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Purple Onion Food 9/6

The school year is starting and lunches need packing, even if children are learning from home. Try to add variety to lunch options with grains, fruits and vegetables and protein.

Ready or not, school is going to start soon. For parents and school-aged children, this year will be one in which we need to be prepared to expect the unexpected. We’ll have plenty of challenges to face and at The Purple Onion and West Virginia Marketplace, we’re hoping we can help you meet one of them a little easier with some tips on lunches.

If your kids are anything like mine, they know what they like in their lunchboxes and I know what they don’t like because those are the things that come back home. Still, we all want to feel good about the choices our kids have for lunch and many of us like to be sure they have some variety.

This year, some of us will have children who are home during the day. Those kids are going to have to have a lunch plan as well. Otherwise, parents will be arriving home to find that the only sandwiches our kids ate are the cookie kind.

We’ve been talking about getting kids involved in lunch planning and in thinking about how we can prep in advance by making extra soup or chili, adding an extra chicken breast to dinner prep and letting the kids pack — or help pack — their own lunches.

A good lunch should have a variety that includes a protein, grain, produce, dairy and sweets. Within those categories, the options are plentiful. Protein can be meat, poultry, fish or tofu. Grains can be pasta, pita, crackers or bread.

Produce includes fresh, dried or roasted fruits and vegetables. Dairy choices include cheeses, yogurt and cottage cheese. Sweets are, well, sweets!

At The Purple Onion, we have some regular customers who bring their kids along to the market to pick lunch ingredients like trail mixes, granola, savory snack mixes, veggies, fruits and sweet treats. With careful portioning (1/3 to ½ cup) per lunch, a couple of different snack treats can last all week. We’ve got a good selection of choices, so you can have options.

To make lunch planning and prep a little more fun, we suggest thinking outside of the lunch bag and in the box. Bento box, that is.

In the last few years, the bento box with its compartments and fun design has become popular in the United States. In Japan, these boxes have been efficient and convenient for nearly 1,000 years.

In design, a bento box is a simple box with compartmentalized sections. Often with three or more sections, they allow you to design a lunch that’s not just delicious to eat but delightful to look at.

You can buy bento boxes or make your own. We have been thinking that for kids who are at home, a large square or rectangular food storage container can be outfitted with smaller food containers and even reusable silicone cups. You’ll also need an icepack that fits the container if your kids are taking the lunch to school or someone else’s house.

If you will be sending sauces or condiments with lunch, be sure to get some small food containers with tight lids.

While you’re planning lunch with your kids, help them learn a little about the art of lunch and the math of correct proportions. Carbs, proteins, vegetables and fruits should be the biggest containers, sweets and snacks get less space. Sorry, kids!

Bold colors have more impact when you open the box, so consider colorful fruits and vegetables that are tasty, bright and will hold up in the box.

Next, be sure that you are packing food tightly, especially if everything does not have its own container. Pack pre-shaped sandwiches, wraps and bulky foods first. Put more flexible foods in next.

Finally, add small foods like cherry tomatoes, broccoli spears or celery sticks in the small spaces to keep food from shifting. Let’s face it, even from fridge to table, those boxes are going get a little shaken.

Once you have the container, you can start planning your lunches. You might plan a theme lunch at least once a week. Say you do Italian one day and serve a pasta salad with the Cherry Tomato Vinaigrette we’re sharing here, some slices of mozzarella cheese and salami or pepperoni, crackers, grapes and cookies.

Leftover chicken or chicken tenders could be the start of a good barbecue lunch with chicken cubes or tenders, barbecue sauce, pita pockets, veggie sticks, fruit and a brownie. Go to the beach with tuna salad, saltine crackers, red and green grapes, celery and bell pepper sticks and a dipping sauce and pudding. How about a fiesta with tortilla chips, salsa, chicken, Mexican cheese dip, cherry tomatoes and pineapple chunks?

Older kids can help prep by cutting up vegetables and fruits, and packing the lunches.

As the weather gets cooler, you’ll want to think about having warmer foods for lunch. You can still use your refrigerator boxes for some of the lunch. Soups, chili, mac and cheese and pasta dishes can be made ahead or you can use leftovers.

In the morning, heat them up and store them in wide-mouth thermoses on the counter. Put a note in the refrigerated lunch reminding your kiddos to look on the counter for that part of their lunch!

The Purple Onion and West Virginia Marketplace offer wide selections of soup mixes, including vegetable soups, chowders and stews. They make great starters for your prep night. We carry Biselli’s pastas and sauces and recently added a new line of Italian pastas and sauces. WV Marketplace can supply you with local West Virginia sauces, barbecue sauces, salsas, jams and pickles.

No matter how you prepare those lunches, we think wraps are a nice alternative to sandwiches and can be as creative as you want them to be. We are sharing a few ideas here that we think kids and parents will enjoy.

Remember when wrapping that all things in moderation is an important rule. An overstuffed wrap is a disaster waiting to explode on you!

The PB, J and G wrap does include nut butter. We know that your kids might not be able to take that to school, but if they don’t have nut allergies, they could enjoy them at home. As an alternative to nut butter, you could use softened cream cheese.

The Turkey Club Wrap takes that favorite lunch staples in a little different direction. This sandwich includes avocado, which can be omitted if you are concerned about it getting mushy. We like the no-mayo approach of this version with bright lime juice and basil adding zip to the wrap.

The Veggie Wrap can be all things to all people. It has a tangy mustard (or wasabi) cottage cheese and yogurt dressing that we encourage you to try. Select the wrap of your choice--– a tortilla or veggie-flavored wrap and then have at it with the veggies of your choice. We offer a starting point then list the veggies and cheeses that you might like to swap. Of course, you can always add different veggies. We won’t blame you if you choose to add a bit of meat or fish to this wrap, either.

Cut up fruits and veggies are great in lunch boxes. We suggest that you include sauces or dips that can add interest to these good-for-them lunch items. In addition to the go-to ranch dip, consider trying something a little different. Browse our lines of sauces and dressing for an alternative from Asian to Southwestern. Or mix up one of RiCa’s dip or dressing recipes for veggies. For fruit, try the brown sugar and citrus sauce below as a change of pace from dairy based fruit dressings.

Allan Hathaway is the owner of The Purple Onion and WV Marketplace at Charleston’s Capitol Market. For more information, visit the web pages at capitolmarket.net/merchants/purple-onion and capitolmarket.net/merchants/wv-marketplace; call The Purple Onion at 304-342-4414 and WV Marketplace at 304-720-2244. Email Allan at purpleonionco@aol.com.