The Natural Lunchbox
Move over, peanut butter & jelly: here’s a week’s worth
of healthy lunches your kids will love.
by Corinne Garcia
Efforts continue to improve the nutritional value of school lunches, with USDA rules now in place that mandate additional helpings of fruits and vegetables in addition to the pizza and french fries. But face it—the best way to ensure your child eats a healthy lunch at school is to pack one yourself. As these suggestions show, it’s easier than you may think.
The Tricked-Out Sandwich
Not another boring sandwich! You know the one: turkey and cheese on whole wheat. Your kids find it just about as exciting as reading the encyclopedia.
Instead, try tricking out their favorite sandwiches through variations in the bread department, using things like pitas, wraps, ciabatta, bagels, crackers and whole-wheat raisin bread, recommends Alisa Fleming, founder of www.godairyfree.org and author of the e-book Smart School Time Recipes (Fleming Ink). “I like to make sandwiches with my homemade whole grain waffles made without the sugar so they’re more savory like bread,” she says. “Waffles are just fun, and they’re also perfectly square just like a sandwich with a softer and richer flavor, and they’re easy to freeze.” Add the usual sandwich fillings, and use them for French toast as well to give kids extra protein from the egg-dipped bread.
To round out a sandwich, make sure to pack in the vegetables. Natalie Monson, RD, CSR, CD of Super Healthy Kids (www.superhealthykids.com) says, “We really like to shred veggies and layer them on that way, so it’s easier for kids to chew. It creates less bulk while keeping the nutrition high.”
• Ciabatta bread with Brie, ham and apple slices
• Green spinach or red sundried tomato wraps, filled with cream
cheese or hummus, shredded carrots, shredded zucchini and sprouts
Chopped green onions
Whole wheat pitas
Mix everything except lettuce and pitas in a bowl.
Line pitas with lettuce and fill.
Courtesy of www.superhealthykids.com
Thermos Soups & Stews
What better way to sneak in protein, grains and veggies than to incorporate them into hearty soups and stews? Easy to pack for a to-go lunch, a whole pot goes a long way and lasts well in the freezer.
And because packaging and presentation is just about as important to kids as the contents
of the meal, serving soups in a fun, child-chosen thermos makes the meal that much more desirable.
“When I’m first introducing kids to vegetables in soups, I go with very mushy and well-cooked ones, such as sweet potato, zucchini and carrots, because when they’re cooked, the flavor disperses,” Fleming says. “And puréed soups are full of vegetables with the nutrition right in the broth.”
Kid-friendly additions to soup include rice, fun-shaped noodles (such as spirals, alphabets, colored bows and egg noodles), couscous, organic chicken, ground beef and beans. Monson
recommends letting the child help stir the pot, which will make he or she more likely to eat
• Mild chili, using beans, tofu or ground organic grassfed beef, tomatoes and carrots
• Old-fashioned chicken noodle or chicken and stars soup
2 tbsp olive oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, including leaves, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp dried mixed Italian seasoning
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 15.5-oz can kidney beans, rinsed well
3-4 cups water
1 cup alphabet pasta
Kosher salt and white pepper to taste
Heat olive oil on medium in a large, heavy-bottomed pot.
Add onion, celery (reserving leaves), carrots, garlic and Italian seasoning.
Sauté the vegetables until soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add tomatoes, kidney beans,
reserved celery tops and water, then bring to a boil.
Add pasta and cook according to package directions. Adjust seasonings and serve.
Courtesy of Alisa Fleming
For kid-pleasing lunches, try salads based on protein or whole grains and veggies. Egg, tuna or ham salads make perfect sandwich, wrap and pita fillers or standalone meals. Salads based on quinoa, whole-wheat or gluten-free pasta, couscous, brown rice or barley can be enhanced with vegetables, beans, lean meat and/or chunked cheese.
“Green salads can be daunting for kids,” Fleming says. “I like to make really simple pasta salads, adding things like celery, scallion and frozen peas.” She suggests keeping vegetable mixes simple until kids get used to the flavor combinations.
“Be creative!” Monson adds. “Colors, shapes and textures have a huge influence on the acceptability of a food to a child.” Mix a few of your child’s all-time favorite foods together in salad form.
Lemon juice and olive oil work well on grain-based salads; creamy dressings go with protein salads. “Our favorite sauce alternative is Greek yogurt,” Monson says. “We use it instead of sour cream or Miracle Whip in lots of recipes; it is packed full of protein, yet lower in fat.”
• Quinoa, feta, corn, red pepper and garbanzo beans mixed with lemon juice,
olive oil and a touch of salt
• Organic chicken (cooked and chunked), celery and red pepper tossed with
Greek yogurt and a touch of salt
1/2 cup uncooked whole wheat couscous
(or brown rice couscous for gluten-free)
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 ½ tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3/8 tsp onion powder
1/4 to 1/2 tsp dried dill
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 tsp sugar (or sweetener of your choice)
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp water
1 can tuna, drained
Fresh ground pepper, to taste (optional)
Cook the couscous according to the package directions. Run the peas under warm water to thaw. Combine mayo, mustard, onion powder, dill, salt, sugar, lemon juice and water in a small dish. Fluff couscous with a fork and stir in the peas and mayo mixture. Crumble the tuna in and stir to combine.
Courtesy of Alisa Fleming
Kids dig dipping and dunking foods, so why not make a lunch out of it? Dip-based lunches are easy to prepare, fun to consume and can turn into well-rounded meals in disguise.
