Back to school doesn’t have to mean back to packaged, processed food. Away-from-home meals can be just as nutritious as those around the dinner table if you keep things simple and start right.
Thankfully there are resources out there that can help. Lianne Phillipson is a registered nutritionist and author of Sprout Right Family Food, a manual for parents diving into the wilderness of cooking for babies and children. She offers the following advice to help make back-to-school lunches the best they can be. Recipes from her book are also excerpted below.
1. Get the kids involved.
Teaching your children how to pack a great school lunch is the best way to set them on a lifelong path to healthy eating. “Kids need to learn how to be self-sufficient,” Phillipson says. “They need to learn what is healthy and why.”
To help them do this, sit down together and make a list of healthy ingredients. What are protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods? What fruits and vegetables do they like? Look these foods up together and craft a go-to resource that kids can use when packing their own lunches. “This is for any age, even into the teens.”
If you need inspiration, try out this handy school lunch planner.
2. Watch portion size.
Getting kids involved in their own lunch-making often means getting portion sizes just right. “Sometimes as parents we fill the containers too much, whereas one small muffin for recess is perfect,” Phillipson says. Let kids fill the bowls and containers and see what they come up with.
3. (Re)consider your child’s age.
If your child routinely brings home half her lunch, consider whether or not different foods might get eaten more readily. Phillipson notes that many younger children often get distracted at mealtimes, and before they know it, lunchtime is over. “For little ones who get distracted, finger foods like mini-frittatas and mini-muffins fit in really well.”
Or maybe your child isn’t fond of sandwiches. “Some kids are into soup and warm things like pasta in a thermos,” she says, adding that, “sometimes kids can’t get the thermos open. You have to practice those things at home.”
4. Avoid the packaging.
Many of us are trying to reduce packaging when preparing lunches, and that includes schools. Thankfully there are more choices than ever for swapping out the plastic and replacing it with reusable alternatives.
“I love the newer bento boxes that have silicone in the top so you can put dips in there and they don’t end up all over whatever’s next to them.”
One teaspoon of sugar equals four grams of sugar on the label. Armed with this knowledge, you can gauge exactly how much sweetener producers are putting in your children’s granola bar.
There’s also another reason to avoid the packaging: processed and packaged foods are often loaded with sugar, especially those marketed to children. “Read whatever package you have and see how close to the beginning sugar ranks. If it’s the number one ingredient, then that’s exactly what’s in the product.”
Sugar will depress the immune system for several hours and send your child on an energy roller coaster. “When you pick them up from school, that’s when the meltdown happens, because their blood sugar is now in their baby toe.”
One teaspoon of sugar equals four grams of sugar on the label. Armed with this knowledge, you can read labels and picture exactly how much sweetener producers are putting in your child’s granola bar. “Look at labels in terms of where the sugar is, but also the quantity,” Phillipson says.
5. Consider one treat day per week.
If you’re comfortable with sweet treats, consider adopting one “treat day” per week. This will limit the sugar but still give kids something to enjoy. But don’t forget to voice your expectations ahead of time—so the rest of the lunch gets eaten. “If there’s chocolate, most kids are going to eat that first. Probably most adults too,” Phillipson says.
Better yet, consider making reduced sugar treats that include fiber and other nutritious ingredients. Phillipson’s own recipes (see below) combine family favorites with delicious tastes, both sweet and savory.
6. Remember the H20.
Send water to school, since most other beverages lack the nutrition that kids need to get them through the day. Avoid juice boxes wherever possible, Phillipson says. “First of all, they’re not good for the environment. Second of all, they’re a concentrated source of sweetness.”
A reusable bottle filled with water is simple and inexpensive. “If your kids don’t love water, do as little juice as possible. So if that’s half water, half juice, great. If it’s a third juice and the rest water, even better.”
Other options include coconut water for budding athletes, herbal iced teas, and homemade lemonade made with a little bit of maple syrup and real lemons.
