FOOD WISE: School lunch ideas that will keep children interested, eating healthy

iStock_000013901355XSmall-1By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

With Labor Day came the unofficial end of summer. Kind of our last hoorah weekend before school really starts in earnest. That means early mornings, full days of sports and band practices, youth club meetings and school lunches.

I think many times it’s easy to get ourselves in a school lunch rut. We tend to make the same things over and over because we know that at least the kiddos will eat that trusty peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it does get boring. How can we keep them interested? How can we insure variety and still keep them from trading their lunch for someone else’s even less healthy option, or worse yet; tossing their lunch and your hard-earned dollars in the trash? Now that we are back in the full swing of the school year, I thought you might find helpful some ideas for easy and healthy, kid-friendly school lunches.

There are some things to keep in mind as you are packing school lunches. For example, how will you temperature control the food? There are all kinds of insulated totes, freezable gel packs and thermoses to aid with food temperature. Does the student have the ability to reheat food? In most schools, the answer is no. This makes a good case for choosing foods that are tasty eaten cool or at room temperature. You’re probably going to have more luck getting a kid to eat cold chicken, turkey or cold cuts than cold hamburger meat.

You know, I still remember carrying my little lunch box with me to school when I was a kid. There was almost always a thermos of chicken noodle soup, the canned kind that you add water to, and some kind of sandwich, most often PB & J or baloney and cheese. The thing I remember most about those sandwiches is the gross, soggy bread, because my mother had put the sandwich together, complete with mayonnaise (or whatever) the night before. Another of her favorite sandwiches to make me for school consisted of sliced pineapple or banana and mayo on white bread, a little odd I know. Normally, I liked both of these combinations, but not for school. By the time I got to lunch the next day, the bread was so soggy that it was mush. Ewww. If she had known to pack each element of the sandwich separately and let me make the sandwich myself at lunch time, I would’ve enjoyed it so much more. A variety of small condiment containers, different sizes of zip type baggies, plastic silverware, and an assortment of sandwich and side containers will make this task easy breezy. It doesn’t hurt to include a bit of seasoning, too. If you are concerned about your child consuming too much of a certain seasoning, such as salt; be sure to season the food yourself when you pack the lunch. Nobody likes bland food, even kids.

One key to getting kids to choose nutritious options is to keep it interesting. Pack build-your-own lunches so they get to make some decisions for themselves. Kids love making their own food. I’ve said it before. If they make it, they will eat it. It doesn’t hurt to include a little encouraging note from time to time, or even cut the requisite sandwich into cute shapes. Children are also heavily influenced by color and texture, so the more you can include, the better luck you’ll have. Here are some ideas that have worked for me.

 

- Build-your-own tacos with cut up avocados, sour cream, shredded chicken, shredded cheese, whole wheat tortillas and any other toppings your kiddos likes.

- Build-your-own pizzas with a sliced english muffin or flat pita, shredded mozzarella, sliced pepperoni, black olives, fresh spinach, and mushrooms. You could also include a dessert version. Mix cream cheese with a little brown sugar and include in a small container for the child to spread on the muffin or pita. This can be topped with any variety of fresh, canned or dried fruit.

- Elvis wrap. Spread peanut butter on a whole wheat tortilla. Drizzle with honey. Layer with sliced bananas and sprinkle with crumbled bacon. Roll up burrito style.

- Noodle bowl. Cook Soba noodles according to package directions (these are great cold and don’t stick if they are mixed with a drizzle of oil after cooking). Mix the noodles with a little soy sauce, asian style vinaigrette, shredded carrots, edamame, leftover or rotisserie chicken and scallions. Sprinkle with peanuts.

- Bow-tie pasta. Mix with leftover or rotisserie chicken and homemade or jarred pesto.

- Salad rolls. Pack a whole wheat hot dog bun or bread separate from the salad and let your kiddo build their sandwich at lunchtime. Salads could be chicken, turkey or tuna. I like to mix in some kind of fruit and nuts. The kids like it better and it’s better for them.

- Pita pockets. I like to spread the inside of the pita with some kind of soft cheese, like Boursin. Then pile in any variety of sliced sandwich meat, fresh spinach, shredded cheese and cucumbers.

- Include some sides. Most kids like dips so you could include mild salsa with chunks of avocado and multi-grain tortilla chips or hummus with toasted naan bread (which I like to eat with red grapes). Popcorn, baked chips, muffins and apple and peanut butter stackers also make great sides. Another tasty side is yogurt mixed with chocolate chips and colored marshmallows.

- Chips. If you are worried about processed foods, you can make chips out of just about any veggie, from kale and beets to carrots and sweet potatoes. Thinly slice whole vegetables like beets on a mandolin, as thin as possible. Dry thoroughly with paper towels. Lightly drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake at 200 degrees until crispy.

- Chinese fried rice. Fry brown rice with a little sesame oil, soy sauce, scrambled egg, scallions, mushrooms, shredded carrots and chicken. Toss sesame seeds on top.

- Pancake sandwich. Spread whole wheat pancakes with cream cheese, layer with sliced bananas or strawberries and another cream cheese spread pancake.

- Ham and cheese roll up. My grand boys seem to like any food that is rolled up.

- Fruit and cheese kabobs. Again, the more colorful, the better. Include some kind of cream cheese or peanut butter dip.

- Muffin tin quiche. I know this sounds a little fancy, but trust me on this one. Whisk together eggs with a little milk or cream and salt and pepper. Mix in chopped ham, cheese and asparagus. Pour into muffin tin sprayed with non-stick spray. Top with more cheese. Bake at 350 degrees until eggs are done.

- Apple and peanut butter quesadilla. This concoction allows something a little different that is crunchy and won’t get weird and hard by lunch, like cheese cooked in a regular quesadilla. Just spread peanut butter on a whole wheat tortilla. Layer thinly sliced green apple on half and then fold the other half of the tortilla over.

- Antipasti. Build kabobs of salami or ham, cheese, grape tomatoes, olives and pickles.

- Chicken nuggets. These are great served cold. Try baking them. Season the chicken nuggets with spices of your choice. Dredge through flour. Then a wash of eggs and milk. Then panko. Bake until juices run clear. Serve with curried yogurt dipping sauce.

- DIY Lunchables. Pack a variety of crackers, cold cuts and cheese and let them make their own creations.

- Fruit nachos. Cut tortilla into wedges. Spray them with butter flavored cooking spray, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Bake at 375 degrees until crisp. Mix an assortment of cut fruit together with a bit of brown sugar.

Here’s a quick and easy weeknight supper.

 

Pork Chops and Basil Creamed Corn

4 Bone-In Pork Chops (half-inch thick)

2 tablespoons Olive Oil (plus more to serve)

1 Onion (sliced)

1 pint Button Mushrooms (sliced)

3 ears Corn (shucked and cut from the cob)

Salt and Pepper

crushed Red Pepper Flakes

1 Lime (zest and juice; separated)

1 Jalapeño (sliced)

1/2 cup Water

1 tablespoon Sour Cream

1/2 cup loosely packed Basil (torn)

1. In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season the pork chops generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Once pan is hot, add the pork chops and cook 3 to 4 minutes per side. Set aside to rest.

2. In another skillet over medium high heat, add the remaining tablespoon olive oil. Add the onion and mushrooms and cook until mushrooms begin to crisp. Add the corn and jalapeño and season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, and lime zest. Cook 2 minutes and then deglaze the pan with water. Once water has mostly evaporated, add lime juice, remove from heat and stir in the sour cream and basil.