It's that time again: the daily task of making lunches for your school-age children. Here are a few universal tips for planning, preparing and packing healthy lunches:
1. Plan Ahead: Be efficient with your time and money by creating a monthly spreadsheet of lunches and after-school snacks. Take advantage of weekend leftovers and create a weekly shopping list to reduce trips to the store. Do some online searches, and stockpile healthy kid-friendly recipes that use ingredients that your kids like.
2. Work Like a Pro: Reduce your lunch-making time by creating an assembly line of ingredients and materials, position everything that you need, from bread and meats to wrapping materials and utensils. Place it all on the counter in the order you will use it. This will speed up the process when you're pressed for time.
3. Make It Appealing: How food looks counts, especially for kids. Make an effort to make lunches and snacks look attractive, wrapped and served in cool containers.
4. Seek Input: Each month, ask your child to identify 3-5 foods that s/he would like to see in her/his lunchbox; then encourage your kid to help you generate a balanced menu of meals. Including them in the decision and preparation increases the chances that the lunches actually get eaten.
5. Less Meat, More Fruits, Grains and Vegetables: Avoid processed meats and reduce your child's meat intake, using more fresh fruits and vegetables e.g. carrot sticks, melon chunks and more low-fat meat-alternatives e.g. hummus, grains, etc. When using meat, opt for higher grades of meat as in organic, grass fed, etc.
6. Scrap the Junk Juices: In lieu of sugary juice boxes, sodas, and flavored milks, encourage your child to drink more home-filtered water and light whole-fruit juices.
7. Work at Being Greener: Try to reduce the amount of garbage from lunches by using less plastic and more re-usable containers. It's easier to find kid-sized water bottles and lunch boxes that are BPA-free.
8. Be a "Cool" Parent: No matter how old your child is, include the occasional note, cartoon, photo or even a drawing to make them smile and be reminded of your love.
Here's a sampling of adult-approved and kid-friendly lunch options:
-- Almond butter and jam on whole wheat bread
-- Watermelon and cantaloupe wedges, blueberries, mixed grapes
-- Sliced cucumber or zucchini with lime wedges and salt, sliced carrots and apples, cherry tomatoes
-- Fruit Leather (try making your own!)
-- Brown rice and bean chili in a heat-retaining bottle
-- Tortilla chips and fresh tomato salsa
-- Peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat
-- Organic sweet corn and peaches
-- Homemade soup in a heat-retaining bottle
-- Chicken or turkey wraps on whole-wheat tortillas
Oven-Fried Chicken Fingers (serves 12 kids)
2-½ lb skinless boneless chicken breast halves
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
3/4 tsp salt1/4 tsp black pepper
7 cups cornflakes (7 oz), coarsely crushed
Condiments: honey mustard sauce and ketchup
1. Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven; preheat oven to 425°F. Butter 2 large shallow (1”) baking pans.
2. Gently pound chicken between sheets of plastic wrap with the flat side of a pounder or a rolling pan until the chicken is 1/3" thin. Cut chicken lengthwise into 1/2" strips.
3. Stir together butter, salt, and pepper in a shallow dish. Put cornflakes in another shallow dish. Working with 1 strip at a time, dip in butter, then dredge in cornflakes, pressing flakes firmly to help adhere. Transfers coated to baking pan.
4. Bake until chicken is golden and cooked through, ~15 min. and switching pans in oven halfway through baking. Cool chicken in pans on racks to room temperature (crust will firm up as it cools).
Fruit Juice "Gummies" (makes 16)
1¼ oz package gelatin
1 cup fruit juice (pure juice, not a fruit-flavored drink) or fruit nectar, such as Goya, Mott's, or Kern's, chilled or at room temperature (Note: These brands use peach, pear, and guava nectar, but you can use any fruit juice you like except pineapple, kiwi, and papaya, which won't gel properly.)
