A School Lunch Remix (Steph)
I was almost finished with a perfectly fine “kids school lunch blog”. It was packed with exactly what you would expect, beginning with some lighthearted humor about the excuses I make when I am just too exhausted to do one more thing so I send my kids to school to purchase lunch instead of equipping them with health for their day. It then launched into some statistical rant about grams of sugar along with the quality of meat in school lunches and finally ended with some very wise (if I do say so myself) advice for all you parents out there. But it felt tired and boring, and I didn’t even want to reread it to edit it. The truth is though, you don’t need all those facts; you already know them. We both know that school lunches rank right up there with fast food – garbage! I don’t need to remind you about the sugar grams or preservatives in a school lunch because you are well aware, just like you also know the donuts at the soccer game are full of sugar and preservatives. Actually I’d wager to say the only reason we buy school lunches for our children is because of convenience, plain and simple.
Actually what I really want to say to all of you is I AM TIRED! Tired of battling with my kids, tired of having to explain why our food choices and options are different at our house than at their friends, tired of the sugar highs and lows of my 7 year old. I’m weary of their constant nagging about snacks and begging at the grocery store. I am fed up with working so hard to feed them right just to turn around and see them shoving their faces with birthday cake and walking out of the party with a bag full of candy. I’m sick of not being the fun mom but rather the “heath freak”. I’m tired of hearing how “Johnny gets this in his lunch” and “Janie gets this in her lunch” and “Why is my bread so brown and my smoothies so green?” I’m tired of breakfast dishes, half eaten dinners and too many trips to the store. I’m exhausted just trying to keep these kids fed and happy.
So maybe just once a day, I don’t have to think about it. I’ll just send them off, close my eyes and pretend that they aren’t eating foot-long hotdogs, mini corndogs, pancakes with syrup and sausage. I know that school lunches are nasty, full of preservatives and are mostly two food groups, sugar and fat, but if I send them off with a healthy morning school snack, a quick hug, and block out mental pictures of greasy hotdogs, crusty chicken nuggets and white bread, I can almost live with myself. But then there is the age old question: If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a sound. If Easton eats a foot-long hotdog at lunch and I didn’t see it, did it really happen?…Yes, it did, and I may be able to block it out, but his little body cannot. So I press on, tired or not, and I know how important of a choice it is to feed our kids the right foods.
It’s not that I don’t think kids should ever get the chance to just eat whatever they want because I do think there is a time and a place for everything. (Alright Mary Ellen, get ready to wince.) A baseball game or 4th of July bbq is a great place for a hot dog, not a random Tuesday in the lunch room. By the same token, a Sunday of baking with my kids is a great time for a chocolate chip cookie, as well as a birthday party is a great time for a small slice of cake. Lunchtime and after school time are not classified as special occasions and therefore should not be celebrated with a sugary treat.
Okay, so I also know that some people don’t buy into this. They think, “We grew up on this crap; just relax lady!” But what they don’t understand is how much more prevalent these crappy food choices are for our kids.
Track and Pack
I want every parent who is reading this blog to do an experiment: keep a food journal for your kids for one week, tracking to see what they are really eating. The “here and there” snacks, sweets, and fast food add up to one big habit and aren’t the exceptions anymore: they are the rule. At the end of the week, look at your list and then ask yourself a few questions:
- What did my child eat that was alive? A life giving, nutrient rich plant source? (Remember, processed fruit and canned veggies don’t count!) Your child needs these nutrient rich foods to grow, learn and flourish in life.
- How many grams of sugar did he/she eat daily from packaged food or beverages? I recommend taking a look at this website: http://www.sugarstacks.com/
- How many things that my child ate come from the perimeter of the grocery store? The real food in the grocery store is around the edges of the store. This rings true for all stores, even our beloved healthy grocery stores. Stick to the outside aisles for the majority of your purchases. By the way, you will save money this way too.
- What are some simple changes I can make the next week to add more fruits and veggies and cut down on sugar?
After you have tracked your kiddos’ eating habits for a week, then pack them a lunch every school day for 20 days – one month. Now some of you may already be doing this with ease and that is great. (You can skip ahead to the awesome muffin recipes at the bottom of the page)
Now I’ll be the first to admit, I hate packing school lunches. In fact, last year my son had school lunch more than he brought lunch from home. Gasp! Why, you may ask, would someone from The Kitchen Remix do something so unhealthy in the first place?? Let me list the reasons that school lunch lures me (and millions of other parents a year), and then I’ll share some changes I made this year to fight my urge to cave and send my children off without proper nutrients in hand.
