Packing school lunches is no longer about bologna sandwiches and PB&J. Between the increasing sophistication of our palettes — because of the wide variety of foods available and the food shows on cable — and the emphasis on eating healthy food and preventing childhood obesity, school lunches for some families are changing.
Ella Weldy of Ballston Lake might open up her lunch box to find a sandwich of smoked salmon (wild caught), vegetable cream cheese and capers on a bagel thin instead of bread (less carbs). Or perhaps a small tub of hummus with pita chips and vegetables.
Another day, she might dine on homemade guacamole with tortilla chips (the chips are a once-in-a-while treat, as her mother doesn’t buy them routinely). Whatever it is, it’s different every day. Ella doesn’t like to have the same thing two days in a row, said her mother, Gwen Weldy — and a lot of thought goes into the packing.
Finding a balance between taste and health can change packing the school lunch from a run-of-the-mill routine into an art form.
Utilizing nutrition labels
Weldy is health-minded to begin with when shopping for her family. She consults the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides (found online at www.ewg.org/foodnews) and looks for the fruits and vegetables with the least pesticides or sticks to organic.
Henriette Oberg of Colonie is mindful with her daughter’s lunches, too. It starts with careful shopping, where she scrutinizes food labels. “There’s no high-fructose corn syrup and no MSG for her,” she said. “It’s my dietitian neuroses coming out,” she joked.
Joking aside, comparing labels can go a long way when it comes to packing healthy lunches. Comparing food labels among similar products is important, said Diane Whitten, a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga Springs. The amount of sugar, fiber, fat and protein can vary greatly from product to product, and some are clearly better choices than others. She recommends that parents read nutrition facts panels to find products that supply no more than 6 grams of sugar, 5 grams of fat and 140 calories per serving when choosing snacks.
Easier to find options
Because healthy options are becoming more common, they’re coming down in price and can be found in mainstream grocery stores rather than specialty ones, Oberg said.
Weldy doesn’t buy many of the snacks that are packaged for kids. For example, gummy fruit snacks are out. Rather, she shops at an online website where customers can buy any type of dried fruit as well as different kinds of nuts. “Instead of sending fruit snacks, I’ll send in . . . dried cherries, raspberries, et cetera,” she said. Oberg has put a food dehydrator on her Christmas list so that she can make her own dried fruit for school lunches.
Kids do like curb appeal and many prepackaged products count on that. The healthier choice, though, is DIY. Parents can buy their own containers and create healthier versions of these products. “You end up with fresher food, and it’s a lot less expensive,” Whitten said.
A nutritious lunch should have at least three of the five food groups — vegetables, fruits, meat/meat alternatives, grains and dairy, Whitten said.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are something that both Weldy and Oberg like to include in their children’s lunches. Weldy tries to keep a variety of fresh fruit on hand. Her son Nate likes a few different kinds of fruit rather than a serving of one kind of fruit. “I’ll have five to six different kinds of fruits and let them pick,” she said. She stocks cans of mandarin oranges in case she runs out of fresh fruit, as fruit is always included in her kids’ lunches.
Vegetables are excellent for lunches. “Kids love red peppers,” Whitten noted. Dip can make vegetables and fruit even more enticing. Ranch is a popular one (but be sure to get the low-fat version, Whitten said). Weldy includes some “dipping sauce,” either ranch or bleu cheese dressing with cut-up carrots and celery. She also includes an exotic choice for her son on occasion — garlic stuffed olives, one of his favorites.
Thermos for soup
For other variety, Weldy will include a thermos full of soup in colder months. A cheese sandwich with tomato soup is a favorite for her son. “He especially likes that on a cold, rainy day,” Weldy said. Ella enjoys a thermos of cream of mushroom soup. If it’s not homemade, Weldy is comparing labels and purchasing the healthier varieties with less sodium and fat.
Leaving a sandwich out entirely provides some variation, too. Weldy might pack a few crackers, cheese slices or a tub of garlic and herb spreadable cheese, and some smoked trout that her husband caught and prepared, and then her daughter can assemble the snack at school.
For safety, make sure to keep foods cold, such as dairy products and meats, by using an ice pack. “If you’re sending in milk, make sure it’s in an insulated thermos,” Whitten said.
Oberg found a milk box that doesn’t require refrigeration, but she also lets her daughter purchase milk at school. “It’s kind of giving her that sense that she has buying power, if you will,” Oberg said. “She takes her money with her in the morning, and it makes her feel good.”
Milk is a better option than fruit juice, even with the wide availability of juice boxes that do not require refrigeration. “It’s really common for kids to have juice at breakfast time,” Whitten said. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children 6 and under be limited to 4 to 6 ounces of juice per day. For 7- to 18-year-olds, it’s 8 to 12 ounces. Weldy and Oberg both send water in a reusable bottle with their children’s lunches.
With today’s “green” emphasis, parents are increasingly concerned with not only what goes into a lunch, but also how it is packaged. “Not only is the food important to me, but also the packaging,” Oberg said. She looks for BPA-free containers, and if she uses a plastic bag, she asks her daughter to bring it home so it can be reused. Weldys does the same.
The following recipes are from Gwen Weldy of Ballston Lake
1 everything bagel thin
Vegetable cream cheese
Smoked trout or smoked salmon
Split bagel in two. Spread each half with cream cheese. Cut trout or salmon into pieces and place on top of cream cheese. Sprinkle with capers to taste.
1⁄2 of a small onion, finely diced
1⁄4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
1⁄2 tablespoon lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
3 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
Seed, peel and mash avocado. Add lime juice and Tabasco. Stir in onion, cilantro, garlic, salt and tomatoes. Makes about 11⁄2 cups. Serve with tortilla chips (If you don’t use it all at one time, place in a lidded container with plastic wrap touching the surface of the guacamole. This will help prevent it from turning brown.)
Taratour bi Tahini
1 cup tahini
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1⁄2 head of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon salt (I like this extra salty; you can use less.)
Mix all ingredients until smooth. Serve with torn pita bread, cucumbers, carrots or celery. It’s also good as a condiment on a sandwich featuring sprouts.
The following recipes are from Cornell Cooperative Extensive of Saratoga County.
1 can (14 ounces) of garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1⁄4 cup Tahini (sesame seed butter)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic
Drain garbanzo beans and rinse. Mash beans or purée in a food processor, blend in olive oil. Add tahini, minced garlic, lemon juice and blend well. Makes 16 servings. (60 calories, 4 grams fat, 77.5 milligrams sodium, 0.25 grams sugar per serving)
Peanut Butter Yogurt Dip
8 ounces low fat yogurt, plain, vanilla or other flavor
4 ounces unsalted peanut butter
Combine yogurt and peanut butter until well blended. Serve with apple slices, carrots, celery or whole grain pretzel sticks. Per tablespoon: 110 calories, 7 grams fat, 20 milligrams sodium, 5 grams sugar.