How to get an easy A in school lunches

With school about to start, the worry that kids feel is nothing compared to that of parents fretting about preparing 40 weeks of box lunches.

Lunch doesn’t have to be hard or perfect. After all, who has time every morning to curate cupcake recipes, cut out shaped sandwiches or even put ants on a log?

But it doesn’t have to be boring either.

Here are some strategies to get through the next nine months:

▪  Make a plan. Anita Courtney, school wellness coordinator for the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition in Lexington, recommends a basic formula: a protein plus a vegetable or fruit, plus a whole grain and low-fat dairy. You can mix and match all you want as long as you have at least one of each.

▪  Let the kids do the work. Once they know the template, just fill in the blanks. Kids are more likely to eat the vegetables (rather than throw them away) if they selected them, said chef Allison Davis, owner of Wild Thyme Cooking and mother of a 9-year-old.

“If you have picky eaters, get the kids involved in the planning and start expanding their palates and trying new things,” Davis said. “Giving them choices really helps.”

▪  Make it easy. Go for a self-contained fruit, like an apple, a clementine or a plum that you don’t have to cut into slices. Caveat: Research has shown that kids are much more likely to eat apples if they actually are cut into slices. So involve them in the prep work. If your kids are old enough, have them slice up the apples or peel oranges ahead of time themselves.

▪  Save your creativity for the main event. If your school allows sunflower or almond nut butters, use those instead of peanut butter. Try adding some crunch with dried apple slices or something chewy, such as cranberries, to give some texture, Courtney said.

Or go for the standby wrap. Make it with a whole-grain tortilla, dressed with some hummus, and add some grated carrots to slip in a vegetable.

For something different, try a deconstructed sandwich: roll cheese or turkey lengthwise, spear it with a pretzel like a kabob, and add a salsa or guacamole dip, Courtney suggested.

Davis said her daughter, Jayda, really likes to take a rice bowl made with black beans and green peppers, with a scrambled egg mixed in and a little salsa on the side. Ground beef or turkey also make nice additions and can handle a few hours out of the refrigerator without having to be reheated.

You can use brown rice, Davis said, or get Trader Joe’s cauliflower rice.

“You can buy the bag, sauteé it, and I don’t think kids would know the difference,” she said. “And then you’ve gotten another vegetable in there.”

▪  Don’t go overboard. Kids have only 15 to 25 minutes to eat lunch, and the cafeteria is loud, so keep the portions small and the lunch simple, said Melissa McDonald, a Lexington mom and the national network manager for Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a national nonprofit working with more than 30,000 schools to improve better nutrition and fitness options.

▪  Don’t pack new food. McDonald cautions against letting your enthusiasm for a Pinterest find or an exotic dish carry you away. “Don’t pack a food you’ve never had your child try at home,” she said. “The probability of them trying it in front of their friends is not very high. Let kids get comfortable eating it at home before you send it in.”

▪  Variety, but not too much. Give your kids varied options, but “parents need to understand that if your kid only likes peas, pack peas,” McDonald said. “If you’ve got to pack carrots every single day because that’s the one vegetable they will eat, that’s fine.”

▪  Do everything once and be done for the week. With a little planning, you can make a week’s worth of lunches. If your kid won’t eat anything but peanut butter and jelly, try freezing it; the sandwich will thaw by lunchtime but will taste refreshingly cool. Stick a few slices of strawberry on the sandwich and make it on unsweetened whole grain bread, and you’ve covered most of the bases.

You can put several lunch component options in the fridge and let your children pick what they want each morning (or the night before.) Feel like grapes rather than apple slices? Already bagged up.

▪  Make ahead and freeze. Make a dozen zucchini and corn muffins or ham and cheese muffins and freeze them (make sure you get all the air out of the bag) for use down the road. You can thaw a few at a time and add to the lunch options.

▪  Another good frozen option: fruit. Courtney said the Tweens coalition teaches kids to make their own yogurt parfait with a cup of vanilla yogurt, frozen fruit, and a handful of healthy granola on top.

“By the time lunchtime comes, the fruit has thawed, and it’s kept the yogurt cold,” she said.

▪  Don’t forget the snacks. Davis said she puts together several fruit and snack options, including hummus or pretzels, on Sundays for after-school snacks. “It’s a little bit of prep work, but it makes the week go smoother,” she said.

Courtney suggests quick-pickled veggies as a good snack. Kids like sour, she said, so float sliced cucumbers or other veggies in a container of vinegar in the fridge. After a few hours, they are tart and crispy treats.

▪  Don’t overlook the obvious. Sure, you could pack your kids a lunch every day, but if you get in a bind, school lunches are a good option. They tend to be healthier these days.

In Fayette County, where more than half of the schools offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, the food has become healthier, with more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less salt and sugar.

Michelle Coker, director of child nutrition for Fayette County Public Schools, said there are lots of new menu options this year, including flatbread sandwiches and, at the high schools, fresh corn and bean salsa.

Ham and cheese muffins

2 cups self-rising flour

 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup milk

 1/2 cup mayonnaise

 1/2 cup finely chopped, fully cooked ham

 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Extra shredded cheese (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, combine flour and baking soda. Combine remaining ingredients; stir into dry ingredients just until moistened. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups two-thirds full.

Bake for 16 to 18 minutes or until muffins test done. Spring with shredded cheese while still hot if desired.

Makes 12 muffins.

Zucchini and corn muffins

1 cup plain flour

1 cup cornmeal

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 egg

 1/2 cup milk

 1/4 cup vegetable oil

1  1/4 cup creamed corn

2 small zucchini, grated

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 12-hole muffin tray or line with paper cases. Sift dry ingredients into a bowl. Mix wet ingredients including vegetables in another bowl. Combine the two mixes, lightly together. Spoon into prepared pan. Bake 15-20 minutes until golden.

Makes 12 muffins.

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