1. Lightly coat 16 tartlet molds* or mini-muffin tins* with oil.
2. Place 1/4 cup of the juice in a medium bowl and sprinkle in the gelatin. Let sit for 1 min.
3. Meanwhile, in a small pan, bring the remaining juice to a boil. Add it to the gelatin mixture, stirring until the gelatin is dissolved.
4. Spoon the mixture into the molds. Chill in the refrigerator until set, 2 hours.
5. Pop the tartlets out. Serve them cold or at room temperature within 2 hours, or store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
*Plastic or metal tartlet molds are available at http://surlatable.comsurlatable.com. Once the mixture is set, an 8-by-8-inch baking dish also works. Just cut it into squares with a knife, or into shapes with a cookie cutter.
Chicken Salad Sandwiches (makes 6)
Use a pre-roasted chicken to make this recipe fast!
6 soft rolls, slotted
6 oz creamy blue cheese, spread evenly among the rolls
2 cups chopped cooked chicken
2/3 cup chopped celery
1/3 cup light mayonnaise
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onion
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Combine everything except the rolls and cheese in a small bowl. If desired, you can add flavorful accents e.g. a few chopped toasted pecans or dried cranberries
2. Spoon chicken mixture into rolls.
3. Wrap sandwiches tightly in foil and chill before packing
Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches (serves 2)
2 whole wheat pita breads
8 Tbsp old-fashioned peanut butter, chunky or smooth
8 tsp honey
2 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
1. Lightly toast the pita breads; cut each in half crosswise and open pockets.
2. Spread 2 Tbsp peanut butter on one inner side of each pita pocket.
3. Divide banana slices among pita pockets, drizzling honey over.
4. Close pitas, pressing slightly to adhere.
Power Bars with Dried Fruit and Peanut Butter (18 bars)
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
3 cups puffed whole grain cereal (such as Kashi)
½ cup walnuts, chopped
¼ cup chopped pitted dates
¼ cup chopped dried tart cherries
¼ cup raisins
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
¼ cup honey
¼ cup light corn syrup
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 9-inch square metal baking pan with nonstick spray.
2. Mix cereal, walnuts, dates, cherries, and raisins in medium bowl. Combine peanut butter, honey, and corn syrup in heavy small saucepan. Bring to boil, whisking constantly until mixture bubbles vigorously and thickens slightly, about 1 min.
3. Pour peanut butter mixture over cereal mixture in bowl; stir to blend. Transfer mixture to prepared pan; press to compact. Bake until just golden around edges, about 10 minutes.
4. Cool completely. Cut into 2½" x ½" bars; store in a single layer between sheets of foil in an airtight container.
Tuna Dip with Lemon & Capers (3 cups)
2 6-oz cans solid white tuna packed in oil, drained well
2 10¼ oz package soft tofu, drained
3 onions, minced
1 carrot, shredded fine
2 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
2 Tablespoons drained capers, chopped
3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Crackers or assorted crudites
1. In a bowl stir tuna with a fork until finely flaked. In another bowl, whisk tofu until smooth.
2. Stir tofu and remaining ingredients into tuna until combined and season with salt and pepper.
3. Serve dip with crackers or crudités or wrap in lettuce leaves and wrap tight in plastic wrap.
Do-it-Yourself Snack Mix (makes 4.5 cups)
This can be a great snack for any time of day. Let your kids go through the bulk bins at your local grocer and select their favorite ingredients, with the understanding that you have final approval on the selections.
Here’s the basic recipe but you can substitute your preferred ingredients:
1¼ cups dried banana chips
2 cups dried fruit, preferably unsweetened (any combo of raisins, cherries, mango, cranberries, chopped apricots, etc.)
¼ cup sliced almonds (or your favorite nut)
¼ cup sunflower seeds
¼ cup dried coconut
¼ cup cheerios or any healthy wholegrain cereal (or plain popcorn)
¼ cup mini chocolate chips
Mix until blended. Store your mix in a large Ziploc bag or airtight container or divide the mix into single-serving zip-lock bags for lunches and on-the-go treats.
Lunch on, people!