Parents preparing school lunches straddle two countries: The Island of Ideal and The Land of the Real.
The first nation is where the lunchbox is brimming with colorful veggies and fruits, a little high-quality protein, and a lot of whole grains and seeds. The contents are, of course, local and organic, and definitely full of fiber and good fats. At the end of the day, one tiny stem from a homegrown heirloom tomato is the only evidence there was food in the container at all.
Once we leave this dream world and re-enter the land of actual children, we're on rockier terrain.
My 7-year-old daughter loved the colorful multigrain penne with organic edamame and cherry tomatoes in a sesame-soy-ginger sauce when she tried it at home. So I sent it in her lunch the next day. Not only did every last noodle remain untouched, making for a miserably hungry child at the end of the day, but the container spilled open, making a mess in the lunchbox. Just because a child liked something yesterday doesn't mean she'll like it today, or possibly ever again.
School Lunch Tips
I offer these suggestions in my book, The Dinner Diaries: Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World (Algonquin Books 2008)
• Whenever possible, pack lunches the night before. (I'm usually too tired to do this, but it remains a goal.)
• Get your kids to help make lunch or make it themselves if they're old enough.
• Put a little love note in the lunchbox, or draw a heart on the napkin.
• Include lots of little tidbits: small containers of dried fruits and nuts; fresh berries, cheese and crackers. Make it look as varied and snack-like as possible.
• Make lunches as colorful as possible, with fruits and veggies.
Yet a lot of us keep introducing wholesome new foods anyway, because that's how we get kids to expand their culinary horizons and improve their diets. Waste aside, we know it's the right thing to do.
"Foods eaten in childhood can have lasting effects on the way your child's body grows and functions," writes Susan Roberts, professor of nutrition at Tufts University and co-author of Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health.
Obesity has become epidemic among children. Whole-grain pasta salad is probably not the culprit.
I needed some new menu items, foods that were nutritious but child-friendly. So I contacted Susan Roberts for suggestions. "Send what they will eat," she e-mailed back. "You don't want your kid hungry, embarrassed at parents sending weird stuff, kids who swap your healthy stuff for junk, etc. So it has to be something they will like, something their friends at the lunch table won't gross out on, and that hopefully also contributes to daily good nutrition."
About The Author
Betsy Block, a Boston-based writer, is a regular contributor to Kitchen Window. Her first book, The Dinner Diaries: Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World (Algonquin Books 2008), recounts the good, the bad and the ugly as one harried mother tries to get her family to eat more nutritiously. To learn more, go to www.dinnerdiaries.com.
Instead of fancy, fussy salads and other unrealistic lunch items, she provides simple — and manageable — nutritional guidelines. School lunches don't have to be perfect, she says, but when combined with other food in the day, "they should add value."
She suggests semi-whole-wheat pizza with veggie and maybe chicken toppings; peanut butter and jelly on oatmeal bread; fruit and yogurt; veggie sticks with ranch dressing; pasta with sauteed vegetables and grated cheese; maybe even chocolate milk.
In other words, find that happy middle ground between whole-grain pasta with veggies that won't get eaten, and marshmallow creme on white bread that will.
So, I came up with Plan B. I replaced pasta salad with whole-grain pretzels that could pass for normal at a glance; both my kids loved them. Next, since I couldn't completely give up my grandiose ideas, I tried out a side of herbed white bean dip. Unlike the pasta, this one got eaten, although the vitamin- and fiber-packed carrot sticks were used to spread the dip on crackers — and then discarded.
Finally, for a treat, we made pumpkin bread, adding in whole-wheat flour for fiber, olive oil for healthy fat and a handful of chocolate chips. Our school lunches may be new and improved, but we're still living in the real world.
This dip is so fast and easy that I made it one morning while everyone else was still asleep. The recipe is adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman (John Wiley & Sons 2007).
Makes enough for 8 lunches
3 cups cooked or canned navy or other white beans, drained but still moist, liquid reserved
Up to 1 cup bean-cooking liquid, vegetable stock or water
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Add-ins: fresh herbs, fresh or roasted garlic, all to taste (Bittman recommends 1 teaspoon fresh minced garlic; 15 to 20 cloves roasted)
Puree the beans in a blender. (Add as much liquid as needed to make a smooth but not watery puree.) Stir in the oil, salt and pepper and any add-ins you like. We used rosemary, thyme, parsley and fresh garlic.
Send dip to school in a tightly sealed, spill-proof container with cut-up veggies, crackers or baked corn chips.
"There's clearly something healthy about these," my 12-year-old son said suspiciously when he saw the brownish interior of these pretzels. Then he tasted one and, sounding surprised, said, "It's good, though" — a preteen's highest possible praise. My husband has been making soft pretzels from a family recipe for years, but he wanted a healthier version, so he came up with this. It requires some advance rising time. The flours and flaxseed meal are available at specialty grocery stores.
Makes 8 pretzels
1 cookie sheet covered with parchment paper
1 package yeast (2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon honey
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups white flour
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup barley flour
1/4 cup coarse oat bran
1/4 cup flaxseed meal
Stir together the yeast, honey and warm water and let sit for 5 minutes.
Stir in the salt, flours, oat bran and flaxseed meal. The dough should be stiff. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. (If it's a humid day, you might need a little extra flour.)
Cut dough into 8 equal pieces, roll into 15-by-20-inch ropes, twist into pretzel shapes and gently place on the parchment-covered cookie sheet. Cover with a towel and let rise for about 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
Next, you can take one of two steps:
1.) Brush with a whisked egg. These pretzels will be good, but their crusts will not be as crispy and brown as if you:
2.) Bring 2 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of baking soda to a boil. Submerge the pretzels one at a time in this solution for 5 to 10 seconds, pushing them under the water with a slotted spoon, then take them out. This will make them puff up. These pretzels will be a lustrous golden brown when they come out of the oven.
Sprinkle with kosher salt if desired and bake at 475 degrees on the middle rack of the oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
"Do you like this?" I ask my daughter after I've given her a piece of this bread. She nods (her mouth is full). "Will you eat it again?" "You never know," she answers. The recipe is adapted from The Book of Bread by Judith and Evan Jones (Harper & Row 1982).
Makes 1 9-inch loaf
1 cup whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup white flour
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
A pinch each of mace and ground cloves
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or toasted sunflower seeds or even a few chocolate chips (chocolate may not seem like a natural combo with spiced pumpkin bread, but it works for my kids)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Oil a 9-inch loaf pan.
Mix the flours, salt, baking soda and spices in one bowl, and the eggs, pumpkin, sugar, oil and water in another. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ones, just enough to mix. Fold in the nuts, seeds or chocolate chips, if desired.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean when inserted in the center of the bread.
School Lunch Containers
Once you've figured out what to pack, you still have to decide what to pack it in. According to many sources, various hazardous chemicals are found in certain plastic containers and canned foods.
But my kids love having lots of little plastic containers in their lunches. Our compromise? Safer plastic containers based on guidelines put out by National Geographic's Green Guide and Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Check the symbol on the bottom of plastic items for recycling codes with the following numbers: 1 PETE; 2 HDPE; 4 LDPE; 5 PP.
Avoid those with these numbers: 3 V; 6 PS; 7 Other.