1. Already cook a lot!- Seriously, meal preparation consumes much of my time, and I’m fine with that since everything is healthy. My son Easton even tells his friends, “My mom is a health freak.” My kids don’t bat an eyelash at a green smoothie in the morning (sometimes their afternoon snack as well), fresh fruit after school or lentil soup for dinner (alright, Easton is starting to hassle me about the lentils.) We hardly ever hit fast food, and the best I have for sweets in the house is possibly a handful of chocolate chips in the freezer. I guess I figure that one little school lunch meal is like a treat for them (probably not the most logical reason).
2. Wasted Food – I would be so much more excited to pack lunch if I didn’t see the “leftovers” in the lunch box/bag. There is nothing more frustrating than spending your evening or early morning preparing a fantastic lunch just to see it all return at 3 p.m. hot and/or soggy. I feel deflated, like I wasted food, time, and money! Then I become concerned about how my sweet little “wasters” even concentrated at all with just a few pieces of Pirates booty and a few slices of oranges to sustain them.
3. Bad Timing – I am not thinking about lunch at 9 p.m. or 6 a.m. I have no ideas or motivation for lunch when I am still cleaning up dinner or making breakfast.
4. Unprepared – There are those days when I just don’t have the groceries, the containers or the time to throw together a lunch for 3 kids. Those are the times when I think to myself, “You know, I can pay a few dollars and someone does this for me.” (This, by the way, is also why we sometimes eat out more than we should.)
So…what did I do differently this year to make sure my kids got to school with a healthy lunch, and, at the same time, that I didn’t fall back into the excuses and the routine of hot lunch?
When school started, I set out with a plan…a plan that has been working so I can boldly say that I am here to rescue you from hot lunch and let you keep your sanity. What I found, as I started to develop my ideas, was that the last thing I needed was more recipe ideas or cute ways to pack the kids’ lunch. I quit googling “healthy lunch box options for kids” and got back to the basics.
Pack what your kids like:
Back in early August, the kids and I sat down with a blank piece of paper and mapped out a lunch plan. I drew 5 boxes on the sheet of paper (think bento box style) and labeled each box: fruit or veggie, sides, drinks, main dish, a.m. school snack (which is encouraged in our school). Then each child took turns filling out the boxes. What I had in the end was a weekly lunch grocery list and a map to pack a balanced lunch. I put the paper onto a fridge magnetic board right next to my grocery list. Now I know what to get at the store to make lunches they will eat. Remember to keep it simple. Save your creativity for an awesome knitting project or a crafty Christmas idea. You don’t have to make your lunches awesome – you are not getting a grade. My kids have 5 main dishes they rotate. To be honest, they would be happy with Sunbutter and jelly every day. The best part is they picked out the food so they don’t get to complain.
Make sure you have the food:
Every week, I make sure my lunch list makes it on my grocery list and (since I have three children) that I have enough supplies for 15 lunches. I also make sure I am stacked up on snacks. My kids are in charge of getting their own snacks for school, and I keep them in a snack drawer. If I get bars or something that comes in a box, I ditch the box and toss the bars in the drawer so they can just grab and go. I also pack snack bags of pretzels, popcorn, or pumpkin seeds and throw those in the drawer as well.
Once a week I try to make a batch of muffins or something along those lines. Plan a time to bake ahead; for example, pick a Sunday and bake some muffins with your child. Double or triple the recipe and freeze the extras for a quick grab when packing lunches.
Those reusable storage containers really are so helpful, but they have to be well designed. I was excited when Goodbyn offered to let us try their storage containers for this blog and was blown away by these products. They are so practical and include a variety of sizes and containers from which to choose. The lids are easy for my kids to take off and put on, and they are spill-proof. Ironically, I received the Goodbyn containers the same day my oldest came home with a yogurt disaster in his old Bento box. I have used the Goodbyn for dips, syrup (packed my kids homemade whole grain waffles one day) and yogurt and haven’t had a leak. Goodbyn, thanks for letting us try your products. They exceeded our expectations and will be a permanent item in my household! You can get your Goodbyn products at www.goodbyn.com
Keep it Consistent:
Have three-five main dish ideas and a handful of side and fruit veggie options and just rotate. Most kids enjoy the routine. We are the ones who get bored with it, not them. This will make the lunch packing process easy to work into your life.
