It caught my eye that this week is National School Breakfast Week. Sadly my first thought was, “Really? Yuck.” Maybe that was yours just now too. We all remember school lunch from back in the day. Mine was soggy pizza and limp fries, or maybe an iceberg salad with ranch and a few mystery meat nuggets. I’m not joking. This is exactly what I ate. I typically chose a carton of lowfat milk as my beverage, but others choices were juice boxes or chocolate milk.
I was thinking, hoping, that possibly school lunches had changed since my time in the elementary cafeteria. While there is movement towards healthier choices, unfortunately many things remain the same. Pizza? Check. Corndogs? Check. Chicken nuggets? Check. Apparently the ingredients have improved, as per the Seattle Public School’s menu the corndogs are now chicken and the pizza uses chicken pepperoni, however the blandness and overall feeling of processed food remains. A friend recently sent me a picture of a child’s lunch choice and it was appalling. Corndog, fries, and chocolate milk. That makes me sad.
The commonality in these less-than-idea meals is the basic lack of color and variety. When you think of a school lunch, what color pops into mind? Brown, right? Where do our antioxidants and phytochemicals come from? Colorful foods, of course. That is one important area where school lunch is falling short.
But that is where they honestly have been trying, as well. There are now salad bars in most schools offering a wide variety of fruits and veggies. Some schools (including my son’s), are kicking out the flavored milks. Sounds encouraging.
The problem is that kids are not consistently choosing these healthier options. If you give an 8 year old a choice between pizza or salad and fruit, coupled with less than 15 minutes to eat, what do you think they will choose? Shoot, it would definitely take me at least 15 minutes to eat a salad and an apple, and likely even longer if that salad tasted like it came out of a box. Sounds like pizza for the win.
While schools definitely need to up their game, it’s really up to us parents to do the right thing by our kids. The best option? Send your kids to school with a healthy lunch every day. Unfortunately I know this not going to happen for many low income kids who rely on school lunches in order to eat every day. I am extremely grateful and thankful that we have a school lunch program in the first place to support those kids, and it is for them that we need to keep fighting to get rid of the unhealthful choices in our schools. But for those of us not on the free lunch program, the best and most economical option is to pack your kiddo a lunch each and every day.
What to pack? I’m glad you asked. There are a lot of great options to keep your busy child going strong throughout the school day. As you read through these, envision the vibrant colors that would be packed into that little lunch box. Brown and bland, your days are numbered.
Nut Butter and Jelly on Whole wheat bread
I know it sounds boring, but you can’t go wrong with nut butter and a little jelly on whole grain bread. Throw in some apple slices and maybe a cheese stick and you have a nice box of things for your child to choose from. While peanut butter is the most popular choice, consider other options like almond butter or cashew butter. Better yet, try sunflower seed butter, especially if there are nut-allergic children at school.
Random Mix: Cheese, Fruit, Nuts, Crackers, Hard Boiled Egg
Choose a few of the above and pack into little containers. I like that my son can pick and choose from these options and get a wider variety of nutrients. Normally he can finish just about everything but what he doesn’t he saves for after school snack. A win-win. Also a great way to save the day when you run out of bread and lack any sort of leftovers on a Monday morning. Just saying.
Small Whole Wheat Bagel w/ Cream Cheese and Carrot Sticks
You might be thinking bagels are unhealthy, and often they are, but smaller size, whole wheat ones are a great choice for a growing kiddo along with a nice thick layer of cream cheese. Couple that with some veggies and you can’t go wrong.
Chips, Dip and Avocado
This is an idea I have seen from other parents. Pack a baggy with tortilla chips or crackers of your choice. Include a Tupperware with salsa, avocado slices, and sour cream or greek yogurt. Maybe even add some shredded cheese. Your child can dip or load up the chips as they desire.
Meat (meatballs, sausage, etc)
Not everything needs to include bread. As long as your child is going to eat within a few hours of arriving at school, packing some meat in a thermos is a great idea. I often make a batch of homemade chicken meatballs which are quick and easy to consume. Alternatively I have also packed leftover chicken or turkey sausages along with fruit and veggies.
Tortilla or Deli Meat Roll Ups
These are great. Take a whole wheat tortilla, spread something on the inside like a dip, nut butter, etc, and then layer on a few slices of deli meat before rolling it all up. Kids love it. Easy to eat and tasty. If you are trying to ditch the bread, use the meat itself as the roll and, after filling it up and rolling, cut into cute, little, bit-sized rounds.
Another hit with my boy. I take whole wheat tortillas (I’ve used gluten free ones as well), layer the inside with cheese, shredded chicken, and black beans, and bake them up into creamy, cheesy triangles of goodness. Include a few apple slices on the side and you are set.
Leftover Fried rice
Leftovers are always great for lunch the next day, but rice dishes are especially easy and portable. This is also a convenient way to get some veggies in at lunch if they aren’t the best at eating them on the side. Just don’t forget to include a fork lest you receive a scolding from your angry, forkless child. Hell hath no fury like a first grader sans fork (who I told could have found a plastic fork in the cafeteria, for future reference).
Sometimes in the evenings I whip up a batch of low-sugar muffins that pack in healthy ingredients like flax, hemp seed, greek yogurt, squash or some other interesting addition that adds flavor without heaping in the sugar. Then I send my boy off with one or two in his lunch along with fruit and some protein like nuts, string cheese, or a hard boiled egg.
I know I said school pizza was yuck, but homemade pizza is yum! I usually get a pre-made, whole grain crust of some sort and then load on healthy ingredients like mushrooms, peppers, broccoli and pepperoni.
Do you ever make quiche at home for a meal? If so, send your little one off to school with the leftovers! Not only does it taste great cold, but it’s packed with protein and fat to keep them going the rest of the day. Make sure to include some veggies either in the quiche itself or on the side.
Take a whole wheat pita, fill with a spread like hummus, and then add some shredded cheese and shredded carrots. Add some grapes and cucumber slices on the side.
Annie’s Whole Wheat Mac n’ Cheese with Peas
Often on the weekends we make up a box of Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese shells. My boys love adding peas which seem to snuggle themselves nicely into the cooked shells. Naturally I make extra so it can transport to school as an easy lunch.
Hopefully at least of few of these ideas sounded appealing. Give them a try and see how they go over. Just remember that at the end of the day you are in control of what your kiddos eat. While transition can take time, take comfort in the fact that you are doing the right thing for your kids. We certainly need to keep fighting for healthy school lunches, but take your child’s diet into your own hands and raise eaters with a palate for color and variety. I promise they will thank you for it.