By Andrea Moyer
Parents, if you’re like me, you’re desperate to conquer the unhealthy lunch epidemic that’s plaguing our children once and for all. Even at this early point in the school year we might find our resolutions beginning to crumble. It’s busy, time is limited and we’re constantly running to the doggone grocery store. So we give in and add money to our children’s hot school lunch account. While I’m not in any way suggesting that a hot lunch* be replaced with cold sandwiches day in and day out, I am encouraging you all to stick with your healthy menus because honestly, they’re still the best options in the long run. For those of you who may not have a lunch menu to start with, help is at hand.
I’ll spare you the redundancy of listing recipes and head straight for what you need to know because you’re probably wondering why you should even bother trying to pack a healthy, tasty lunch in the first place, right? Let me list a few reasons:
- School lunches are costly and unhealthy. As a former lunch lady I can tell you that what they’re serving your child tends to stray from what we would consider healthful. This is not an intent to criticize the school districts over their choice of lunch menus. They do their best, but at the end of the day, they cannot replace you the parent. You know what your child will and will not eat, you’re aware of their food allergies and you probably want to save a few bucks.
- You have more control over what your child is (likely) to eat. This is by no means foolproof, but you have a far better chance of the child actually eating what YOU pack for them rather than presenting them with a smorgasbord of choices that they’re too hungry to make with any common sense. Which leads me to my next point…
- We all hate that mid-afternoon slump and so do our kids. Be judicious when selecting food. Proteins, whole grains and vegetables (I know, your child won’t even look at veggies…I’m coming to that in a minute, so bear with me.) Use fruits and sugary items sparingly, as these will cause spikes in your child’s blood sugar levels. This can also lead to headaches, so less is more where these are concerned.
Top ingredients for a healthy school lunch
Cucumbers – I have a child who adores these, especially as the weather gets warmer. They are a refreshing snack that actually helps cool down the body’s internal temperature.
Carrots – Who doesn’t love the crunchy sweetness of these root vegetables? Slice them into rounds or into sticks that can be dipped into some hummus or salad dressing.
Tomatoes – From slices that can be included in sandwiches to the fun-sized cherry tomatoes that can be eaten whole, these are actually a fruit and can easily be grown in a pot. Toss with fresh basil, salt, pepper, oil and red wine vinegar for an easy and portable caprese salad.
Peppers – Another sweet, crunchy favorite! But please, I implore you, unless you have an adventuresome child, steer clear of the hotter varieties.
Hummus – Try a variety of flavors, such as red beet or chocolate!
Eggs – These can be prepped ahead of time. Grab a dozen raw eggs and steam them (see my Eggs A-Peeling blog). Peel and season, then throw a pair into a re-sealable plastic bag and hey presto, you’ve got six days of protein covered. Unless, of course, you have more than one child who likes eggs. In our house, a dozen hard cooked eggs typically lasts us a day or two. Dole them out wisely.
Quinoa – I probably shouldn’t even include this in the list since I’ve never eaten quinoa, but I’m going to anyway because of the health benefits and versatility of this ancient grain.
Cheese – Perfect for pairing up with some whole-grain crackers for a delicious protein kick. Save this one for the mini cookie cutters and fun shapes. Otherwise you’ll be cutting up everything you can lay your hands on into cutesy shapes before you know where you are. No need to drive yourself nuts.
*Hot Lunch - A thermos of hot soup can be just the answer when you’re trying to mix it up and the weather’s getting chillier. I love soups made with autumn produce – butternut squash, parsnips, kale, etc. Make them ahead, freeze in individual portions and thaw the night before and reheat just before pouring it into your child’s thermos.
- Hummus and sugar snap peas
- Edamame salad with corn and tomatoes
- Apples or bananas with nut butter
- Greek yogurt (plain) swirled with raw honey and served with all-fruit spread, granola or trail mix
- Nut butter wrapped in lettuce leaves with dried raisins or cranberries
What NOT to pack:
- Messy or unmanageable foods. Skip last night’s spaghetti or that awesome coleslaw recipe you found on Pinterest. The only exception to this would be a thermos of hot soup because it’s self-contained and packed with nutrients. Otherwise, keep it neat and simple!
- Anything that needs to be reheated. While there exist a few exceptions, most schools do not offer the use of microwaves for the student body.
- Eggs in their shells – they take too long to peel and can be frustrating to deal with in a limited lunch period. Have a heart and peel hard cooked eggs for your child ahead of time.
- Whole sandwiches or wraps – give them a hand and cut these into manageable portions.
- Tired of running to the store for fresh veg? Grow your own – your kids will love this, as well as growing the fresh herbs! Vegetable gardens, potted tomato or pepper plants – they all provide a fresh and cost-effective alternative to buying produce.
- Invite your little ones (and teenagers!) into the kitchen. Allow them to see and select what they want to put into their lunches. They’re far more likely to eat what they pack rather than the mystery lunches you’re putting together. End the frustration and let them see what’s going into their lunches each day.
- Mix it up when you can. Again, don’t go off the deep end. A few choice vegetables, fruits, nut butters and proteins are all that you need to build a colorful, appealing meal for your child.
- Grow some fresh herbs! Our family favorites include parsley and basil. If your child is worried about post-lunch bad breath, send along a small container of cut fresh parsley (not chopped, please!) for them to chew on. It will eliminate that half-time halitosis!
- Lastly, don’t give up. Forgot to pack your child’s lunch? No big deal. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Pick it up tomorrow and stay as consistent as you can. It might even be a good idea to have a day where you take a break and let your child buy his or her lunch at school. It’s not the end of the world and many schools are taking an active part in helping students choose their lunch menus wisely.
Best of luck to you and don’t lose heart. You’ve got this!