Ditch the soggy sarnie: inspiration for packed lunches

How can I make my children’s packed lunches more interesting?
Sue, London E11

The perils of packed lunches aren’t limited to those with children. After months of endless cooking, the prospect of getting clever with lunch boxes ­– for school or work – is somewhat unappealing. The humble sandwich is always a good place to start, but it’s not without its pitfalls. Tim Hayward, author of Loaf Story: A Love-Letter to Bread, with Recipes and co-owner of Cambridge’s beloved Fitzbillies, is haunted by the soggy cheddar sarnies of his childhood: “I remember with absolute horror the piece of tomato in it … sticky, gluey, horrid.”

Constructing barriers to stop moisture transporting into the bread is a must. Butter is the most obvious (“it’s essentially a layer of grease”), which should then be covered with lettuce before adding your other fillings. Salt and pepper are often forgotten, but “will improve everything”, as will wrapping your sarnie in greaseproof paper – yes, leakage is a possibility, but it will stay crisp for longer.

Fillings, says David Frenkiel, one half of the Green Kitchen books team, could include a beetroot spread made by blitzing the cooked root veg with sunflower seeds that have been soaked in water and yoghurt. His family, however, is all about pancakes, which means adding veg such as spinach to a batter of eggs, rolled oats and banana. The stack is then packed up with crunchy veg (cucumber, carrots, bell peppers). “It’s a good format because they’re a little sweet, hold up well and are nourishing.”

Florence-based food writer Emiko Davies and her daughter favour flatbreads stuffed with prosciutto and fontina, but use whatever cheese you have to hand. Davies combines 150ml water, 300g flour, two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and a pinch of raising agent and salt, then kneads and rests for an hour. She divides into four balls, rolls into thin, wide rounds and cooks in a hot pan for one to two minutes per side, before filling (leftover dough can be used for mini pizzas).

However, Sue, if you want to ditch the dough, Sara Kiyo Popowa, author of Bento Power: Brilliantly Balanced Lunchbox Recipes, suggests a sushi sandwich: “Take a sheet of nori, layer with cooked sushi rice, whatever fillings you like [avocado, any veg you’d eat raw, tofu, mashed chickpeas], more rice, then wrap the packet up.” It’s worth adding a slick of miso, too.

Grains such as couscous, bulgur wheat or freekeh are a good base for tabbouleh-style salads. Alissa Timoshkina, author of Salt & Time: Recipes from a Russian Kitchen and host of the MotherFood podcast, adds steamed broccoli, red onion fried with coriander or cumin seeds, and chopped raisins or cranberries, then dresses with sumac and fresh herbs (parsley, dill, coriander).

Don’t forget to use your noodle, either, says Asma Khan, chef and founder of Darjeeling Express (reopening in London’s Covent Garden next month), who keeps things simple by adding strips of omelette, soy sauce and lemon juice. The best part? They’re good eaten at any temperature.

Smoothies are another lunch-box hit round at Frenkiel’s. He blends blueberries, banana, frozen cauliflower, dates, lots of cardamom and oat milk – it doesn’t, he assures, taste of cauliflower. But if all else fails, adopt the tactic of Davies’ daughter: arm yourself with food to trade in the playground for a salami panini.