Jennifer McCann: Author of Vegan Lunch Box
How long have you been vegan?
Interviewed by Cynthia Mosher
So Jennifer, how many candles will be on your cake this year?
Vegan Lunch Box has become quite a popular blog since it began in 2005
(current Quantcast estimates show 11K visitors per month). You started with
simple post chronicles of Shmoo's lunch box delights and slowly progressed
to more in-depth content posts of information, interviews, book suggestions,
and spinoff adventures such as your Eating Vegan on the Road at
kidscantravel.com. Tell us a little about what you had in mind when you
started Vegan Lunch Box, where it now going, and your ideas and plans for
the future, especially after Shmoo is all grown up and you're not making lunches for him anymore.
I didn't have a whole lot in mind when I started; I was really just enamored with the look of my son's lunches, and the creative foods he was requesting really tickled me (his very first request was for sushi rolls). So I started taking pictures and created the "Vegan Lunch Box" blog to keep them all together. I was also disheartened by the lack of good ideas for kid-friendly vegan lunches, and wanted an opportunity to show that a vegan school lunch could be more than just peanut butter and jelly.
After the blog became popular I started adding other things that I thought might interest my readers, like cookbook reviews, recipes, website links, etc. In the future I hope to include more of the same, plus a few of my husband's lunches now that he's working away from home, and maybe a few more from the Weight Watchin' Vegan (my mom!) My big excitement for this fall is that my little niece is starting preschool, so I predict you may be seeing a few little girl bento boxes soon. Think pink, pink, pink!
Do you have any other websites or online doings?
Not much at the moment, although I do volunteer as the web master for a local center for the blind; that's been very interesting.
Vegan Goldfish Crackers, Vegan Twinkies, Naruto Roll, Vegan Corn Dog, and Peanut Butter & Jelly "Pop Hearts"? Are these spawned from Shmoo desires? Or Jennifershmoo's childhood comfort foods daydreams?
I would say most of the "kid" items like "cheese" crackers, corn dogs, cookies, etc. are inspired by my son's requests. He definitely wants to eat versions of what the other kids are eating. I'm usually more focused on trying to find ways to make vegetables and fruits attractive and appealing—that's what really excites me. But I'm lucky in that my son also has a very adventurous palate and likes to try new things, too.
What led you to use the Japanese bento box for your lunch creations?
I originally chose a Laptop Lunch System for my son after searching online for a kid-friendly lunch box that was easy to pack and wouldn't get damaged bouncing around in his backpack. The Laptop System was perfect. Since then I've purchased and tried out several different bento and stainless steel lunch containers; I love the stainless steel "tiffins" (lunch containers) from India.
Do you take much of your inspiration from the Japanese in creating lunches?
Definitely. More so every day. When I first started packing my son's lunches I hadn't really heard of Japanese bento culture. I had no idea how elaborate Japanese bento could be, or how many incredible accessories they sold for lunch boxes. I've been studying Japanese bento now for the past few years, and I think my lunches keep getting better because of it.
The Vegan Lunch Box book was first published in 2006. Vegan Lunch Box was
published again last month. Was this a second publishing? Or is the book a
new edition with new recipes and tips?
This is a second publishing of the original book with the addition of some new recipes and menus. It's also been completely reorganized and restyled. I love the new look.
Do you have another book planned?
No. Right now I'm focused on home-schooling my son and working on some of the other things I enjoy—knitting, gardening, things like that.
If you had control of menu planning for school cafeterias, what first steps would you take to make the changes you'd like to see?
What a great question. There are some fantastic groups out there doing just that—working to improve our school lunch programs. They're even finding that improving kids' diets can improve their behavior and ability at school. I'm not a "Food Nazi" or anything—I think kids should be able to enjoy all kinds of desserts and "junk" foods in moderation— but probably the first thing I would do is take out the soda machines and encourage water consumption. Soda is my bÍte noire. After that it would be all about lowering the levels of salt, fat, and sugar, and adding more whole foods in a way that would be familiar enough to be accepted and enjoyed by the students. It would be an interesting challenge.
Any particular advice to lunch-packing parents?
I guess my first bit of advice if you're just starting out is to sit down with your son or daughter and a notebook. Make a column for each of these food categories: protein foods, carbs, veggies, fruits, and treats. Have your child help you think of all the foods they like in each category, or rattle off all the foods you can think of and have them say "yes" or "no". After you've got a good list going you can start building well-balanced lunches using servings of foods from each category. Ask for your child's help and input as much as possible; the more the child is involved, the prouder they will be of the lunch and the likelier they are to actually eat it!