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. Make your child a part of the process. We want to raise healthy eaters. Part of that process is teaching them and letting them go. Giving your school-age child ownership of this meal will empower him/her and greatly increase the likelihood that what is packed will be eaten. Discuss balance and how you can make the best choices, such as packing a reusable water bottle instead of a high-sugar juice pouch or substituting dried fruit chips for potato chips.
2. Make a meal plan for the week with your child. It doesn’t have to be written or overly complicated, just work with him or her on the decision process. What are some favorites? Which fresh fruits would she like? Yogurt or granola bar?
3. Utilize your dinner menu when making school lunches. If you have chicken left from the night before, your child can enjoy it in a whole wheat tortilla with shredded cheddar the next day.
4. Mix in bonus good stuff. There are many ways to add extra fruits or veggies into lunch. Instead of peanut butter and jelly, try mixing a tablespoon of peanut butter (or a peanut butter substitute) with a mashed banana. Hold the mayo in favor of a thin layer of applesauce, spread as you would a condiment, on a chicken wrap. Replace iceberg lettuce with power-packed spinach leaves on deli sandwiches.
5. Consider peanut butter substitutes. If your child is allergic to nuts, or your school has a nut ban, Crofton Giant and Waugh Chapel Safeway offer a Belgium product called Biscoff Spread. It looks like peanut butter but is made from Biscoff cookies. It is sweeter and a few more calories per serving than peanut butter. There are other substitutes on the market as well.
If you like these ideas, check back next week for 5 more lunch tips for tots.
Zachary Pope is an award-winning chef and owner of Roundz Catering. He and his family live in Crofton.