By Catharine L. Kaufman — a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink
Dear Kitchen Shrink:
Yiikes! 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.
Dear Rhonda and Fellow Seekers for Child-Pleasing Recipes:
After years of collecting failing grades for the school lunches and snacks I was preparing for our two picky but otherwise delightful kids, I am now almost always able to anticipate the changes from “Yum!” to “Yuck” and back that their taste buds seem to be undergoing at warp-speed. While you don’t have to be a culinary genius to produce portable meals that won’t be trashed, traded or returned to sender, it helps to be creative and as cunning as a chess master.
Creativity is needed in assembling, skillfully combining and flavoring nutritious ingredients that provide a healthy and balanced diet to growing kids. But not even the most creative chef could ‘close the deal’ without a talent for deception. I’m talking about disguising healthy meals to look, taste and smell like your kids’ favorite foods de jour.
Don’t worry, it’s not rocket science. As a parent you already know that occasional truth spinning is essential to keeping the family and household sane. Fooling picky eaters with nutritious foods dressed up as… well, if not junk, at least less healthy fare, has been part of the parenting manual for generations.
The ABC of successful school lunches is as follows…
(A) Make sure that there is NO junk food in your home—only healthy treats that look, taste, smell and feel (i.e. crunch, slurp, etc.) delicious to young palates. Finding them in lunch boxes or at home after school is among the memories we cherish long after we’ve left the parental nest.
Just two examples:
Halvah, the fabulous sweet made of sesame seeds, packs nutrition, half-crunchy / half-melting mouth-pleasure, heart-healthy fat and a rich flavor. Choose organic halvah, of course. It comes in bars or sliced to order from large ‘logs’– plain or flavored with chocolate, vanilla or berries. Its high calorie content makes it best savored infrequently and in small (but luckily, quite filling) bites.
Organic dark chocolate is another excellent treat that comes in assorted bars—plain, with almonds, hazelnuts, cherries, mint and other hidden delights. Although some foodies disagree, I believe that chocolate keeps and tastes best when stored in the fridge. Bars that contain 55 or more percent of cocoa, pack enough antioxidants to keep those pesky free radicals in check.
(B) Take your kid(s) shopping for a really cool lunchbox. Trust me, the changeups from Sponge Bob to Hello Kitty to Dora the Explorer and on, can be dizzying. There is no way you can keep up with what’s in or out In kid-world on your own.
(C) Put together a line of “Lunchables,” complete with organic ingredients and ideas about how to disguise the meals to fit each child’s preferences. (Yes, organics are more than well worth the tiny (if any) difference in prices—which are often offset by savings in medical bills and missed school days.) Create a little “School Lunch Cookbook” for yourself, with at least enough recipes and snack combos for 10 school days—and maybe even some family picnics. Add to these whatever new ideas pop into your mind or you come across in supermarkets and bookstores.
(D) Buy a set of lidded containers in various shapes and sizes, as well as assorted ice- packs that keep foods cold.
(E) Appoint your kid(s) sous chef(s) and have a brainstorming session about the nightly (after-homework) preparation of school lunches. Get commitments for the evening prep times and morning assembling-and-pack-time each person will dedicate to making these truly ‘gourmet meals.’
(F) Offer each child the freedom to fill one of the containers with his/her favorite (preferably healthy, or at least not too junky) munchies—but reserve the right to supervise, negotiate and if necessary, veto some choices. Just remember to pick your battles and don’t freak out if a kid insists on buying one or two junk snacks from the school vending machine “because all the kids have them.” But insist on no more than one such purchase a week.
(G) Allow kids to choose the recipes and snacks they want for any given day from your “School Lunch Cookbook.” (Be a little flexible about occasional additions, subtractions or changes.)
(H) Include in the lunchbox some wet wipes for their hands and faces (we can always hope). Optional: Depending upon each child’s tolerance for geekiness, you could also slip in a little note from time to time, with a joke, funny picture, short poem or not too gushy expression of appreciation for something well done.
(I) Now for the food itself—all organic is highly recommended:
• The first cardinal rule is to pack at least one fruit or veggie—and I do NOT mean a fruit roll-up or package of ketchup. Preferably something with vivid colors, such as blueberries, dark grapes, watermelon balls, carrots and/or strips of colorful (red, yellow, orange or green) peppers. Kids love crunchy foods, so try strips of Persian cucumbers, jicama, Daikon radish or a stalk or two of celery. Those with a sweet tooth will love sugar snap peas, cubed apples (organic and WITH their skin on), sliced peaches, nectarines, plums and bananas.
