Creative School Lunches
With childhood obesity on the rise, parents can fight back by packing these simple, healthy meals.
By Noela Hueso 09/01/2010
When retired military officers come out with a report calling school lunches a threat to national security, you know there’s a problem. According to a recent NBC News broadcast, they warned that American kids are gaining too much weight and heading toward being unfit for military service. Pointing to school meals that are typically heavy on fat and carbs and light on fare that’s lean, green and healthy, it’s not too hard to see their reasoning — especially since up to 40 percent of kids’ food intake comes from the meals and snacks they eat at school.
That report is just part of the growing media buzz identifying cafeteria food as a prime culprit in childhood obesity, which has more than tripled over the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether it’s Jamie Oliver, the chef who redesigned menus at a West Virginia elementary school on the ABC summer series Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, or the legislators trying to reform the nation’s school lunch program with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the topic is a hot one.
At the local level, parents of Pasadena Unified School District students should be encouraged: PUSD last year banished soda machines and installed salad bars in many campus cafeterias.
Of course, the best way to take control of your children’s eating habits is to send them to school with food from home. But what to make? If you’re like many parents, you’ve spent many a day haggling over the contents of the lunch box. Kids of all ages can be finicky, not just the 2-year-old whose evolving taste buds and emerging assertion of independence can make for a potent power struggle between parent and child.
Maybe finicky taste buds aren’t the problem — you’re just fresh out of ideas for making something other than a turkey sandwich (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Never fear. With a little creative thinking and a dose of inspiration, you’ll soon be making the most out of your kids’ meals with minimal stress and maximum health benefits.
Fresh is best.
Stay away from prepackaged, processed foods. Yes, they’re time-savers, but they can also be calorie-laden, preservative-filled danger zones. If fresh isn’t always an option, Trader Joe’s, Fresh & Easy and Whole Foods offer an array of minimally processed frozen and packaged foods that are ideal for midday meals.
Keep it simple.
You forgot to make lunches last night and now you’re scrambling to get out the door. Even though the morning rush can be pure madness, healthy meals that are simple can be thrown together in a matter of minutes. Take a cue from the Japanese bento box concept — in which lunch components are prepared and tucked in their own containers or stored side-by-side with dividers — and fill each section with finger foods that go well together, such as:
- Grilled chicken slices, snap peas, peanut sauce, rice crackers and grapes
- Cinnamon pita chips, applesauce, almonds and mission figs
- Cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, carrots and ranch dressing
- Hard-boiled eggs, cheddar cheese sticks, pretzels and trail mix
- Swiss cheese squares, sliced roast beef, spicy golden mustard, Spanish green olives and wheat crackers
- Fruit salad, banana mini-muffins and rice pudding
- Watermelon and cantaloupe slices and strawberries
- Dried fruit: apricots, peaches, mangoes, strawberries, bananas, etc.
- Vegetable chips and salsa
Get the kids involved.
One week, it’s peanut butter and jelly or nothing and the next week it’s on your kids’ No Fly list. Avert pickiness by getting them involved in the lunch-making process. Kids are more likely to eat what’s in their lunch box if they have a hand in choosing and preparing their meals. Simple dishes include:
- Chicken salad
- Egg salad
- Heroes (a.k.a. submarines, grinders and hoagies)
- A wheat bagel with sliced turkey, lettuce and cream cheese
- Wraps of any kind: vegetable, turkey, chicken, etc.
Speaking of peanut butter…
Hailed as one America’s favorite foods, peanut butter is found in approximately 75 percent of American homes. The traditional PB&J sandwich is the most beloved, and if you’re going to go that route, be sure to use 100 percent spreadable fruit, such as the offerings from Sorrell Ridge, Smucker’s and Polaner, instead of sugary preserves. And that goes on whole grain bread, of course. Other satisfying lunchtime combinations include:
- Sliced banana and peanut butter on a wheat tortilla
- Sliced apples and celery with peanut butter in a cup
- Peanut butter and honey on cinnamon raisin bread
My personal favorites are lunches with foreign flair. While younger children need to be introduced to new foods a number of times before they become accustomed to them, older kids should be able to appreciate tastes from around the world. Some of these require a little advance preparation if you’re serving homemade, but they’re worth it. Consider:
- Spanikopita (spinach pie), a traditional Greek dish combining spinach, butter, eggs, parsley, onions and feta cheese, can be made in a big tray or in individual triangles. Trader Joe’s sells a package of eight for $3.99; or try the Food Network’s recipe: foodnetwork.com/recipes/spanakopita-spinach-triangles-or-pie-recipe/index.html.
- Middle Eastern falafels, dolmas, hummus and pita bread can be found at ethnic markets in Pasadena’s Armenian district, such as Vartan’s Family Grocery (1515 E. Washington Blvd.) and Good Foods Market (1864 E. Washington Blvd.). Falafels, made of ground chickpeas and/or fava beans, parsley and spices, are traditionally served in a pita pocket with pickles, lettuce and tahini sauce. They travel more easily when the ingredients are served wrap-style in a flour lavash or tortilla. Buy the mix in a box and prepare at home in less than 30 minutes. Dolmas are marinated grape leaves stuffed with rice and sometimes beef — finger food at its best.
- The Italian stromboli is a rolled baked sandwich with a yeast dough pocket that can contain any number of ingredients, such as provolone and parmesan cheeses, salami, pepperoni, turkey or ham, onions, basil and garlic (try the recipe at fabulousfoods.com/usa/article/137/27931). One stromboli is large enough to serve at least two, so slice it up and serve or freeze the leftovers. Check out the Roma Italian Deli & Grocery at 918 N. Lake Ave. for all your stromboli needs.
- Ingredients for sushi and California rolls can be found at the Korean HK Market in Glendale (831 N. Pacific Ave.), which has a vast array of Asian foods to choose from. Get your short-grain rice, fish and seaweed there to make your own or check out the many varieties offered at Trader Joe’s, Fresh & Easy, Costco and Whole Foods.
- Burritos are always sure things. You can make them as traditional (pinto beans, cheese, shredded chicken or beef) or as fancy as you like. I like mine with everything: lettuce, rice, salsa, corn, beans (black or pinto), guacamole, etc. The only problem is, the more ingredients you put in, the messier it can get — which is why a taco salad makes a good lunchtime alternative. Check out the fresh produce and meat at Super King Market (2260 N. Lincoln Ave., Altadena), where prices are super cheap.
Appeal to their inner vegetarian.
Not every meal has to have meat in it to have protein — or be tasty. Meals prepared with eggs, tofu, beans and grains, such as quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) and Israeli couscous (pearl couscous), are quick and easy.
Last night’s dinner can be today’s lunchtime treat. Be inventive. Leftover grilled chicken can be the lead ingredient in a zesty Thai chicken wrap or Chinese chicken salad. Mix leftover rotini or fusilli with your choice of chopped vegetables, such as broccoli, corn, carrots and onions, and drizzle with Italian dressing for a fresh pasta salad.
Water, water, everywhere.
You’ve heard it before — water is the best beverage. It’s true. Forgo the disposable plastic bottles and pack it in a colorful reusable aluminum bottle. The environment will thank you.