Back-to-School Lunches Italian-American Style

Updated: Sep 13

Back-to-School Lunches Italian-American Style

Recently, I asked my mom what my grandmother packed her for lunch.

"Well you know, gram didn't like to get up in the mornings. She packed me a loaf of Italian bread, a stick of salami, and a knife."

That sounds like a great lunch, but bringing a knife to school these days, even to cut through that delicious, rustic loaf, would never fly, and rightfully so.

Growing up, my mom packed me thoughtful lunches with handwritten notes, and filled my brown-paper bags with all kinds of foods that I loved but embarrassed me: smelly foods like Italian tuna on thick-crusted bread, unpronounceable foods like Italian wedding cookies we call, “ta-ta-looch,” or unidentifiable foods like fried eggplant sandwiches with mayo and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.

Kids would say, " Ew. what is that?" "What's eggplant?" "I don't see any egg?"

Fast forward 35 years. Thanks to the advent of the Food Network, Pinterest, and websites like this one, most people have heard of eggplant. My kids love it and are not embarrassed by it or any of the food I pack them. In fact, they ask for it. So, below is an example of an Italian-American inspired lunch that I might make.

Scroll down for the recipes.

But first, here's a story of my school-lunch experience growing up:

School Lunch (1980's Style)

After waiting in a long line to buy my carton of milk, the end seat at the lunch table was my only option. I never understood why my mom didn’t pack me a Thermos like some other kids’ moms. That way, I could have avoided that long, stupid line. But like millions of other mothers, my mom always tried her best. Packing my lunch meant she loved me more than moms who made their kids buy lunch, and making me buy milk meant she was doing a body (my body) good. But at the time, nothing would have said “I love you” more than a My Little Pony Thermos filled with Hi-C or Crystal Lite, even.

Because my mom loved me so much, I stood in that milk line each day and waited my turn. With milk in hand, I’d walk back to my table and sit at the end -- next to Suzie Hazel and across from Elridus Wright. 

Like most other kids, Elridus Wright was taller than me, giant-like even. He shaved his head and was pretty muscular for a fourth grader. Elridus Wright always bought lunch. He ate from the green divided trays the school provided. To me, school lunches never looked appetizing or nutritious. After all, it was during this time that the government tried to pass ketchup and pickled relish off as vegetables.

Besides lumped mounds of cottage cheese, or canned fruit drowning in syrup, almost all the meals seemed to be bathed in brown gravy. I imagine the gravy made everything taste like salt with some sort of varying texture: salt with chew, salt with rubber, salt with mush. Maybe gravy masked the mystery meat underneath and the fact that your mother didn’t love you all that much. Gravy made life more palatable.

Besides a Thermos, I would have liked a cool lunch box with a picture of my favorite morning cartoon on the front. Again, My Little Pony would have sufficed, or the Care Bears, or Garfield, even. Instead, my mother packed my lunch in a brown-paper bag. Every day, my mother wrote my name on the front of my bag complete with a smiley face. Inside, my mother included a white-paper napkin folded in half. When I went to wipe my mouth, I unfolded my napkin to uncover a note, “Have a nice day” (smiley face), or “I love you, Mom” (smiley face). 

But did my mom really love me?

Suzie Hazel had a lunchbox and a Thermos and didn’t have to wait in that long, stupid line. Suzie Hazel’s mom had birthday parties and invited Suzie’s friends. Suzie’s friends played party games and departed with treat bags. In my family we never had “friend” parties. In my family, we had family parties.

We had family parties on Sunday nights after dinner where you ate chocolate cake and potato chips while the adults sipped coffee and talked around the table. The adults played cards and didn’t talk to you or care that it was your birthday. You went down in the basement with your cousins and played "Monopoly" and watched "Ghostbusters" for the millionth time. 

Maybe my family didn’t love me either.

Unlike my parents, Suzie’s parents were still married, and to each other.  Suzie lived in a house complete with a tree swing. Her father converted their attic into a bedroom for Suzie--a perfect pink palace for a princess or a Barbie or a Suzie Hazel. 