Make sure you go through your children’s lunch boxes as soon as they get home. Get them cleaned out and the containers in the dishwasher so you can start the next morning fresh. Pick a time to prepare lunches and stick to it. Get the kids involved in this process as well. My kids like to put in their orders. I’m not talking short order cook here (remember, these lunches are simple), but my kids will fill out their request on a pad like they are in a restaurant. It’s just a way to have fun with it (and practice writing/spelling at the same time.)
Do the Unexpected:
To keep my kids happy, I will sometimes surprise them with a square of chocolate, a homemade cookie or chocolate muffin. I will also occasionally let them have a hot lunch day. This usually coincides when I am a day behind on grocery shopping, but (of course) I don’t let them know that!
Now I know it is November and some may think this is a little late. But I did wait to publish this for several reasons. First, I wanted to make sure these simple tips would really help you, so I became the “pilot test” for them, and I’m happy to say “yes”, they are working for my family. Also, I knew this is the time of the school year when you really need this blog. By now, I’m sure packing lunches has become frustrating, dull or non-existent. I think it is time to give the healthy lunches another shot. If you have slipped into a school lunch routine, make this the week you pack lunches. Do this one healthy change for your family.
Here is what what my kids decided for their lunch plan:
Sunbutter and Jelly Sandwich
“Refried” bean and cheese Quesadillas (I smash up pinto beans to make the “refried beans”
Make your own” lunchables”
“Fun on the Run”- this is a play off a hot lunch option that includes a muffin or whole grain bagel as the main dish
Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies
Fruits or Veggies (these vary by season)
Ants on a log
Z Clif Bars
Squeezie Apple Sauce
Z Fruit Twist
Homemade mini muffins
I’ve included a few muffin recipes so you can make your own “Fun on the Run.” Your kids are going to love these muffins! Enjoy!
Vegan Banana Oat Muffins
1 cup whole wheat flour (if you are gluten free, substitute with flour of your choice)
1/2 cup oat flour
1 cup Old Fashioned Oats
1/4 cup raw sugar
4tsp. baking power
1Tbls. Chia Seeds
3Tbls. and 3/4 cup Almond Milk
1/3 cup liquified coconut oil
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup mashed bananas
4-5 whole pitted dates
1. Combine Chia Seeds and 3 Tbls. almond milk in small bowl, stir and set aside for 10 minutes.
2. Combine flours, oats, sugar and baking powder.
3. Set oven to 400 degrees.
4. Combine chia seed mixture, remaining almond milk, oil, vanilla, and dates by placing them into a blender or food processor. Mix together, add bananas and blend till smooth. Add mixture to dry ingredients and stir only till mixed.
5. Put in muffin tins and bake @ 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes.
Chocolate Pumpkin Muffins
1 package Organic Chocolate or Devil Food Cake mix
1 can or box of pumpkin
Mix cake mix and pumpkin together. Put in muffin tins and bake according to box directions (for cupcakes)
Seriously, they are that easy and so delicious. I like to make these as mini muffins. Since they have more sugar than the above banana muffins, these work better as a treat.
The reusable containers used in the below pictures were provided by our friends at Goodbyn. I love these containers and wouldn’t want to do lunch without them. As we start packing our lunch every day, we must remember the environmental impact of disposable sandwich bags and juice boxes. Reusable containers make sense, and Goodbyn products are such a great choice since they are durable, stylish, have easy-to-maneuver lids, and include sizes and combinations that are practical. Get everything you need at www.goodbyn.com.
Crinkle cut carrots and cucumbers with ranch dip and cheddar bunnies with raw pumpkin seeds.
Sunbutter and Jelly with frozen mango chunks (these thaw out by lunch and I always pack a toothpick with them for easy snagging.
Sunbutter and jelly, grape tomatoes with mozzarella chunks, pepper strips and whole grain crackers. Don’t forget the ranch dip in Goodbyn’s Leak Proof Dipper!
Nitrate free Ham and Mozzarella on whole wheat with pineapple and blueberries.