Parents of schoolkids face a perennial challenge: packing school lunches that are healthy enough to sustain kids until dinner but interesting enough that they'll actually eat them.
Need some lunch-box inspiration? You'll find it at Lunches Fit for a Kid, a food blog written by Colchester mom Astrid Hedbor-Lague, who describes her mission as "packing fun and healthy lunches for my kids (and for myself!) and sharing some of my favorite recipes along the way."
During the school year, Hedbor-Lague posts near-daily accounts of what's inside the lunch bags of her two kids, Evalina, 10, and Philip, 7. One day it might be ham-and-bread skewers served with mixed berries and cheese; another day, bagel sandwiches with goldfish crackers and cucumber slices.
Whatever it is, the food is always artfully displayed. Drawing inspiration from Japanese-style bento boxes, Hedbor-Lague uses cookie cutters and melon ballers to serve sandwiches and fruit in fun shapes. She throws in pretty toothpicks as well as trivia, jokes or inspirational messages.
It's obvious Hedbor-Lague loves food. She's worked part-time at Burlington's Kiss the Cook for 19 years, since she was just 17. The job has inspired her to make meals as fun to look at as they are to eat. Her interest in blogging, however, stems from her full-time career as a molecular biologist at Haematologic Technologies in Essex.
"I don't keep a lab notebook for my kitchen, but sometimes I wish I did," she says, noting she's "always experimenting and looking for new ways to improve."
She started her blog in 2009, a year after Evalina began kindergarten, to keep a record of her homemade lunches. Hedbor-Lague and her husband are focused on their health and always take wholesome, hand-packed lunches to work for themselves. It was a no-brainer to do the same for their daughter.
Blogging became a necessity when Philip began school. The now-second grader has Type 1 diabetes. In order for his school nurse to dose him correctly with insulin each day, she needs to know how many carbohydrates he's ingested. So his mother calculates and posts the carb content of every lunch he eats as a photo caption on her blog; the nurse checks it to figure out how much insulin to inject.
Hedbor-Lague doesn't keep tabs on page views of her blog, so it's hard to gauge her audience, but more than 3200 Facebook followers attest to her blog's popularity. Last year, Cooking With Trader Joe's Cookbook: Easy Lunch Boxes featured some of her recipes.
Her efforts have also caught the attention of her children's classmates — especially when Evalina brings a sandwich on her mom's homemade rainbow-swirl bread.
"You don't know how many times I've had to tell them, 'It's rainbow bread and it's supposed to be that way,'" recounts the fifth grader.
With two jobs and two kids, it's surprising that Hedbor-Lague has time to make daily lunches at all, let alone blog about them. We recently visited her kitchen to find out how she does it.
What's in an average lunch?
Because every family member has different tastes and nutritional needs, each lunch is slightly different. Wraps are often the central element. Here's what Hedbor-Lague packed for an August hike at Silver Lake State Park in Barnard. This is slightly more food than the kids would eat during the school day:
"[Philip] had a wrap with hummus, lettuce, turkey and Muenster, along with strawberries, yellow watermelon, a granola bar, cheddar pretzels and cheddar goldfish puffs.
[Evalina] had a wrap with hummus, lettuce, turkey and cheddar, along with strawberries, blueberries, a granola bar, cheddar pretzels, and cheddar goldfish puffs.
I had a wrap with hummus, lettuce, turkey and Muenster, along with cherries, strawberries, a granola bar, cheddar pretzels and cheddar goldfish puffs."
How long does it take to make the lunches?
"Generally, I spend no more than 10 minutes packing both lunches," Hedbor-Lague writes in the FAQ section on her blog. She knows where every item is stored, which helps speed up the process.
Once the food is packed, it takes another 10 minutes to post photos and captions to her blog.
Why go bento?
It's convenient, says Hedbor-Lague, like a compartmentalized TV dinner. It's easy to make a fun meal with small portions of varied foods.
How does she keep meals healthy?
Hedbor-Lague makes practically everything herself, from bread to granola bars. In the summer, many of her blog posts are about dinners prepared with the vegetables in her CSA share — think zucchini stuffed with black rice or roasted-vegetable-and-cheddar phyllo pie.
How does she get kids involved in their meals?
Hedbor-Lague often allows her kids to order their meals à la carte. She'll make a list of available ingredients in categories including grains, fruits, vegetables and protein.
"It's fun for them to say, 'Oh, I want to have a hard-boiled egg and hummus, then carrots,'" she explains.
How does she deal with picky eaters?
When it comes to eating with an eye toward nutrition and flavor, Hedbor-Lague never stops testing boundaries.
"I'm kind of unrelenting when it comes to trying things," she says, while pushing Evalina to taste a cantaloupe ball. When the young girl balks, she gets some tough love: "One bite of something will not kill you, so you're not spitting it out. You're not allergic to it."
What food do her kids love that surprised her?
Goat meat. When Hedbor-Lague and several grown-up friends had a sushi-making party with unconventional ingredients, both her offspring went gaga for goat-filled rolls.
"You never know if your kid is gonna like goat meat," she says. "You've gotta try."
How does she keep mealtime fun?
Hedbor-Lague makes special meals, such as "Wacky, Worldly Waffle Wednesdays." Each week, one of the kids gets to choose a country he or she would like to learn more about. Their mom will concoct a themed recipe for the occasion.
When Philip chose Sri Lanka, Hedbor-Lague used rice flour and coconut milk in the waffles. Exploring the aromatic cuisine, she made two different toppings: a beet curry and an eggplant dish called brinjal. The final touch was a coconut chutney — sans the usual chiles to make it more palatable for tender taste buds.
What do her kids think of her meals?
As Evalina listens to her mother discuss the work that goes into her daily cuisine, she rolls her eyes.
"You're completely obsessed with making lunches," she says to her mom as she leaves the room to watch TV with her brother.
"I'm completely obsessed with making lunches, that's fair," answers Hedbor-Lague. "But I bet you're not sad about it, kiddo."
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