For many kids, back to school not only means back to hitting the books and homework, but back to packing a lunch.
A school-day morning at our house was always a hustle and bustle and the thought of lunch often got lost in the shuffle.
Most of the time it was easier to give out lunch money than to prepare a lunch box feast for each child. The time finally came when the kids requested a bag lunch over buying the standard cafeteria fare, which meant it was time for me to step up, reconsider the whole lunch scene, and come up with brown bag ideas.
The first thing to consider when brainstorming brown bag lunches is your child’s food preference and eating style. Sunshine, my youngest daughter, chose to be a vegetarian, which made her bag lunches an even bigger challenge. I think this was her way of testing my creative lunch box ability.
What worked for me was allowing the kids (with guidance) to get involved with the shopping, planning and packing of their own lunch. I found that my kids were more likely to eat their own creations. Their lunch also had to be appealing to their taste buds. If they did not like the food, they traded it or threw it away.
When it comes to brown bag fare, foods that can be eaten with ease as well as keep the child’s interest are the name of the game. User-friendly foods are a must, especially for younger children who easily dismiss hard-to-eat foods. For example, older kids may be capable of peeling oranges and eggs in a flash, but for younger ones, it is a complicated process. Also, if you send a Thermos, make sure your child can open it and if your child has braces or other orthodontic devices, send foods that are not difficult to bite (applesauce instead of whole apples).
Some kids get bored with the same sandwich or food day after day, however; if your child wants the same thing, go ahead and pack it, as long as the overall meal is nutritious and you are sure your child will eat it. Sunshine loved a peanut butter and dill pickle sandwich, which she packed and ate almost every day through middle school. During her high school years, no longer a vegetarian, she expanded her horizon to tuna (packed in water) and then replaced her daily PB&DP sandwich with a tuna sandwich.
Kids also enjoy munching on something crunchy and sweet or savory. Homemade snack mixes and cereal bars are easy to prepare and are well suited for lunch boxes. While being kid-friendly and fun to eat, they pack a lot of nutrition, especially with healthy additions of dried fruits, unsalted nuts, pretzels and baked crackers.
“Dipping” foods are also a favorite. Send along a container of dressing for raw vegetables or peanut butter or caramel spread for dipping fresh fruit. Salsa, hummus and bean dips are also good choices that go well with baked chips and vegetables. Help guide your children toward proper portions and healthy choices, which include whole grains, lean meats or cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products.
For safety’s sake, keep cold items cold and hot items hot. Pack a reusable ice pack or better yet, try packing a small water bottle or 100 percent juice box that has been frozen — they will have a slushy drink to enjoy at lunch and will not have to worry about bringing an ice pack home. Use an insulated Thermos for hot foods like soups and stews or for cold items like salads. For best results, preheat the Thermos with hot water before adding hot soups. Rinse it out with ice water to chill the Thermos before adding a cold food.
Every kid hollers for junk food and an outright ban rarely works. Let’s face it, the best part of a school lunch is the dessert. So, you might as well give in, to an extent, by giving the kids a treat, even if it is a fun-size candy bar or a few small cookies while trying to sway them toward healthier alternatives.
Easy Granola Bars
q 3 cups quick cooking oats
q One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
q 2 tablespoon butter, melted
q 1 cup flaked coconut
q 1 cup sliced almonds
q 1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips (chocolate or white chocolate)
q 1/2 cup sweetened dried cranberries
n Preheat the oven to 350-degrees.
n Grease a 9x13 inch pan or cover it with Reynolds non-stick aluminum foil. In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together until well blended (mixture will be very thick).
n Place the granola mixture into the prepared pan and press the entire surface flat.
n Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want your bars.
n Lightly browned just around the edges will give you moist, chewy bars. Let the granola bars cool for 5 minutes, then cut into squares, then let them cool completely.
n Store the bars in an airtight container.
n Note: This recipe is adaptable to any combination of dried fruit, nuts or any other tidbits you like in a granola bar.
Kid’s Trail Mix
q 2 cups small pretzel twists
q 1 cup roasted cocktail peanuts
q 1 cup golden raisins
q 2 cups Cheerios cereal (or your child’s favorite brand)
q 1 cup of M&Ms
n Dump all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix together with clean hands . . . the kids will love to help make this.
n Divide the trail mix into small plastic bags or store the mixture in a large airtight container.
n This mixture is delicious, a perfect mix of sweet and salty.
n The recipe is also very adaptable to any combination of snack foods you want to include in the mix.