Dear Kitchen Shrink:
Yikes! I really need a refresher course on school lunches because last year I earned a D+. My son's friends said his lunches sucked so bad the trash can wouldn't even trade with him. Any advice for preparing healthy and fun lunches would be much appreciated.
– Rhonda Rappoport
For starters, let them pick out a cool looking lunchbox – last year's Sponge Bob is this year's square pants. Buy an array of lidded containers and design your own organic version of "Lunchables." Have your kids be the sous chefs and fill the containers with their faves so long as you supervise. Use an ice pack to keep things cold, and throw in some wet wipes so they can wash their hands and refresh their faces. And if it's not too geeky, slip a little "love note" inside.
As for the food part, the first cardinal rule - pack at least one fruit or veggie, and I don't mean a fruit roll-up or package of ketchup. Something colorful like blueberries, grapes or watermelon balls would work. How about a newbie on the block like crunchy Persian cucumbers, jicama strips, sugar snap peas, pluots or whatever they find "least gross"? Most kids love to season and dip so include something sweet for the fruit (organic yogurt, a natural probiotic that promotes intestinal health, is a good sweet option), and savory for the veggies (concoct a blend of salt, garlic, cayenne and chili powder and sprinkle away).
Also pack foods to fuel their engines like beans or legumes, which are loaded with fiber, protein, iron, magnesium and selenium. Avocados can be cleverly disguised as guacamole - a powerhouse of Vitamin C, potassium and carotene for the eyes. Eggs, a great protein-Vitamin B12 source, are all they're cracked up to be whether devilled, hard-boiled or made into a salad sandwich.
Nut butters are a healthy and hearty protein. Since peanut butter is persona non grata in many schools, try almond, walnut or cocoa hazelnut butters loaded with fiber, Vitamin E, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids.
To gain some brownie points, include a yummy treat like apricot squares or banana bread in funky shapes. Williams-Sonoma has the coolest cookie cutters of sea critters, trains and planes, and the fashionista series with stilettos, sunglasses and a tiara.
To wash it all down and keep them hydrated, a bottle of electrolyte water is your best bet. Or make your own designer waters by infusing them with splashes of fruit, mint or vanilla flavors. You can use juices, concentrates, extracts or a few drops of organic syrup.
Finally, so those young taste buds don't get bored, try a menu plan using fun ethnic themes for different days of the week. On Mediterranean Mondays do pita and hummus with a Greek salad. On Tuesdays, make an Italian feast of foccacia pizzas, a green salad and biscotti. Pack a Mexican fiesta of veggie quesadillas, guacamole and salsa on Wednesdays. Have a yen for Asian on Thursdays with a Chinese chicken salad and a chocolate dipped fortune cookie. On Yankee Doodle Fridays pack an almond butter and jam sandwich, baby carrots and an apple oatmeal bar.
The idea is to think outside the lunchbox. This pizza salad with Italian vinaigrette gets an "A" in my cookbook.
Kid-Friendly Pizza Salad
- 1 Romaine heart, torn in bite-size pieces
- 1 Roma tomato, diced
- Handful of black olives, sliced
- Garlic whole wheat croutons
- 2 ounces of shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 Italian sausage (chicken), cooked and sliced
- 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
- Salt and black pepper to taste
Whisk the ingredients in a bowl. Refrigerate in a covered container.
In a mixing bowl, toss the salad ingredients, except the croutons. Transfer to a portable container. Put the croutons and dressing in separate containers. Add the dressing and croutons just before digging in.