Studies now show that the food our kids consume isn’t just fuel to give them energy. The choices that students (or their parents) make affect concentration, behavior, and overall health too. With “childhood obesity” becoming a hot topic of conversation as it continues to affect more of our children, we all need to consider what we’re putting in our kids’ lunches and how it will affect them. Take advantage of any opportunities you have to teach them to eat better but monitor the choices they make. Too much freedom in the lunch room can often yield less than nutritious consequences.
When I first began to consider my school lunches in junior high, I saw them as a “tide-me-over until dinner-time” option. I didn’t worry about the choices I made because I was more concerned with the “real meals” of breakfast and dinner. After all, everyone knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? Dinner (or supper) was a family meal around the table in my house (unless our schedule got carried away, as usual). Lunch, however, often came in a brown paper bag with lots of disposable pieces, only supporting my mental picture that lunch was, after all, a throw away meal.
As a mother, I now go out of my way to make certain that my family has options that include fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, and whole grains. Though initially this can seem a little challenging, with practice and routine this does get easier and is worth the investment.
The USDA’s recommended daily allowances vary according to each individual. This is important to know, since the requirements for children can vary greatly from adults’. Start teaching your kids now to read labels and pay attention to what is going into their body. Preservatives like nitrates are often found in deli meats, so be certain that you read the label and that you are fully aware of what they contain. Try to avoid these ingredients whenever possible. Also watch your sodium intake since these foods can be heavily salted.
Excellent sources: nitrate-free deli meat, quinoa, eggs, cheese, yogurt.
Eat whole grains whenever possible. You will really need to pay attention to the labels with this–many products that call themselves “whole wheat” have refined flour instead of whole wheat flour listed as the primary ingredient. Wheat tortillas* are an excellent example; I normally have to make them myself or go to the health food stores to find them with whole grain flour. Crackers are also normally full of simple carbohydrates, but with careful scrutiny you can find whole grain crackers too.
Excellent sources: whole grain crackers, rye crackers, stone ground wheat crackers, soaked oats, whole wheat tortillas, whole wheat pitas, whole wheat bread (Ezekiel bread is exceptionally healthy but may be an acquired taste for some kids).
If your kids are very picky, work on this. I recommend reading Green Eggs and Ham with them. In the meantime, have them help choose fresh options from the produce department. Encourage them to try new flavors, but also try to guide them with things that are at the peak of their season for best flavor. Dips can be an excellent source of encouragement for kids that think they just don’t want to try something new. Create your own healthier dips by combining plain yogurt and herbs to dip veggies in, or yogurt and honey for fruit. Arranging the fruit/veggies on a skewer as a kebab can also work wonders at encouraging kids to eat. If you do this, trim off the sharp point on the skewer…you don’t want lunch to end up dangerous!
Quinoa: Although not a common item in most kitchens, you can find Quinoa in your local health food store throughout the year. Quinoa is a species of Goosefoot, which is grown primarily for its edible seeds. Although it is widely viewed as a grain, it is actually closely related to spinach, beets and Swiss chard. When cooked, it has a creamy, slightly crunchy texture with a nutty flavor.
One of the most popular “snacks” in Hawaii bears testimony to the heavy Chinese influence the islands are under. Manapua—or meat filled buns—can be found in bakeries, restaurants, and convenience stores all over the islands. Just like the Chinese dish Char Sui Bao, each sweet bun is traditionally filled with a scoop of char sui pork or other barbequed meat. There are even bakeries that thrive by producing this one specialty. It is thought the name comes from the Hawaiian words for cake (mea’ono) and pork (pua’a).
In addition to the pork, you can also find chicken curry, vegetable, red bean, and other filling options. They are prepared both steamed and baked. The convenience and flavor have made these a favorite and they are perfect as an alternative to a sandwich in your lunch or as a fun appetizer for a luau. I like to make these with the sweet dough recipe below, but if you are in a hurry, you can use frozen dinner roll dough or canned rolls from the refrigerator section.
I have always loved picnics. There is just something that cannot be beat about dining outdoors. This is probably why I am such a huge fan of camping—picnics, three meals a day! As we traveled on our family vacation last week, we were very lucky to visit what is probably one of the most beautiful picnic destinations in the world, Shackleford Banks, NC. This quaint barrier island in North Carolina is accessible only by boat, but during good weather, hundreds of people—like us—travel there to enjoy the water, sand, sun, and wild ponies.
The “ponies” that roam the island came to live there about 400 years ago from the shipwrecks of Spanish explorers. They occupy the small island between the sound and ocean, wandering the dunes and doing their best to ignore the intruders. Sometimes you have to go looking for them, but we were lucky to have a pair wander near our picnic spot.
Of course, no trip to a deserted island is complete without nourishment. The lack of provisions on the island made it necessary that the picnic include the essentials and be relatively mess free. (There are no buildings on the island, not to mention electricity, running water, or even garbage receptacles. This is truly a place where you must bring all that you need and leave no trace when you go. Our group was rather large—9 hungry boaters—so we packed generously for the adventure. Here are a few tips that were helpful when I packed our lunch. I hope they are helpful for you too!
1. Instead of a bunch of smaller sandwiches make one big one! I like to buy dinner rolls that are attached (Hawaiian rolls are our favorite, but any large, flat bread will do). Instead of separating, cutting in half, assembling and wrapping the sandwiches individually, cut the whole loaf in half then add fillings, re-assemble, place on the tray the bread came packed in, then carefully cut into individual sandwiches. Use toothpicks, if needed, to hold it all together. This one giant sandwich is easier to pack in your cooler and eliminates wasting any packaging since you can use the same tray and bag your bread came in.
2. For fillers, avoid things that can make your sandwich soggy, like tomatoes and pickles. Instead, try serving the sandwiches with a side pick that has a chunk of cheese, cherry tomato, sweet gherkin pickle and olive of your choice. These are quick and easy to make, can be changed to suit your preference, and diners can easily grab one to eat what they like with their sandwich.
3. And finally, spread them all the same. Instead of asking who likes what, I prefer to keep it simple and only offer one option. It is, however, a happy compromise: a tsp of sweet pickle relish, a tablespoon of yellow mustard, a tablespoon of ketchup, and 1/4 cup mayonnaise. Mix it all together and spread as needed on your bread, then add toppings. For this picnic, we enjoyed spiral sliced ham and baby field greens with this topping; and for the Action News Morning Show today, I used a different meat—honey baked ham and turkey.
Sliders—or mini hamburgers—have become very popular lately. Though traditionally made with beef or bison this version, made with ahi, is healthier and a favorite in my home. Since these are made with fish, we like to call them Splashers. They would be an excellent option for your cookout or any other time you want a delicious sandwich that is sure to please a crowd.