Lunch-ENABLE: you can pack healthy options for your school kids!

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The kids are back to school and there’s a meal you have to send with them – every day.  But you don’t want to depend on pre-packaged ‘foods’, snack bags, chips, and sodium-infused ready-mades – so here are some options to help you provide variety without undue stress at the start of your weekday!
First, I highly recommend that you have a good lunch-packing system.  There are a lot of great lunch container sets out there with different sizes and shapes for your favorite foods.  We use and love the stackable, modular, Rubbermaid ones – they come with a matching icepack.  

Rubbermaid stackable lunch boxes

Get a couple of units so you can mix and match lids and always have a cold pack in the freezer.  Reusable containers allow for a lot of flexibility in what you want to serve them and are more environmentally friendly than sandwich bags.  You can get insulated lunch bags – make sure your containers fit them appropriately – or an old-fashioned lunch box.

If you are strongly anti-plastic, you still have several options: you can buy or make beeswax-infused wrapping cloths, use wax paper/butcher’s paper/brown paper, and combine with a thermos and small screw-top sturdy glass pots for non-‘dry’ foods.  You can sew your own cloth lunch sack from washable canvas or insulated fabric (the padded, quilted material sold for making oven mitts, for example) with the advantage of being able to personalize it. 

beeswrap – wax-infused wrapping cloths

Now, what to put in?  Of course, that’ll depend on what your child will eat and enjoy, and you know best what that is.  I encourage mine to try new things, and she’s not a fussy eater and has no allergies…. so I’ll go with a broader range here and you can customize to fit your child’s preferences and needs.

PROTEIN:   a lot of lunch meats are high in sodium and preservatives.  The heavily processed ones like baloney and ‘loaf’ should be avoided completely…but there are healthier options, branded and otherwise.  My local butcher has GOOD lunch meats – real sliced roast beef and real sliced ham – the flavour is unbelievable. Otherwise, take a day to cook a large roast/ ham/turkey breast from scratch, cool thoroughly and slice with electric slicer, freeze in small portions in sandwich bags. You can fit all three in the oven together and save cooking energy and your time. Lunch meats for the next three months! Also, there is nothing wrong with a piece / chunks of the leftover meat from last night’s dinner: cube the chicken breast, take the BBQ sauce skin off the left-over chicken leg, slice thin strips of a pork chop, or put in some cooked and cooled peameal bacon. Cold meatballs or mini hamburgers are often quite acceptable, with the trimmings.  Once in a while, serve thin slices of sausage.

Don’t forget boiled eggs as a good protein.  Oh, and soy ‘nut’ butter instead of the banned peanut butter – it even comes with little stickers on the back of the label for your kid’s lunch to ensure the teacher and other kids know it’s the safe stuff!   Fish – we have it frequently but a lot of North American kids won’t even touch canned tuna.   If yours is the happy exception, nothing wrong with tuna salad, or chunks of albacore!  Cold shrimp, tossed with just a little bit of cocktail sauce (tone it down with a shot of ketchup or tomato paste) are delectable on hot days.   Fish tacos?

Cheese, glorious cheese.  It deserves a paragraph all to itself.  Don’t limit yourselves to golden cheddar, lovely as it is.  Anything you’ve got in the house for yourself, except maybe that expensive imported Blue from Germany, you can cut a wedge/sticks/chunks off and package for the kids.  There, done.  Also – cream cheese, cottage cheese, quark, and so on!

Fruit and cheese! Still life by Bard Judith for the Santharian Dream

VEG & FRUIT:  Veggies, veggies, and fruit! Most come in great colours and neat sizes. Take some prep time to wash and slice, bag or put in little lunch containers and you can grab and go for a week. Green grapes, red grapes, a single mandarin in its peel, banana ditto, two rambutan (amazing chilled) or dragonfruit cubed and frozen hard the night before (it’s like ice-cream!), mixed dried fruit for a change. Cut apples, of course (wash quickly in a cup of water with a bit of lemon juice if you want to delay discolouration).  Chunked pineapple. Berries are amazing: strawberries and blueberries work the best and hold up under packing.   Applesauce is not to be scorned, or good quality fruit cups if you are out of fresh fruit. Sliced yellow and green zucchini, snow peas, baby carrots, celery, broccoli florets, with their favorite salad dressing/dip. Cherry tomatoes – sprinkle salt and pepper over after washing and they are good to go. We always have a big tub of baby spinach around and put it into every savory sandwich we make, or just drop a few leaves in next the cut veggies to dip and eat out of hand.
 
STARCH/GRAINS:  Mix it up! Bread, buns, fajitas, tortillas, bagels are all fairly acceptable to North American kids.   Corn bread.  Homemade biscuits, scones, pretzels.   Pumpernickel (in strips, with homemade spinach dip, mmmmm…)   Put in dry ramen noodles (leave out the salty and processed ‘flavour’ packet!) as a snack/starch. Crackers once in a while, especially if they aren’t big eaters at lunch and don’t need a filling slab of bread. There are all sorts of commercial crackers from goldfish to artisanal whole grain, so you needn’t sacrifice nutrition, either.

Get bold and make rice balls – there are all sorts of packaged mixes to flavour them in any Asian supermarket/import store. While I’m thinking about it, most kids take to dried seaweed pretty easily – sold in the sushi section of your supermarket, probably right next to the panko crumbs or the soy sauce. It comes in large sheets AND in individual packages about 3×2 inches, perfect for wrapping bites of meat and rice or just snacking on. Avoid the wasabi and perilla flavours.   OK, rice, what else? Maybe couscous if they’ve had it at home before, stellini with some sort of sauce… cold pasta salad… you get the idea!  Potato chips don’t have to be evil if you pick an organic brand, and there are other vegetable chips available that are delicious – taro, parsnip, etc.

SOUPS/SAUCES:  Most Asian lunches (yeah, we spent years in South Korea, ok?) include soup, so don’t limit yourself to dry lunches. You can send a thermos of hot soup or try some chilled broths like chicken or gazpacho. They also often include a sauce, so think outside the (lunch)box and add in things like a little container of hoisin for dipping that sliced pork chop, ketchup for the potato chips, soy with the rice balls, etc. Again, lunch containers have a lot of different options these days, and if you investigate the bento box fad – you needn’t go whole hog on the making-it-a-work-of-art – you’ll find many great ideas plus extra containers to make them possible.
 
TREAT:  For ‘dessert’ or the extra ‘treat’, lots of little things suggest themselves.  I should note here that this is optional, but it helps my child to consider fruit as an essential rather than a treat!   Make your own pudding in the sealable lunch containers.  Yoghurt and granola ditto. Homemade cookies or date bars – something sturdy and healthy. A couple of squares of dark chocolate. A piece of candied ginger..mmm, freshens the breath and helps digestion, too!  A chewable mint, like Mentos.  I buy the Halloween boxes in the fall and stick them in the freezer so once in a while I can drop in a treat-size choco bar.

a site that contains a collection of ‘love’ fortune cookie messages you could just print off, cut apart, and tuck into the lunch bag!

Last – this isn’t food for the body, but rather the soul – consider a little note in the lunch box.  A doodle on the outside of the paper bag, a calendar day torn off a mini inspirational desk calendar, a printed slip that looks like a fortune cookie… you can prepare your ‘love notes’ a month in advance and have them ready to go in a bag on the side of the fridge or tucked in with the lunch containers.   Something that says to your child that she’s loved, that he’s cared about, that they can take in along with the food they are eating and have it strengthen their spirit!

Much love to you as you consider how best to feed your darlings – you are ‘lunch-ABLE’ to do this!

Judy

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