Any parent will agree that the world's toughest food critics are children. This "aptitude" for culinary criticism is particularly evident with school-day lunches. You want to give your mini gourmand a balanced meal, one filled with double-duty foods that provide energy and nutrition while keeping junior sated and satisfied. But getting your little loved one to actually eat a wholesome homemade lunch can be as difficult as getting him or her to log off and unplug.
To ensure that junior's power lunch doesn't go straight into the trash (and your time and money with it) or get traded for something a whole lot less nutritious, parents need to approach this nagging problem with a strategy. For years, I've come up with creative, healthy ideas for my kids' brown-bag lunches, and so when it came time to write my cookbook, Real Food for Healthy Kids, my coauthor, venerated food professional Tracey Seaman, and I devoted a whole chapter to this 180-days-a-year conundrum.
What follows are tips on planning and packing lunches; tools to deal with picky eaters; and some simple nutritious recipes to get your kids fed well, all adapted from Real Food for Healthy Kids. All of the recipes in our book, including the ones here, have been taste-tested by kids and analyzed by a nutritionist, so you can be sure there is something here that your child will love and that will be right for his or her nutritional needs. If you want to learn more about the kinds of foods and nutrients your child needs, check out our guide to daily nutritional requirements for preschoolers, elementary-school kids, and teenagers.
To make a meal with these recipes, fill out the lunchbox with a piece of fresh fruit like a Macintosh apple or red grapes, veggies such as sugar snap peas or mini carrots, some dry snacks like trail mix or our Extreme Granola, and some water in a nontoxic container like those from Sigg or Klean Kanteen. But no matter what you include, your child will know that you took the time to make something especially for him or her, as a homemade lunch is yet another expression of your love.
Nutritious Recipes for Kids:
Planning & Packing Tips:
Think Like an Accountant
Budget your time-and money-by creating a spreadsheet that will detail the daily school-day lunches for that month. Make use of Sunday leftovers and use fresh produce as soon as you buy it. Create a weekly shopping list to reduce trips to the store, and allocate healthy prepackaged snacks for days without fresh fruit.
Act Like a Chef
Cut your lunch-making time in half by creating an efficient assembly line of materials. Get out 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.
Keep It Hot/Cold
If you're sending your kid to school with something that needs to stay cold, include a cold pack-if your child is like most, you might want to tape the cold pack into the lunchbox, so that it doesn't accidentally get thrown out or left behind. For foods that must be kept warm, like a veggie stew or noodle soup, heat up the food in the morning. Pour boiling water into a thermos, let it warm up the container for a few minutes, and then tip it out before you add the hot food. This will help retain warmth.
The way food is presented affects how a diner perceives flavor; this is true even for kids. Make an effort to keep dishes looking attractive, wrapped and served in cool containers, and packed in lunchboxes that reflect the personality of your child.
Tips for Keeping Picky Eaters Happy:
Give Jr. Power
Before you plan the weekly lunch menu, ask your child to identify five favorite food items that he or she would like to see in the lunchbox. Then encourage your kid to participate in the planning, preparing, and packing of the rest of the meals, creating a balanced menu of protein and complex carbs. Including them in the decision-and preparation-improves the chances that the lunch will actually get eaten.
Vary the Menu
Even if he or she requests the same ham and cheese sammie every day, it's important to provide at least one or two different items in the lunchbox to expand a picky eater's palate. However, throwing in a food your young food critic claims to hate will backfire, as they are likely to throw it out before trying it. Introduce those new or controversial foods at dinnertime, when your kid is presumably hungry and under your watchful eye.
Never Too Cool for School
No matter how old your child is, include a sweet, encouraging note, a cartoon, a picture of the family pet, or even just a silly drawing to make them smile and be reminded of how much you love them.
Text by Tanya Wenman Steel from Real Food for Healthy Kids
Tanya Wenman Steel is Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Epicurious.com, the premier food Web site. Before joining Epicurious, Steel was an editor at Bon Appétit for ten years, where she won the prestigious James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Magazine Restaurant Review or Critique (2003). Prior to Bon Appétit, she was an editor at Diversion, Food & Wine, and Mademoiselle magazines. She is a member of the American Society of Magazine Editors and a James Beard Restaurant judge. Steel has written extensively for myriad publications, including many articles for The New York Times, as well as New York Magazine, Child, and Travel & Leisure. She appears on television frequently for Epicurious.
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