At school, Suzie unpacked a Thermos filled with some sweet, delightful drink. She unpacked a Twinkie, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, and sliced apple that never turned brown. 

Like her lunches, Suzie Hazel was white bread--approachable and acceptable, all-American. Me, not so much.

My mother made me sandwiches from thick slices of Mancini’s bread. When I was a kid, Mancini’s bread was the bread Italians ate; semi-hard crust with a soft center. You had to get to Labriola’s Italian Market early in the morning to ensure a fresh loaf. Italian bread tasted more flavorful than white bread, a little salty and yeasty with a slight hint of olive oil.

On the rare occasion that we had white bread in the house, I never made sandwiches from it. Instead, I would pick off small pieces. First I rolled them into balls. Then, I flattened them into discs and pretended they were the Eucharist. Maybe not normal behavior, but it seemed fitting to be able to turn Wonder Bread into the body of Christ.

The most “normal” sandwich my mother packed me was Isaly's chipped ham with mayo and iceberg lettuce. This was a passable sandwich, but I screwed it up by shoving potato chips between the slices. I loved the texture the chips gave my otherwise soft sandwich and the crunch drowned out any disapproving words Elridus might say.

Some of the snacks my mom packed were passable too, like Fruit Roll-Ups and Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies. Every now and then, she’d pack me a Twinkie or chewy granola bar. She packed me oranges, too, halved, then quartered. More often than not, she packed me cream cheese rolled in salami, or a pickle spear wrapped in cellophane and then tinfoil. Pickles scare kids. Things that leak scare kids. My pickle always leaked.

“Your bag is wet,” Elridus said. 

“My pickle leaked,” I said. 

“Ew,” he said. "It’s all over your banana and everything. Are you really going to eat that?”

Elridus was right. Everything was wet. Even my white-paper napkin was stained with green pickle juice, making the smiley face my mom drew bleed a little.

My mom packed me fried eggplant and parmesan sandwiches, too. Even though I loved this sandwich, kids would see it and scoff. Their faces would distort in horror at this unidentifiable object.

With brown gravy dripping from his chin, Elridus asked, “What is that?”

“It’s a fried eggplant sandwich,” I said.

“Where’s the egg?"  he said.

“No, It’s a vegetable. It’s an Italian thing,“ I said.

I could tell he was off-put by my vegetarian sandwich and confused that there was no ketchup or relish or gravy to be found. 

Instead he said, “Italian, huh?  That explains your mustache.” 

Okay, so it was fourth grade and maybe I had a little shadow, but it was winter and I was pale and who was he to call me out anyway? I could shave my lip if I wanted and already shaved my legs, but Elridus had a skin disorder no gravy could hide. 

Dark-skinned with large patches of light skin, his face looked like a world map. Where his gravy dripped: South America. Elridus had a lot of nerve calling me out for a few stray hairs.

If that wasn’t bad enough, my mom packed me tunafish sandwiches, my favorite. They had chopped carrots and celery and lots of mayo. 

“What smells?” Elridus said. “What disgusting sandwich do you have today?”  

Suzie Hazel just smiled in a pleasant, detached kind of way and continued eating her perfect lunch.

Fast forward to seventh grade, I remember Rick Ianu (pronounced I-wa-noo) saying that some girl smelled like tunafish. Naive for my age, I didn’t know what he meant. The other boys nicknamed Rick Ianu “Rick I Want To” because he wanted to do all sorts of things with loose girls that smelled like fish. 

In the fourth grade, tunafish just smelled like tunafish. It came in a can with olive oil or water. It’s what you ate on Christmas Eve because everything else looked and smelled disgusting. It was the chicken of the sea.

“What’s that smell?” Elridus said again.

“It’s nothing,” I said, as I slid my sandwich back in my bag and waited for the bell to ring. 

I just wanted to fit in.

To be like the other kids.

I wanted Suzie Hazel’s lunch.

My mom packed my lunch (equipped with little notes, tunafish sandwiches, wet pickles and smiley faces) until the day I graduated high school. It was something I came to rely on and be proud of. 

