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, soy sauce, peanut butter and garlic. Add this to the pasta with vegetables, and toss well.

Add the cucumber and other remaining ingredients, and toss again. Can be served chilled, warmed or at room temperature.

Note: This dish, modeled on the cold sesame noodles often served in Chinese restaurants, puts peanut butter to a more sophisticated use than the everyday sandwich.

Cucumber Cups

Each cucumber makes 1 or 2 servings

1 large cucumber
Prepared egg, tuna, salmon or chicken salad

Scrub the cucumber well to remove any dirt and wax.

Slice off the rounded ends to create flat surfaces. Cut the cucumber crosswise into sections about 2-inches long.

Using a small spoon, scoop out the seeds and some of the flesh from one end of each section to create a small cup. Don't scoop all the way through!

Stand up each cup and stuff with spoonfuls of egg, tuna, salmon or chicken salad, mounding off on top.

Alternative use: Fill cups with salad dressing, and use as dipping bowls for other sliced vegetables.

Note: These are a fun way to serve a favorite sandwich filling, minus the sandwich.

Banana Rice Pudding

Makes 4 servings

1 medium banana, chopped
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups cooked brown rice
1 cup nonfat milk or soy milk

In a medium saucepan, combine the banana, water, honey or syrup, vanilla and cinnamon. Bring to a boil and stir. Reduce heat, and simmer for five minutes until fruit is soft, but not mushy.

Add the rice and milk and mix well. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally as mixture thickens.

For variety, add raisins or chopped walnuts, or substitute other fresh fruit such as peaches, apples or apricots.

Note: Brown rice ups the fiber and protein in this old-fashioned dessert. Having leftover, unseasoned rice from dinner makes it easy to prepare.

Francesca Chapman writes for the New York Times Regional Newspapers.

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