The lost art of Norway’s “nistepakke”

Knekkebrød stars in this simple and healthy Nordic version of the brown bag lunch

Photo: Sunny Gandara A simple lunch can still be satisfying with homemade knekkebrød as its base.

Photo: Sunny Gandara
A simple lunch can still be satisfying with homemade knekkebrød as its base.

Sunny Gandara
Arctic Grub

As a young student growing up in Norway, my mom (or dad) would make my “niste” every day to bring to school: slices of homemade whole grain bread topped with brown cheese, liverwurst with beets, or “fårepølse” (a sort of salami) topped with cucumbers and mayonnaise, wrapped in parchment paper. This was what I ate daily during lunch break; there was no such thing as school cafeterias then. Everyone had to rely on our little parchment-wrapped sandwiches.

Modern “nistepakker” are not as limited and can include many other options. People are getting creative and packing wraps, nut mixtures, whole grain waffles, pancakes topped with cheese or jam, yogurt with granola, pasta salads, fruit salads, shrimp salads, scones… the choices continue. The idea of a nistepakke is that you can (and should) use leftovers from dinner, mix and match foods you find in your fridge and cupboards, and come up with a tasty, satisfying meal to bring to school or work. Not only is it healthier, but also more economical, and you definitely will know what you are putting in your body!

Since living in the U.S., I have been disheartened to see the food choices kids have in schools. It seems like nobody brings their own lunch, so they are limited to what is being offered in the school cafeterias. Chocolate milk, pizza, and French fries are just a few of the terrible options I have seen.

This motivated my husband and me to get involved with the “Chefs Move to School” program in our local community, where for two years we would visit the school in our town and teach the kids how to make healthy foods with vegetables they grew in their school garden. Kids are incredibly creative and their enthusiasm was infectious. After we created a recipe together, we cooked and tasted it, and the dish was then served in the school cafeteria the following week. The children took ownership of it, and many chose to buy the special dish as opposed to other less healthy offerings. It was a great initiative I wish more schools in this country would take part in.

This made me think back to Norway’s nistepakker, and although many kids no longer bring their lunch even in Norway, this is definitely a big Norwegian tradition. I hope it comes back to popularity, because I believe it helps curb obesity among young people and sets the standard for good life habits going forward. Nistepakker are also popular to bring along on hiking and skiing trips.

Norwegians aren’t necessarily used to eating a hot lunch; they reserve most of their appetite for dinner, which is typically eaten earlier than in other countries (5:00-6:00 p.m. at the latest). Lunch would consist of room-temperature foods, and often be a repeat of breakfast. Lunch break is often a quick 30 minutes, so most prefer something casual and easy. Some people think of nistepakke as ultra-Norwegian: humble, efficient, and… stingy? 🙂

In my household, knekkebrød was always on the table as a choice for breakfast, topped with Norwegian brunost and jam. I often regretted not making the entire meal just of knekkebrød; there is something so satisfying, but yet light and easy to digest about these crispy crackers that are so popular throughout Norway and Scandinavia. Filled with a plethora of various seeds, whole grain flours, and oatmeal, these breads are the perfect canvas upon which to create a healthy snack or meal.

While many households choose to buy pre-packaged Wasa knekkebrød or a gourmet version thereof, it has become more and more commonplace and popular to make these from scratch. Super simple and quick to make, I agree the latter is the better choice!

You will see many Norwegians bring their “matpakke” (another word for niste) to work containing two or more pieces of knekkebrød, typically topped with brunost (our famous caramelized brown cheese made from whey), but also with caviar in a tube (yes, Norwegians are crazy), and sliced egg. In January, after the decadent month of December and all the holiday meals, or any time people are trying to lose weight, you see knekkebrød appearing more often than normal. Often referred to as diet food, it does not taste like it, but rather packs a ton of flavor and has a satisfying, crunchy texture.

A source of great antioxidants and healthy fats from the seeds, I think this is a perfect, ultra-Norwegian food to kick-start school with! I like them with Daiya cream cheese, a dairy free cream cheese that tastes much more flavorful than the regular version, or with slices of tomato and cucumber, topped with dill or chives. You can also spread hummus on them sprinkled with chopped olives, mint, and roasted peppers for a more exotic alternative.

Photo: Mari Hult / Knekkebrød, the perfect, ultra-Norwegian food for back to school.

Photo: Mari Hult /
Knekkebrød, the perfect, ultra-Norwegian food for back to school.

Crispy Knekkebrød
225 grams or 1 cup oatmeal
225 grams or 1 cup rye flour
225 grams or 1 cup sunflower seeds
225 grams or 1 cup oat bran
225 grams or 1 cup sesame seeds
100 grams or 1/2 cup wheat bran
100 grams or 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
100 grams or 1/2 cup flax seed
2 tsps. salt
1 tsp. maple syrup
3 1/2 to 4 cups warm water

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius). Line three baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients.

Mix the maple syrup into the water and pour over dry ingredients, stir to combine. Let sit for about 10 minutes.

Spread the dough over the prepared baking sheets. Place in the oven for about 10 minutes, remove from oven, and cut with a pizza cutter into desired sized squares. Place the crackers back in the oven, and bake for another 20 minutes. Rotate them and bake another 30-40 minutes, a total of 1 hour to 70 minutes’ baking time.

Let cool on a rack and they are now ready to dig into! You can store these in an airtight container for a couple of weeks.

This article was adapted from work originally posted at

Sunny Gandara has over 15 years experience in marketing and PR, both in the music and beverage industry. In 2008 she founded her own company, Fork and Glass, a food and wine event and consulting company, located in the Hudson Valley of New York. She now focuses on education, giving seminars and classes to private and corporate groups. Sunny, a native of Norway, is a professionally trained cook and holds a diploma in Wines & Spirits from the WSET.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.