By: Ann Condon-Meyers, RD LDN at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
As any parent of a school-age child is well aware, it’s officially “back-to-school” season. Like holidays and birthdays, this time of year hands parents a looming deadline. In response, we scramble to meet the demands of our schools, the pleas of our children, and the expectations we place upon ourselves. We buy clothes (or find the perfect “hand-me downs”), get school supplies, check immunization records, call for appointments, sign up for extracurricular activities, arrange for after-school care, and fill out endless forms; the list is daunting and exhausting. No wonder many parents dread sending their kids back to school — it’s hard work! Add to this, the nagging doubt that your child’s nutrition is less than optimal when they are away from home. With all the drudgery of your back-to-school duties, maybe some new thoughts on school lunches can add the flair you and your children need to meet the new school year with newfound anticipation.
Some schools do a wonderful job of offering well-balanced meals to children, but other schools struggle to provide nutritious options that are also appealing to students. For those parents who take advantage of the school lunch programs, here are some thoughts:
1. After you have checked your school menus and feel that they have nutritious options, sit down with your child and discuss which of the menu items are appealing. Find out what the beverage options are and whether there are vending machines or extra snacks sold during mealtimes as a source of funds for the school. Next, lay out your ground rules for menu choices. Discourage your child from taking or buying anything “extra” such as juice, candy, or snack cakes, since these foods will fill him or her up and take the place of the more nutritious foods being served.
2. If your child is not allergic (or does not have an intolerance) to milk, encourage low-fat milk every day. Often kids choose chocolate milk, but even if your child does not need these extra calories, milk is such an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin and calcium that any milk is better nutritionally than juice. If your child needs fortified “alternative milk” such as rice, almond, or soy milk, find out if your school can provide this. If not, simply tell your child to drink water with his or her meal and serve alternate milk after school.
3. If your child has a specific medical need such as additional snacks or food allergies, alert your food service director in writing. It’s best to send this information in advance of school starting, if possible (I know – one more thing on your list!).
4. If there is an unfamiliar food on the menu, explain to your child what is in the item. Try making it at home before he or she tries it at school. Cooking with your children is a proven way to help them enjoy new foods.
5. If you feel that some of the menu choices are not healthy, send an email to the food service director (FSD) responsible for the menu and discuss your concerns. Provided they get enough balanced feedback, FSDs are usually willing to change menu items that are not popular with their students and parents. Suggesting an alternative item also helps the FSD understand what you are looking for on the menu. Make the menu suggestion something other students will enjoy along with your own child.
6. In January 2012, the FDA announced newer, healthier school lunch guidelines. These healthy guidelines, such as limiting the amount of fat in the meal, including more whole grains, and requiring more fruits and vegetables, are designed not just to address the obesity epidemic sweeping our country but also to provide more vitamins and minerals our children need for healthy growth and development. You should feel confident they are getting a healthy meal away from home but if not, see suggestion #5 above.
If you send your child to a school with less than perfect menu options, you may want to pack his or her lunch. As with many other tasks, it will take some advance planning on your part to pack a nutritious and kid-friendly lunch every day. Again, encourage your child to drink the milk served at school. In general, juices, sport drinks, smoothies, and soft drinks are not nutritious options because they lack enough vitamins and minerals with respect to their calorie content compared to milk.
Here are some suggestions for nutritious packed lunches for you and your child to consider:
1. As with home meal planning, you need to provide a protein source and some grains along with fruits and/or vegetables in the lunch. Leftovers work well in some situations as long as the food items are kept at safe temperatures. Pack the non-perishable items the night before to help with that mad scramble to get out the door every morning. Keep cold items cold with an ice pack. Freezing food items before packing them will also insure they stay safe at or below 40 degrees.
2. There are lots of nutritious finger food choices that will expose your children to new and different cuisines. For example, tzatziki, a Greek sauce made from yogurt, makes a flavorful dip for raw vegetables or pita bread and provides a source of protein too. Likewise, a Thai sauce made with peanut butter makes a delicious spread sauce for leftover meats such as baked chicken pieces, pork loin strips, or roast beef rolls. See the recipes below on how to make these food items.
