Packing a Punch in Your Child’s Lunchbox

When Chelsea and I were on San Diego’s local news providing tips to fight the back to school madness, we discovered that packing a child’s school lunch is a parent’s least favorite thing about the morning. Catherine Garcia, the news anchor, told us she was dreading the task. And since the segment aired, I have had countless people coming to me asking for good lunch ideas for kids. Turns out parents are frustrated because the lunchbox comes back home full, their children won’t eat anything but processed goods, and they feel like they don’t have the creativity to pack something different every day. So Breezy Mama turned to award-winning food writer and author of The Supernatural Kids Cookbook, Nancy Mehagian, for some help on healthy lunch ideas for kids.

Let’s start with the President’s national recommendations–Obama recently replaced the food pyramid with the new food plate. What are some ideas in filling this “plate” in our child’s lunchbox?

To eat well does require some effort which is why I suggest that parents prepare a few dishes together as a family on a day set aside for that purpose.  A huge pot of vegetarian chili, like the recipe I included in The Supernatural Kids Cookbook, can easily be made. A vegetarian chili or any number of stews can contain vegetables, grains and protein, all together in one savory dish.  Whole grains and beans on their own don’t make up a complete protein but when put together like in a tostada, a crunchy whole grain tortilla covered with refried pinto beans, you have some potent nutrition. There are so many grains now available in the markets and online–quinoa, spelt, kamut, kasha and millet to name a few–and new varieties of beans are being discovered all the time. Variety is the spice of life. Pasta salads made with whole grain pasta, including some that are even gluten-free, can also have beans, sprouts, seeds, vegetables and dairy included. Cultures all over the world eat their food this way–an array of ingredients artfully combined in a single dish.

I think parents pack prepackaged items not because it’s easier, but because they have picky eaters. How can we counteract this?

I have often wondered–are picky eaters born or made?  From the time my daughter began eating solid food, it wasn’t packaged rice cereal.  It was mashed bananas, sweet potatoes, green beans and pears.  Later I baked chicken, onion, parsnips and a few herbs and put it through the blender.  She got a taste of real food from the beginning and I’m sure that’s why she ate lentil stew with rutabagas and kale when she was a toddler.  The food had real flavor.  And now that she’s an adult she still likes the real thing.  Children are more likely to change their minds about certain foods if they are allowed to be more involved in the process, from shopping to cooking and even growing things in their backyard or in pots.  It’s important for kids to make the connection between what they’re eating and where it comes from.  And it’s never too early to start.

I’ve often told the story of my daughter’s friend, Picky Eater Butch.  His food repertoire consisted of about five items–pizza, spaghetti, hot dogs, hamburgers and French fries.  On occasion he would eat a few peas.  My daughter had gone deep-sea fishing with her grandmother and won the prize that day for catching the biggest fish–a 14 pound halibut.  It was filleted on the boat and I cooked it my special way that night.  Butch was visiting.  At my gentle urging he tried the halibut.  And he added baked halibut to his repertoire.

What are some suggestions for protein when a child won’t eat deli meat or hardboiled eggs, and nuts/nut butters aren’t allowed at school?

How about baking some chicken legs the night before and putting those in.  They are great eaten cold, or a nice crunchy salad with some tuna added.  Or if your child is a vegetarian, adding one of the many kinds of tofu added to a salad.  Remember, combining grains and seeds or beans creates a complete protein so we can think outside the lunch box.  A wonderful old book, still relevant today, perhaps even more, explains all the many variations of combining foods to make complete proteins.  It is called Diet For A Small Planet by Francis Lappe.

Can you give some ideas for sandwiches that go beyond deli meat and cheese?

In The Supernatural Kids Cookbook we included recipes for a sandwich for every day of the week.  How about cream cheese, chopped dates and walnuts; egg salad; pita bread stuffed with avocado, vegetables and hummus.

I always like to pack a veggie in my child’s lunch, but the only veggie he eats (cold) is carrots. I’d like to offer variety, but he doesn’t eat it! Any ideas?

Fortunately, carrots are really nutritious.  Try something slightly sweet and crunchy like jicama and begin including a healthy dip for the veggies.  When kids grow their own vegetables, you’d be surprised how many raw string beans they will eat.

What kind of prepackaged snacks ARE good for the kids?

Fruit leather, made without sugar is a great substitute for gummy bears.  And there are some great trail mix bars but be sure to read labels so you know exactly what is in them.

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About Nancy Mehagian: Nancy Mehagian teaches gourmet cooking classes and has been a health practitioner in Los Angeles for over thirty-five years. She opened the first vegetarian restaurant on the island of Ibiza and is the author of the award-winning culinary memoir, Siren’s Feast: An Edible Odyssey. She lives in the Studio City with her dogs, Cisco, Buddha and Ringo.

An exciting and innovative collection of healthy, tasty and easy to prepare foods that introduces and encourages mindful eating for junior chefs, The Supernatural Kids Cookbook is available in print from Huqua Press and on all digital e-reader platforms from Premier Digital Publishing. A portion of the proceeds from The Supernatural Kids Cookbook benefits Jeff Bridges’ End Hunger Network.

To learn more, visit her website by clicking here.

To order The Supernatural Kids Cookbook ($17.80 from Amazon), click here.

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