My mom said, “ Just be yourself.”

My mom said, “Those kids don’t know what good food is.” 

My mom said, “They should be so lucky.”

She was right.

Now I pack lunches for my own children. I pack their lunches and a bottled water each day because I believe it’s more nutritious, and because I believe (whether true or not) when you make something for someone, it says “I love you” just a little bit more.

Sometimes my kids say, “Mom, could you pack us something other than a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich?” 

They say, “Could you put Nutella on our sandwich next time and pack me a can of Limonata soda just this once?”

They say, “Do you have any of that good bread left?”

My daughter’s favorite sandwiches are tunafish or egg salad, and often, my son asks me to pack him pieces of hard salami with sliced provolone. They like pickles, too, as long as they don't leak.

They seem to feel okay with this part of their uniqueness, lucky even.

That day in fourth grade, I didn’t feel lucky. I felt embarrassed and guilty. I didn’t want my mom to know I wasted my tunafish sandwich, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Instead, I took it home and hid it in the back of my closet, never to think of it again.

A month later, my bedroom smelled like something that died between a girl’s legs. Rick Iaunu would have sniffed that out much sooner, I’m sure.

I didn’t want to hurt my mom. I knew tunafish sandwiches and leaky pickles were her way of saying she loved me, just as much as Suzie Hazel’s mom.

Suzie Hazel's mom loved her, my mom loved me, and even though Elridus bought lunch, his mom loved him, too. 

Maybe Elridus’ mom knew most boys bought their lunches and she knew Elridus wanted to fit in. Maybe her cupboards were bare and she knew that a school lunch would be the only solid meal Elridus would get most days, or maybe, just maybe, she knew Elridus loved gravy.

I love gravy, too.

Back-to-School Lunches Italian-American Style

Here's a list of Italian-American Inspired lunch-items that make a super tasty and fun lunch for your kiddos (and you too!). Most of these items either came from my local, Italian grocer, or Aldi.( I like to support my Italian grocer and the quality is unmatched, but if you're on a budget, Aldi prices are hard to beat.) Not everyone has an Aldi, or a local Italian grocer nearby, so I've provided an Amazon link for some of these products (because Amazon owns the world).

Sandwich: Prosciutto, Pesto and Mozzarella on Grilled Flatbread.

Prosciutto, Pesto, and Mozzarella on Grilled Flatbread

I bought the flatbread and mozzarella from Aldi. The flatbread comes in large pieces, which I cut into sandwich sizes. I'm picky about store-bought pesto. Costco's Kirkland is the best, but if you're not a member, make sure you buy your pesto from the refrigerated section and make sure it's bright green in color. My kids love this stuff, it's so good for them too, and you can put it on everything, sandwiches, chicken, fish, pasta, you name it.

Pesto, Prosciutto, Mozzarella, Grilled Flatbread
  • First, I drizzle a a little olive oil in a grill pan. I cut the flatbread into sandwich-sized pieces and grill the flatbread on each side.

  • Then I spread a dollop of pesto on top.

  • The mozzarella I used comes in a log and is pre-sliced, making it easy to peel-apart and add to your sandwich on mornings when you're not quite awake. I added two slices.

  • Next, add a thin slice of prosciutto and then another piece of flatbread.

Fruit: Tomato, Basil, and Mozzarella Skewers

Tomato, Basil, Mozzarella Skewers

I know you can't bring a bread knife to school, but what about toothpicks? Are they considered a weapon? If they are, maybe shove a pretzel stick through your tomato, or forego the skewer altogether and put all the ingredients in a cup.

Buy some fresh basil, grape tomatoes, and marinated mozzarella balls. If you can't find the marinated kind, just drizzle some olive oil, hot pepper flakes, basil, and salt and pepper over your mozzarella. Toss it in a bowl and let it set for a bit. Voilà.

Tomato, Basil, Marinated Mozzarella Balls, and Toothpicks
  • Cut the tomato in half, short-ways.