3. Use leftover rice or pasta mixed with your child’s favorite vegetable such as corn, peas, or chopped tomatoes, then add bits of meat or some beans to make a delicious “rice or pasta bowl” entrée. Let your child add ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar, lemon pepper, parmesan cheese, or hot sauce to flavor the concoction and make it his or her own “signature” dish.
4. Instead of using cheese, lunch meat, or peanut butter as the protein choice, send nuts, nut spreads, or seeds for a change of pace. Just ¼- to ½-cup will be enough protein for a grade school child. Remember that for children under the age of 5, nuts and foods such as carrot coins, grapes, or hot dog circles are not appropriate since they pose a choking hazard. Also, peanut butter must also be spread thinly onto another food to be safe for kids under 5 years of age.
5. Fruits (fresh or dried) are often well received by children, but vegetables are much maligned in grade school. Your child will usually like those vegetables that are served often at home. Kebobs make veggies and fruits interesting and offer a quick way to eat them without utensils. Think outside the box when choosing veggie options. Pickles, olives, cherry tomatoes, and green pepper strips all make easy but colorful vegetable choices. Most veggies can be dipped into a variety of sauces including the ever-popular ranch dressing.
6. Wraps, pita breads, tortillas, chapatti and even lettuce leaves all make interesting alternatives to the standard sandwich. Wrap one of these around a protein such as turkey, beans, or peanut butter. Add some crunch from slices of a raw vegetable or fruit such as cucumbers, apple slices, grated carrots, or pickles and you have another “meal-in one” that’s quick, easy and less expensive than a prepackaged lunch.
7. Resist the temptation to include a traditional dessert every day since fruits serve in this capacity quite well. Making the item easy to eat will help with acceptance so peel that orange, pre-slice that apple (add lemon juice to keep it from browning), and serve that melon in wedges. Include some Greek yogurt laced with a bit of honey, or nut butter such as almond butter, peanut butter or Nutella (a hazelnut and chocolate spread) for a high-protein dipping sauce. A fruit eaten with a dip or spread makes a nutritious alternative to the snack cake/cookie/candy dessert choice.
8. If these lunch ideas do not match well with your time constraints, short cuts can still lead you to nutritious choices. A peanut butter sandwich with pickle spears or cheese slices with crackers and a small box of raisins or even a cold slice of leftover pizza with some baby carrots on the side will all make a nutritious lunch when served along with milk or a milk alternative.
As with many other parenting challenges, helping your child change his or her preconceived notions about school lunches is easier when you include your child in the process. It will take repeated exposure to new foods for many children to actually enjoy eating them. Be patient, be consistent, and stay focused on the goal of allowing your child to enjoy nutritious meals away from home.
So after you have gotten school clothes and shoes in order, collected school supplies, filled out forms and calendars, attended doctor appointments, enrolled in after-school programs, and signed up for activities, then you and your child can try some new nutritious lunch alternatives as you both anticipate the new school year!
Prep Time: 20 minutes
• 3 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 tbsp. rice or white vinegar
• 2 cloves garlic, minced finely
• 3/4 tsp. lemon pepper seasoning
• 1 cup Greek yogurt, strained
• 1 cup non fat sour cream
• 2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and diced
• 1 tsp. chopped fresh dill or ½ tsp dried dill
Combine olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Mix until well combined. Using a whisk, blend the yogurt with the sour cream. Add the olive oil mixture to the yogurt mixture and mix well. Finally, add the cucumber and chopped fresh dill. Chill for at least two hours before serving.
Adapted from allrecipes.com
Peanut Butter Thai Spread
Prep Time: 5 minutes
• ¼ cup peanut butter
• ¼ cup sesame oil
• ¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
• Can also add 1 tsp red pepper flakes and/or ¼ tsp minced garlic.
Stir together and store at room temperature.