After five l-o-n-g years, my daughter finally started kindergarten. (Can you hear me cheering?) And after years of giving advice on back to school lunches to parents, it's my turn to put my money where my mouth is.
We're almost at the end of October and so far, so good. Surprisingly, Olivia has finished every lunch (phew). At home, she barely touches her food these days. In fact, she eats much better at school than at home. I've tried to snap pics of her lunches as they're being packaged up (usually the night before, sometimes 10 minutes before she leaves for school when it suddenly hits me that I forgot to make her lunch) mainly as documentation of meals she liked for those days when I just can't think of anything to prepare.
I’m guessing some of you are in the same boat – running out of ideas or worried that your child is going hungry at school.
Liv was supposed to start school last year (when we lived in Toronto), so I’ve had a lot of time to think about her lunch objectives (yeah, seriously!). To be perfectly honest, I haven’t been very experimental and have mainly stuck to the foods she likes. I always consult with her to make sure she’s in the mood for a certain lunch food. It’s a lot of pressure having a nutritionist as a mom (mostly for the mom). Actually, I'm more concerned about her lecturing other kids about artificial colours in their lunches than about her finishing every bite of hers. Nonetheless, besides nutritional quality (always the main objective), when preparing lunches, the emphasis is on:
1. Bite-sized foods
2. Small amounts of each type of food
3. Fresh, raw
4. High-quality source of protein!
5. A small, healthy treat.
More on this in a moment, but first, there are certain brain foods that are key to optimal mental performance and good behaviour:
-Omega-3 fats – found in cold-water fatty fish, nuts and seeds, some greens
-Probiotics – found in yogurt and fermented foods
-B vitamins – found in whole grains, dark leafy greens and some animal foods
-Protein – animal foods, nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans, quinoa
-Vitamin D – salmon, trout, milk.
In an ideal world, these nutrients would be part of every lunch. That doesn’t always happen, so omega-3 fish oil and vitamin D drops are sneaked into mango juice (diluted with water), we eat fish for dinner three times a week, probiotic powder is added to smoothies and yogurt, and B vitamins find their way in via whole grain waffles and pancakes, wraps and bread, oatmeal, brown rice and beans. The kids also take a daily multivitamin designed for children.
All right, back to the other lunch objectives:
To me, lunch time is like a cocktail party: think finger foods and bite-sized. Olivia, like most kids, is an easily distracted eater, so all her foods are small and easy to chew. For example, baby carrots, one of her favourite foods, are steamed. Perhaps it's my mom-paranoia that imagines her choking on a raw carrot while hanging upside down on the monkey bars… I just don’t want to get that phone call. Ever.
2. Small portions of each type of food
Variety is the spice of life and one of the keys to good health. Every natural food presents a different set of nutrients. Rather than a lot of one thing, I pack up a little of everything. It keeps lunches interesting and provides a broad spectrum of nutrients. Side thought: it’s important to encourage kids to be mindful of the difference between feeling satisfied and feeling full. Olivia is often reminded that she isn’t obliged to finish all of her food. Providing small portions prevents overeating and helps her decide which foods can be saved for snack time.
3. Fresh, raw
Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, grapes, blueberries, cantaloupe – my daughter loves these foods. She loves apples and pears too (but not the peel), and to combat browning, first they are diced up or peeled using a ceramic knife (it works!), then a little ascorbic acid in the form of apple juice or pineapple juice is drizzled overtop. If she gets a whole apple, it’s peeled and then stored in a sippy cup. Hey, if the shoe fits. I love that she eats so much raw food at lunch, supplying her body with enzymes and antioxidants. Do I sound like a proud mama?
4. High-quality protein source
This is the most important objective and for me, the most challenging. So many meals and snacks are carb-based. Protein is an important brain-nutrient, acting as a co-factor to make neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that help kids learn and stay focused. Some protein at every meal and snack helps keep blood sugar levels balanced so that kids don’t get sleepy, hungry or cranky at school.
My daughter has practically sworn off meat, with the exception of roast beef. I’m not a big beef eater, but because she devours it, I’ve been making roasts in the slow cooker (with tonnes of veggies). Occasionally, I’ll pack a couple of slices of antibiotic-free turkey slices into Olivia’s lunch bag, keeping in mind that the L-tryptophan in turkey, along with the carbs in the rest of her lunch will likely cause sleepiness. Like I said, it happens rarely, when I want her to go to bed early, lol. Instead, smoked salmon (packed with healthy omega-3 fats) with a couple of crackers makes a more regular appearance in her lunch.
She isn’t big on sandwiches either, but a slice of whole grain bread topped with SunButter (sunflower seed butter that is nut-free) or almond butter goes over well. You can form two hearts out of one slice of bread using a heart-shaped cookie cutter.
Olivia’s favourite source of protein is plant based and inexpensive - beans! Packing them is a dream (you don’t need an ice pack) and they can fit into practically any type of container. A boy at Olivia’s schooled teased that beans make you fart. As long as they don’t make her fart, they are welcome in her lunch anytime.
We tried various types of cheese, even resorting to a few rounds of Babybel, but they cause tummy trouble. Like her mom, Liv is a little lactose intolerant. She can digest yogurt, though, so as long as her meal isn’t too high in carbs or fruit, Greek yogurt (in a pre-bought container or containerized at home, but always organic) will serve as the meal’s protein source.
|Energy balls made with SunButter, honey, coconut & flax|
5. A small healthy treat (infrequent)
A favourite snack lately has been energy balls (recipe coming soon). They're super easy to make and the best part - I always have the ingredients on hand. Just two of these delicious bite-sized snacks provide fiber, some protein and antioxidants and while they taste sweet, they are very low in sugar. Individually wrapped quinoa cookies (I buy them from Costco) have been a big hit and they’re small enough to fit into any tightly packed lunch bag. Some other great snacks to sneak into lunch are PC Organics dried fruit & veggie bars, Nature’s Place All Natural Fruit Animals (I picked these up in Maine recently), Florida’s Natural Organic Fruit Nuggets and SnapPea Crisps. If I’m in the mood to bake, a fiber-rich mini muffin might make it to the next day’s lunch (just barely. Muffins don’t last long around here). Such healthier versions of junk food are occasional. I don’t want her to expect them or to think that they are dessert. Find lots of great ideas in this post, Healthy Snacks for Kids.
Here are some examples of her lunches:
Wrap filled with SunButter (sunflower seed butter, nut-free)
Lightly steamed baby carrots
PCO Orange Mango Sweet Potato bar
Water (water is packed almost every day, but an organic juice box might get packed when lunch is low-carb and she has phys-ed or gymnastics)
3 gluten free seasoned crackers (from Glutino)
Lightly steamed baby carrots
Fruit salad (blueberries and cantaloupe)
Organic applesauce + spoon
Sometimes when I'm preparing Olivia's lunch I think about the lunches my mother made for me. Time and time again, I watched her face drop when she found my uneaten sandwiches. Ultimately, she resorted to butter or jam sandwiches on white bread - something she knew I would eat. I cringe every time I think about it, but at the same time, I feel her pain.
You may have noticed, one area where I am receiving a failing grade is my overuse of plastic! Every food container is plastic. They all state BPA free, and hot food or liquid never, ever goes into any of them; still, I am actively looking for plastic-free options that a toddler can handle. This will be a work in progress. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!