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Making the grade: Don't get left holding the bag when it comes to school lunch

Back to school means back to school lunch. And that means myriad decisions:

Whether to buy school lunch or to brown-bag it.

Whether to stick with the boring PB & J or bologna sandwich rut, or risk packing different foods that your kids deem too "weird" to eat in front of their peers.

How to find a happy medium between food that's nutritious but appealing enough that your kid won't toss it in the garbage.

How to make a meal that's more affordable than the commercial Lunchable-type products but doesn't take half the morning to prepare.

And there's the issue of being more eco-friendly versus using the single-serve "snack packs" on the grocery shelves with their excess packaging.

There's no one-size-fits all solution; a lot of these decisions depend on your circumstances and your child's personality and tastes.

If you choose to pack your kids' lunches, here are some ideas to consider:

It's great to expand your child's palate with a variety of diverse foods, but those who have spent time in school cafeterias will tell you that a lot of food gets tossed.

Audition those tofu tacos or goat cheese pita wraps as an after-school snack first, so you can offer encouragement and gauge how well they go over.

Kids are more apt to try new food combinations if they're part of the planning process, according to registered dietitian Dena McDowell, M.S., C.D., a mother, and nutritional expert for Take Off Pounds Sensibly International.

The ideal lunch should include a protein-rich food (lean meat, cheese, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds or yogurt), a dairy-rich food (milk, yogurt or cheese), a fruit, a veggie and some whole grains, advised McDowell in a press release from TOPS.

Start by having your kids make a list of enjoyable foods from each category, and help them be creative with options.

For instance, the "grain" group could include whole-grain crackers, bagels, tortillas, popcorn or trail mix of high-fiber cereal. These lists may yield more lunch possibilities than you thought. Billy likes snap peas? Susie will eat yogurt? Who knew?

If you have several children, compare lists for common favorites so you don't have to pack totally different menus for each child.

If kids are in a food rut, go ahead and pack the same-old PB& J sandwich, but add a little bag of carrot sticks or some other new or "healthful" item. If they are offered enough times, kids might finally try it and discover it's not so bad after all.

In her book, "My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus," Nancy Tringali Piho writes that always resorting to dumbed-down "kid-friendly" foods, such as chicken nuggets or pizza, keeps kids from developing an appreciation for more diverse foods and flavors.

But she admits parents can take it too far. She writes of a 4-year-old girl whose parents didn't allow her to eat the burgers, hot dogs, etc., served at her pre-school. She was only allowed to eat fresh, organic meals from home. It got to the point where she wouldn't eat her homemade lunch; she realized her food was different.

She was too hungry to sleep at naptime and would steal food from the other kids. Finally, her parents relented, letting her eat with the rest of the kids at school but still eating fresh and organic food at home.

It was like a dam burst," related the mother. "She was a different child at school. She became more confident and outgoing, she pays greater attention in class, and she actually takes naps."

Look for ways to "healthify" familiar foods.

For instance, baked chips or crunchy soy nuts instead of fried chips; fat-free or 1 percent milk or yogurt instead of regular. Instead of super-sweetened yogurt, buy plain and mix in your own fruit. Make marshmallow treats using high-fiber cereal and dried fruits instead of the usual crispy rice cereal. Stir in oats when making cookies.

Sometimes a little tub of salsa, ranch dressing, barbecue sauce or other dip entices kids to eat more of their meal. Choices high in nutrients include salsa, hummus, bean dips or pureed fruit.

Freeze small water bottles or juice boxes the night before. They will keep meat-based sandwiches and other perishables cool, and by lunch time, the ice is thawed for drinking. Or, use an ice pack. Just make sure the food is well wrapped to protect against condensation or leaking; kids get grossed out by soggy sandwiches.

If your child hates sandwiches, try putting together a snack mix of cereal, raisins, nuts, cheese cubes, etc. Or heat your child's favorite canned soup and pack it in a thermos. It will stay hot a bit longer if you rinse the thermos with hot water before pouring in the soup.

Beverages labeled as a "juice drink" are mostly sweetener with very little real juice. So read labels to find 100 percent juice, pack plain water or have the kids buy milk at school.

Be careful with condiments. Sometimes a little mayo or mustard on a sandwich is welcomed; for other kids, it's a deal breaker.

Although some of the recipes we've included contain mustard, which is naturally low in fat and calories, you can always omit it.

