Traditional Mediterranean meals were long and leisurely, based around scratch cooking and quality time with loved ones. In fact, in many countries throughout the Mediterranean, families returned home for the large midday meal and enjoyed their lunch together (which was oftentimes followed by an afternoon nap, or siesta). With a little bit of advanced planning, we can bring the spirit of the Mediterranean to the modern-day lunchroom as well, as many Mediterranean recipes can be prepared ahead of time with lunchbox-friendly ingredients that retain their ﬂavor throughout the day.
Incorporating elements of the Mediterranean diet—whole, unprocessed grains; plenty of fruits and vegetables, beans, herbs, spices, nuts and healthy fats such as olive oil; twice weekly servings of ﬁsh and seafood; and moderate portions of dairy foods, eggs and, occasionally, poultry—can be a healthy part of your lunch, and even your child’s school lunch.
The beauty of the Mediterranean approach is that you can adopt such practices to your family’s daily routine without going to extremes. Grain salads featuring whole grains, such as the Lebanese tabbouleh salad with bulgur, parsley, and tomatoes, hold up especially well for the midday meal. Other Mediterranean grains, including farro, barley, and even pasta, are all perfect vessels for a number of other nutritious sauces, proteins, and vegetables. Mix an Italian pesto sauce or a Spanish Romesco sauce with your favorite whole grain or whole grain pasta, then toss in a can of beans (such as chickpeas, lentils, or cannellini beans) and a seasonal vegetable. These dishes are great warm or chilled.
When packing lunches for little ones, variety is key. Research demonstrates that children need to be exposed to foods several times before they start to accept and enjoy them, so exposing them to a variety of diﬀerent foods and ﬂavors both at home and in the lunchroom can help reinforce healthy habits. Slice, dice and add a colorful assortment of seasonal, fresh fruit (e.g., apricots, cherries, kiwi, dates, ﬁgs, grapefruits, grapes, melons, nectarines, peaches, pears, pomegranates, strawberries, tangerines, etc.) to your child’s lunchbox, with an emphasis on inviting, ﬁnger-friendly options. For protein, consider plain Greek yogurt (sweetened with fruit), artisan cheese, hummus, toasted pumpkin seeds or sunﬂower seeds, crunchy roasted chickpeas, a hard boiled egg, some leftover frittata, or bite-sized pieces of cooked chicken. Aim to include a fruit, a vegetable, a protein, and a whole grain in every meal.
Plant-based Mediterranean staples also make for delicious and versatile lunches. Pack a lunch of hummus with whole grain pita, vegetarian bean chili, baked falafel or lentil stew packed in an insulated thermos. When it comes to kid-friendly snacks, oven-roasted chickpeas or lentils are a healthier and equally satisfying alternative to fried potato chips. Or, include a variety of nuts and seeds for a healthy and ﬁlling snack. Nut/seed butters, such as almond butter, cashew butter, tahini/sesame seed butter and sunﬂower seed butter are healthier and tasty alternatives to traditional peanut butter (and are especially useful to have on hand if your child’s school is peanut-free).
If cooking ahead of time is not in the cards for you this week, a meze platter of small bites (nuts, olives, cheese, whole grain bread, cut vegetables, hummus, etc.) can also make for a nutritionally balanced and delightful lunch. Regardless of whether you enjoy your midday meal on-the-go or leisurely and slow, there is a Mediterranean-inspired recipe to ﬁt any situation.
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