IMPORTANT to remember that since NON-organic apples have the most concentrated amounts of pesticides (second only to peaches), only the skin of organic apples should be consumed.
• Most youngsters love to season and dip. So pack a small covered container of savory (organic) vinaigrette or creamy homemade salad dressing alongside a bag containing strips of carrots, peppers, celery, radish and other veggies. (My kids like to concoct a blend of salt, garlic, cayenne and chili powder that they put into a mini shaker and sprinkle on their veggie sticks. This habit has so far kept them from becoming addicted to salty potato or corn chips.) For dessert, pour organic yogurt (a natural probiotic that promotes intestinal health) into another covered container. You may choose yogurt that is plain or sweetened with a few drops of vanilla or berry-flavored syrup. Pair it with a baggie of assorted fruit chunks—preferably locally grown and in season. A few teaspoons of dark (organic) chocolate syrup also makes a good dip for fruits.
• For variety, you may pack a Three-Bean-and-Lentil Salad with minced red onions and garlic, marinated overnight in a homemade vinaigrette. Nothing like legumes to fuel the human engine and provide a daily dose of fiber, protein, iron, magnesium and selenium. Or surprise them with sliced avocado—unless they prefer it to be mashed into savory guacamole. Either way, this green powerhouse fires up the student body and brain with lots of Vitamin C, potassium and carotene for the eyes.
• Eggs, a great source of protein and Vitamin B12, are irresistible to those who like them devilled, hard-boiled or prepared as a sandwich-ready salad.
• Nut butters are another family of healthy spreads. They are loaded with protein, fiber, Vitamin E, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. Organic almond butter—smooth or chunky style–as well as its walnut and hazelnut counterparts, have been found to be safer and more nutritious than peanut butter. The latter seems to trigger allergic reactions in a growing number of people. This has caused it to be banned by some airlines, schools and other public places.
• Surprise young taste buds with ethnic foods. Plant a miniature Italian flag in your Monday foccacia pizza, accompanied by a green salad and home-baked biscotti (sans transfats). Fly a tiny blue-and-white Greek banner over Tuesday’s pita and hummus with a Greek salad and a baklava dessert. On Wednesday pin the Mexican flag on a fiesta of veggie quesadillas, guacamole and salsa. Satisfy your youngsters’ yen for Asian flavors on Thursday, with their self-made brown rice-avocado-and-smoked-salmon sushi (click on our FreeRangeClub video instructions for “Healthy Sushi” in the column to your left); or with a Chinese chicken salad accompanied by chocolate-dipped fortune cookies—decorated with the appropriate national colors. End your international week with a Yankee Doodle Friday featuring an almond butter and jam sandwich, baby carrots and an apple oatmeal bar.
• To score some brownie points with your young ones, include a yummy treat like apricot squares or banana bread in their lunch boxes. Mold them into funky shapes with the help of cookie-cutters. Williams-Sonoma has really cool ones. They come in shapes of sea critters, trains, planes, and some that please young fashionistas—such as stiletto-heeled shoes, designer sunglasses and even a tiara.
• Don’t forget that active kids need to be kept well hydrated. Choose healthy drinks by staying away from sodas, and keep them affordable by staying away from over-priced imported brands or flavored designer waters. Instead, keep tabs on, and pack the best quality, plain spring water you can find. Our research shows Whole Foods’ “365 Spring Water” as being one of the best choices—at this time. Make a refillable, leak-proof, GLASS bottle part of your kid’s lunchbox. Distilled H2O is fine, too, on condition that you doctor it with a knife-tip-worth sprinkling of organic electrolytes. Small, inexpensive packets of electrolyte powders in different fruit flavors are available at Whole Foods. For variety and snob appeal, infuse spring water with a splash of organic juice and let your status-conscious teenager have fun pretending it’s the designer favorite of a hot celebrity.
To help you think outside the lunchbox, here is a pizza salad with Italian vinaigrette. It gets an “A” in my cookbook.
Kid-Friendly Pizza Salad (preferably with organic ingredients)
1 Romaine heart, torn in bite-size pieces
1 Roma tomato, diced
Handful of black olives, pitted and sliced
Garlic whole-wheat croutons
2 ounces of shredded mozzarella cheese
1 Italian sausage (chicken), cooked and sliced
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
¼ 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 lunchbox container. Put the croutons and dressing in separate containers. Add the dressing and croutons just before digging in.
If you’d like to chew the fat, talk turkey or beef about something, e-mail me directly to [email protected]
Your comments about this and other topics are, of course, always welcomed at [email protected]