TURKEY & CHEESECOOKIE CUTTER SANDWICHES

Favorite cookie cutters

8 slices whole wheat bread

8 teaspoons honey mustard or yellow mustard

4 slices deli turkey or ham, cut in half

4 slices American cheese, cut in half

Cut out sandwich shapes from bread using desired cookie cutter shape. Remove excess trimmings and save for another use.

Spread 1 teaspoon mustard on each cut slice of bread.

Arrange turkey and cheese slices on 4 pieces of bread, dividing evenly. Top each with a second slice of bread, mustard-side down.

Decorate , if desired, with extra mustard. Makes 4 sandwiches. — French's

RAINBOW WRAP SANDWICHES

4 10-inch flour tortillas (assorted flavors and colors)

4 tablespoons mustard

1/2 pound thinly sliced deli roast beef, bologna or turkey (about 8 slices)

8 slices American, Swiss or Muenster cheese

Spread each tortilla with 1 tablespoon mustard.

Layer meat and cheese on top of tortillas, dividing evenly.

Roll up tortillas, jelly-roll style. Cut into thirds. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and pack into lunch boxes. Serves 4-6. — French's

TUNA SALAD

1/2 cup light sour cream

2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard or yellow mustard

1 12-ounce can light tuna packed in water, drained

1/2 cup chopped celery

2 tablespoons minced red onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

Blend sour cream and mustard in medium bowl.

Stir in tuna, celery, onion and salt; mix well.

Chill. If desired, serve on lettuce leaves or toasted whole grain muffins. Makes 2 cups or 4 servings. — French's

CHICKEN SALAD PITAS

2 cups diced cooked chicken or turkey

1/2 cup chopped tomato

1/4 cup chopped cucumber

1/3 cup honey mustard

1/3 cup plain nonfat yogurt

1 cup mixed salad greens

4 6-inch mini whole wheat pitas, cut in half crosswise

Combine chicken, tomato and cucumber in large bowl.

Stir in mustard and yogurt; mix well.

Spoon chicken mixture into pitas with salad greens, dividing evenly. Place chicken salad in a resealable plastic container to pack for a school lunch. Serves 4. — French's

WHOLE GRAIN MARSHMALLOW CRISPY BARS

3 tablespoons butter

1 (10.5-ounce) bag miniature marshmallows

1 (15-ounce.) box multi-grain cluster cereal (such as Kashi GOLEAN Crunch)

1 1/4 cups dried cranberries, divided

Vegetable cooking spray

Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Add marshmallows, and cook, stirring constantly, 4-5 minutes or until melted and smooth. Remove from heat.

Stir in cereal and 1 cup cranberries until well coated.

Press mixture into a 13- by- 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Chop remaining 1/4 cup cranberries, and sprinkle on top. Let stand 10 to 15 minutes or until firm. Cut into 24 bars.

Cinnamon-Pecan Crispy Bars: Place 1?3 cup pecan halves, chopped, in a single layer on a shallow pan. Bake at 350 degrees 8-9 minutes or until toasted, stirring once after 5 minutes. After placing marshmallow mixture in the baking dish, sprinkle with toasted pecans and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon. — Southern Living, October 2007

PASTA SALAD VEGGIE-RANCH TOSS UPS

8 cups cooked tri-colored pasta (1 pound uncooked)

1 cup finely chopped yellow squash, finely chopped

1 cup finely chopped green zucchini squash

1 cup shredded carrots

1 medium red bell pepper, finely chopped

1 2.5 -ounce Hidden Valley light ranch dressing cup (single size cup)

At home: Prepare pasta according to package directions.

While pasta is cooking, chop vegetables.

Rinse the pasta in cold water to prevent further cooking.

Add the chopped vegetables and mix until well combined.

Place about 2 cups of pasta mixture into a plastic container and secure lid.

At school: Add the dressing to the pasta container.

Secure the lid and shake it up! Serves 6. — Hidden Valley Ranch

KANGAROO POUCHES

For each pouch, you'll need:

1/2 whole wheat pita pocket

2-3 ounces turkey breast xluncheon meat, thinly sliced

1 ounce Cheddar cheese

2-3 lettuce leaves

2-3 baby carrots

2-3 sugar snap peas

1 2.5-ounce Hidden Valley light ranch dressing (single cup size)

Extra veggies for dipping

At home: Cut a 3-inch horizontal slit midway on the pita half.

Tuck the turkey, cheese and lettuce into the pita.

Stuff the carrots and snap peas into the pouch/slit.

At school: Drizzle dressing into the sandwich.

Take the veggies out of the "pouch" and and use remaining dip in cup for dipping. — Hidden Valley Ranch

e-mail: vphillips@desnews.com