“I don’t think I ever outgrew this one,” says Fleming. “I like to include a couple different types of dip in one meal, letting them explore new foods; it’s like an adventure.” She recommends dips such as guacamole, vegetable and fruit salsas, hummus, tahini, almond butter and peanut butter.
Don’t forget nutritious, easy-to-make bean dips. “Beans are such a healthy food and kids love them,” Monson says. “They’re full of fiber, protein and B vitamins.”
As far as what to dip, whole grain chips and crackers or toasted pita triangles work well, along with vegetable sticks such as carrot, celery, cucumber and red pepper. Monson is a fan of using vegetable designs made with tiny metal cookie cutters. “We love to cut up our veggies into fun and different shapes, like carrot stars or crinkle-cut zucchini because it is appealing to kids,” she says. “Let your kids help you cut out the shapes. They are much more likely to eat what they have helped with.”
• French toast strips dipped in honey or jam
• Homemade chicken strips dipped in Greek yogurt and fresh mild salsa
1 cup pureed beans (pinto, black or kidney)
2 tbsp fat-free sour cream
1 tsp ranch seasoning mix
Put all ingredients into food processor or blender. Mix until smooth.
Serve with pita chips, baked corn chips or vegetable sticks.
Courtesy of www.superhealthykids.com
Lunch period for most schoolkids is limited. That’s where all-in-one meals come into play as an easy way to pack in some serious nutrition with a fun presentation.
“Kids love meals in muffin tins, like mini-quiches and mini-meat loaves,” Fleming says. “They’re easy to freeze and pop into lunchboxes, they’re a manageable size and the muffin shape gives the illusion of dessert.”
Monson warns that all-in-one meals, some of which call for canned soups, processed meats or a lot of cheese, can have too much sodium. “Our philosophy is to stick to fresh whole food ingredients as much as possible, and always try to add as many vegetables as we can into a meal.”
For mini-quiches, beat eggs and add finely chopped, lightly sautéed vegetables
such as grated zucchini, spinach, onion and tomato.
Pour into lightly greased muffin tins, top each with a little grated cheese,
and bake until cooked through, about 10 to 20 minutes
For meatloaf muffins: Fill lightly greased muffin tins with your favorite meatloaf recipe.
Fleming recommends adding grated carrots and zucchini and using organic
grassfed beef or organic ground turkey
About 1 cup of vegetable or fruit that is mashable
(cooked peas, squash, carrots, beets, banana, etc.)
1 large free-range egg
1 tsp apple cider vinegar or lemon juice
Pinch sea salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
Ground nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, etc.), enough to make a soft-dropping consistency
Possible additional ingredients: coconut, peanut butter,
squash, carrot, beetroot, banana, pesto, Parmesan, whatever else is handy
Put the vegetable or fruit in the blender with egg, vinegar or lemon juice, salt and baking soda, and whiz until smooth. (If you want to add additional ingredients, add them now.) Add spoonfuls of ground nuts and blend between each addition until the correct consistency is reached.
Heat a heavy frying pan; add a small amount of oil.
(Not too hot, or the sugar in the produce will burn.)
Drop spoonfuls into the pan and cook for about a minute
until golden brown on the bottom but not set on top.
Flip with the pallet knife and cook until the other side is golden brown.
Cool on a rack, or eat them hot from the pan with crème
fraiche and crunchy salad leaves, pumpkin purèe or bright green pesto.
Courtesy of Alisa Fleming
Breakfast: Starting the Day Right
It doesn’t matter what kind of lunch you pack for your kids if they don’t start the day with a proper morning meal. “Higher test scores, improved school attendance and good behavior have all been connected to eating breakfast,” says Stacey Antine, MS, RD, founder of HealthBarn USA and author of Appetite for Life: The Thumbs-Up, No-Yucks Guide to Getting Your Kid to Be a Great Eater (HarperOne, www.healthbarnusa.com). You say there’s no time? Antine suggests setting the alarm earlier, in 15-minute daily increments, until you have enough time to comfortably incorporate breakfast into your morning routine.
One misconception is that a “healthy breakfast” requires a lot of work at the same time you’re trying to get everyone out the door. It doesn’t. Antine suggests such quickies-but-goodies as low-fat Greek yogurt (which contains more protein than the regular kind) sweetened with a little honey and topped with raspberries and ground flax seed or toasted whole wheat bread with pure almond or peanut butter (the kind with the oil on top) sprinkled with ground flax seed and served with a banana and low-fat milk or nondairy milk alternative.
One way to cut morning prep work is to cook or bake in the evening, when you’re less rushed. Antine says the following cookies can serve as snacks as well as breakfast; let the kids help with cracking eggs and dropping dough onto the baking sheet.
Whole-Grain Breakfast Cookies
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup ground flax seeds
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp sea salt
2 large eggs
1 cup vanilla low-fat yogurt
1/4 cup agave nectar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 cup whole grain cereal*
1/4 cup raisins
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, stir together flour, flax seed, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Add eggs, yogurt, agave and vanilla. Stir until well blended. Stir in remaining ingredients and mix until blended.
2. Drop dough by 1/4 cup onto a nonstick or lightly greased baking sheet, about 4” apart. Flatten slightly and form into 4” rounds.
3. Bake 10-12 minutes or until browned. Cool on a wire rack. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to three days.
Yield: 12 cookies. Analysis per cookie: 150 calories, 6g protein, 3g fat (none saturated), 3g fiber, 25g carbohydrate, 160 mg sodium;
*Cheerios used in nutritional analysis; any whole grain cereal will do
Reprinted from Appetite For Life by Stacey Antine, MS, RD, with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (www.healthbarnusa.com)