  • Rip-off a small piece of basil.

  • Using a toothpick, skewer a half of a tomato (rounded side at the top), a piece of basil, one marinated mozzarella ball, and another half of tomato (rounded side down).

Fruit: Melon and Prosciutto

Melon and Prosciutto Bites

Nothing beats the sweet taste of cantaloupe and the salty taste of prosciutto. Another kid-favorite I think your children will love. For the love of god, I could not find a melon-baller. Instead of bawling myself, I used a metal measuring spoon and it worked just fine. Just make sure your melon is nice and ripe.

  • Use a melon-baller or metal measuring spoon to scoop out balls of cantaloupe.

  • Using a toothpick, skewer a piece of cantaloupe.

  • Skewer a piece of prosciutto and your done.

More Fruit and Vegetables: Apples and Celery with Nutella

Apples and Celery with Nutella

Ah, Nutella, that creamy, chocolate-hazelnut spread. Your kids will eat this by the spoonful, if they don't already. I cored my apple, but I probably won't do that at six in the morning. I'll probably just slice it and sandwich the Nutella between. On days I'm really sleepy, I'll probably spoon some Nutella in a small container and let the kids dip their apples in celery.

Nutella, Apples, and Celery
  • Cut your celery into bite-size pieces.

  • Slice your apples and make sure to coat each side with lemon juice to avoid browning.

  • Spread some Nutella. For the apple, bread some Nutella add another slice of apple on top.

Drinks and Snacks

Italian-Inspired Snacks. Gumdrops, Quadratini, Torrone,Pistachios, and Sanpellegrino

I don't know about your kids, but snacks are the most important part of my kiddo's lunch. Here a few Italian-American snack ideas that are sure to make your kids smile.

Gumdrops: Are gumdrops really Italian-American? They are always displayed at my Italian grocery store and my dad loves them. He's seventy five and eats them every day.

Quadratini: Quadratini are bite-sized wafer cookies with hazelnut-chocolate or lemon cream layered between. Yum.

Torrone: A chewy nugget with almonds. I always loved these growing up, but only ate them during holidays. Who are people on the box? They look important, and I should know who they are but I don't. What I do know is the box is the perfect grab-and-go size for a school lunch.

Pistachios: I remember having to shell my own pistachios, typically during Christmas, where the dyed shells stained my fingertips red. Now, I buy them unshelled, and salted, not nearly as fun but convenient and just as delicious.

Make an Italian version of Ants on a Log by spreading Nutella on a piece of celery and adding pistachios.

Every kid loves trail mix. What about an Italian Trail Mix, salted Pistachios, chocolate chip morsels, and candied orange? Sounds amazing right?

Sanpellegrino Sparkling Fruit Drink: My kids absolutely love these. Their favorite flavors are blood orange (aranciata rosa) and lemon (limonata). Such a treat! Talk to me next month when I'm out of Sanpellegrino and rummaging through my cupboard for a drink container to fill with lukewarm tap water. But I have good intentions and It's a nice way to start off the school year.

Italian-American Inspired Lunches Grocery List:

Here’s a list of everything you need to make this yummy Italian-American school lunch. Buon Appetito!

Get these Lunch Items to Make your Kiddos Feel Extra Loved and Start their Year off Right!

These are great insulated bento boxes that come in many different prints. It will keep your child's food cold and you won't have to rummage through your drawers to find containers for packing.

Doesn't this look just like the brown paper bag your mom packed for you? It's not. It's a reusable, waterproof, insulated lunch bag. Perfect for older kids or younger kids who are too cool for school.

For mornings when you're out of cans of Sanpellegrino, or juice boxes, and you can't find a drink container. Pour in anything you have in your fridge, milk, juice, tap water. Great for you too! Add your coffee or tea. Resealable, Leak-proof, stands on its own. Put them in the freezer and your kids will have slushy by lunch time.

In case your child's school doesn't allow toothpicks.

Have any lunch ideas to add to this lunchbox, or stories about what your mom packed for you? We'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line in the comment section below. Thanks!

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