As a chef and a dad, I’m always looking for opportunities to teach my sons about healthy eating choices and food preparation. I plan meals for them and make new dishes that I want to introduce. As school starts, lunch time provides an opportunity for them to put into practice what I’ve been teaching at home. Dad isn't standing at the lunch counter, so the choices are up to them.
School lunches have been the brunt of jokes for as long as kids have been lining up with plastic trays. Maryland has made great strides in promoting healthy eating with the Farm to School program which helps bring more Maryland-grown products to school lunch rooms. The August/September lunch calendar for Anne Arundel County schools promotes a variety of steamed and fresh vegetables, whole grain breads, fresh fruits and tossed salads.
But if your child prefers to bring lunch from home, you have to find a way to make it healthy and ensure your child will eat it. Here are ten tips to plan and execute a week of healthy, hassle-free school lunches:
1. Experiment with new things. Before you pack it in the lunch box, conduct a taste test at home to see if your new item passes the picky-palate test. Try chips made from dehydrated fruits and vegetables in place of greasy potato chips. Greek yogurt has more protein than regular yogurt and is now available in fruit flavors at local markets.
2. A little water goes a long way. Juice pouches and boxes add empty calories. Packing water in a reusable bottle is good for the environment and for the body.
3. Don’t deny dessert, but reduce the quantity. Pass over the two-pack pouch of highly processed cream-filled cupcakes for one chocolate chip cookie. Or offer a bite-sized bar of healthier dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.
4. Advance preparation is the key. Once the choices are made and shopping done, work with your child on assembling items that can be prepared in advance. Make use of together time on a Sunday afternoon to work with your child on filling re-sealable bags or reusable containers with fruit chips, grapes and other items from the meal plan. Set aside pantry and/or refrigerator space that is easily accessible for your lunch items.
5. Let your child pack the lunch box. When it comes time to put it all together, either the night before or morning of the school day, let your child assemble the prepared items and whatever needs to be done last minute, such as sandwiches, wraps or thermos items. Stand by to assist but let them learn through doing.
Zachary Pope is an award-winning chef and owner of Roundz Catering. He and his family live in Crofton.