7. Revisit menus as they grow.
As your children age, don’t be surprised if the negotiations for specific foods get more insistent. “As my kids got older, we had to discuss more rather than simply creating boundaries. When they get to that point, it sort of tips and they say, ‘if you don’t put it in my lunch, I’ll find it another way.’”
Being flexible while staying true to what you know is best for your child can be a juggling act, but books like Phillipson’s make things easier.
The following sample recipes are excerpted from Sprout Right Family Food by Lianne Phillipson. Copyright © 2019 by Lianne Phillipson. Published by Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Healthy Back to School Lunchtime Recipes
RAINBOW RICE WRAPS
Nut free, gluten free, vegan
Makes 4 wraps.
Half of a 14-ounce (390 g) package vermicelli rice noodles
1 tablespoon (15 mL) tamari, plus more for dipping
2 teaspoons (10 mL) olive oil
4 (each 8½ inches/21 cm long) rice paper wrappers
½ medium carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks
½ sweet pepper (any colour), seeded and cut into matchsticks
2½ inches (6 cm) English cucumber, cut into matchsticks
4 ounces (115 g) tofu, cut into ½-inch (1 cm) square strips
Handful of sunflower sprouts (optional)
- Cook the noodles according to the package directions. Drain thoroughly and toss with the tamari and olive oil.
- Fill a shallow plate with water. Dip one sheet of rice paper into the water and let it soak until it starts to become bendable but still has structure, about 10 seconds. Transfer to a clean working surface (plastic cutting board or plate).
- Arrange the noodles, carrot, sweet pepper, cucumber, tofu, and sunflower sprouts (if using) across the centre of the rice paper. Begin rolling, tucking the sides in as you roll. Transfer the roll to a platter and repeat with the remaining 3 rice paper wrappers.
- Serve with tamari on the side for dipping.
Gluten free, nut free, vegetarian
Makes 24 mini muffins.
These are satisfying muffins made in mini muffin tins. Replace the butter with coconut oil for a different flavour and quick energy!
Virgin coconut oil, for greasing the muffin cups
⅔ cup (150 mL) dried blueberries, Thompson raisins, or sultanas
4 ripe bananas
½ cup (125 mL) pure maple syrup
6 tablespoons (90 mL) unsalted butter, melted
⅔ cup (150 mL) chia seeds
1¾ cups (425 mL) brown rice flour
2 teaspoons (10 mL) baking powder
1 teaspoon (5 mL) baking soda
- Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C). Lightly grease 24 mini muffin cups with the coconut oil or line with paper liners.
- Soak the blueberries in a small bowl of boiling water for 10 minutes until plump. Drain.
- In a medium bowl, mash the bananas. Add the eggs and stir until combined.
- Add the maple syrup, butter, and chia seeds and let stand for 5 minutes.
- In another medium bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and baking soda.
- Add the drained blueberries and mashed banana mixture to the flour mixture. Stir until well combined.
- Fill the muffin cups about three-quarters full and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown or until a toothpick comes out clean.
- Let cool completely in the muffin tin on a wire rack before removing muffins from the tin.
- Store the muffins in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.
CORN, COCONUT AND GINGER SOUP
Gluten free, nut free, vegan.
Makes 6 cups.
This soup was the hit of a soup pilot program Phillipson started at her kids’ school. It freezes really well and goes great in lunchtime thermos.
1 tablespoon (15 mL) olive oil
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
½ inch (1 cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bag (17 ounces/500 g) frozen corn
1⅔ cups (400 mL) vegetable broth
1⅔ cups (400 mL) canned full-fat coconut milk
- Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
- Add the carrot, onion, ginger, and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent.
- Add the corn, broth, and coconut milk. Simmer for about 15 minutes until the carrot is fork-tender.
- Remove from the heat and cool slightly. Using a hand-held blender, purée to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Ladle into bowls and serve with toasted whole-grain buns, if desired.