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Figuring out the best hot lunch for your child may be a process of trial and error. Investing in a good, high-quality Thermos or other insulated container will help ensure the food like chicken soup stays at a safe temperature until lunch time. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Grant )
Tacos stuffed with cheese, avocado, and hummus provide plenty of good nutrition and are easy to pack. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Grant )
Peanut butter cookies are simple to make and, while gluten free, are good enough to round out any lunch box. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Grant )
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When Taylor Grant Greenberg was growing up in Madison, she had an industrial strength Thermos, a love for hot lunches, and a creative mom who was always experimenting with new and exciting lunches. Now that Greenberg is a registered nurse, a self-proclaimed health nut, and food blogger who lives in Branford, she wants to share some of those creative lunch ideas for parents interested in breaking out of the peanut-butter-and-jelly rut during the upcoming school year.
“I was never a picky eater as a kid, except when it came to lunches. I was never a sandwich kind of kiddo. Even as an adult I love my hot lunches,” she says.
Greenberg’s mom would send her to school with pizza, baked potatoes, and one time, chicken noodle soup.
Was everything always perfect? No. Once the chicken noodle soup went bad by the time she got to school.
“Thank goodness for the lunch ladies who had my back with a free pasta lunch that day,” she says.
But that did not deter her mom from trying new things when it came to school lunch.
While some school districts, including Madison and Branford, are trying new, creative ideas in their cafeterias, it’s safe to say that some school districts struggle to come up with food options that taste good and are nutritious, Greenberg says.
“With the terms whole grain and ‘fun lunch’ in front of words like chicken nuggets, nachos, and pizza...there is no solution to the school lunch problem better than packing your own,” she says.
“Most parents know their kids; chances are if your child won’t eat tuna-noodle casserole, they will be quick to toss their tuna salad sandwich in the garbage,” she says. “School lunches are no time to experiment with new food concepts, as you may end up with a hungry child and empty wallet. Stick to thing you know they like.”
For example, if they love macaroni and cheese, invest in a Thermos, and find an easy recipe for whole grain mac n’ cheese.
“I have a great one that uses butternut squash for more fiber and less cheese,” Grant says.
Cookie Cutters, Bento Boxes
Greenberg also recommends cookie cutters.
“I love cookie cutters!,” she says, “They make any meal fun, cut a turkey sandwich into a sail boat, watermelon into stars, and cheese and deli slices into butterflies!”
She also is a big fan of short-cuts.
“Maybe it means a quick pesto, something you can make at the beginning of the week to toss with pasta and veggies for a quick pasta salad lunch,” she says.
When it comes to planning for the best nutrition, Greenberg says it’s best to have whole grains and vegetables in every meal. Fruits are great for breakfast and a snack, but do not need to be in each meal. The same goes for calcium, she says.
“If you are lucky enough to have a milk drinker (something I was not), calcium may not be something you need to push,” she says. “Overall, look at the big picture. If your kiddo has cereal with bananas for breakfast, you may not need to include calcium-rich foods and fruit with their lunch, but will definitely need to beef up their protein intake (no pun intended).”
Greenberg loves bento box-inspired lunches, or lunches broken up into several compartments that offer a variety of options.
“Think cheese and crackers, veggies cut with cookie cutters, and other bite sized treats,” she says. “With small lunch items representing the many food groups it makes for a fun and finger-friendly lunch.
“One of my favorites is small mozzarella balls, tomatoes, pesto dipping, and crackers,” she says. “If your child has a sweet tooth, maybe mini pancakes (which can be made in batches at the beginning of the week), strawberries, and yogurt. I also love to incorporate hands-on lunches. One of my favorite are rice cake faces: rice cakes spread with peanut butter, hummus, or cream cheese with slices of veggies and deli meats in smaller tuperwares for your child to create their own faces or designs; this is my fun take on old school lunchable pizzas,” she says.
Get Your Child Involved
Ideally, get your children involved in the process of planning lunch, Greenberg says.
“Talk to them about what the do and don’t like. Bring them to the kitchen to make their own trail mix for snacks, dips for veggies, or simply to spread their own peanut butter on their sandwich,” she says. “It is never to early to bring a child into the kitchen and chances are, if they are involved with the process, they will love what you pack because they were a part of it. Be willing to start the conversation about nutrition young to create life-long healthy habits.”
What if you honestly, truly don’t have the time or inclination to pack a creative lunch everyday? Greenberg knows that some parents, who may work full time—at home and/or outside the home—might not.
“If you must have your child buy lunch, I suggest a sit-down conversation about nutrition,” she says. Tell them “how food is fuel for your body, [and] the more vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains, the better your performance in recess kickball, the quicker your brain can think when it comes time to test taking, and the taller your [child] can grow,” she says.
If your child is insistent on buying lunch, use it as a special treat and lesson.
“If they are old enough, give them a lunch money budget for the month, a certain amount of money they can use to spend on the days where school lunch seems irresistible,” she says. “This will help teach them how to not only manage money, but also prevent a downward spiral of pizza, chicken nuggets, and pasta.”
To make sure the food you make stays at the right temperature until lunch time, visit a local hardware store, buy a name brand insulated food container (Thermos is just one brand, Stanley is another) in a size that will work for your child, and read and follow the directions on the best way to keep foods hot, or cold, for the requisite amount of time.
On her blog, The Little Chef That Could, Greenberg provides a list of school lunch ideas with links. To read the full list, visit thelittlechefthatcould.com and look for “Back to School Lunch Box Picks,” in “Recent Posts.”
Here is a list of some of the ideas she provides, along with recipes from a few ideas.
avocado carrot and cucumber
avocado hummus quesadilla
chicken Caesar pita pockets
ham and cheese crescent rolls
pizza wrap sandwiches
carrot cake waffle breakfast
corn and zucchini fritters
safely skewered lunches
southwest inspired quinoa
yellow chicken skewers
with peanut sauce
Heat and Eat
chicken noodle soup
hidden veggie mac n’ cheese
with chicken sausage
ravioli and vegetable soup
vegetable fried rice
apple almond energy bites
gluten free peanut butter
chocolate chunk cookies
honey nut cereal bars
low fat chocolate chip
Avocado Hummus Tacos
-by Taylor Grant Greenberg
4 corn tortillas
1 medium avocado
¼ cup of garlic hummus
½ cup of reduced fat cheddar cheese, shredded
Mash the avocado and hummus together.
Spread ¼ of the mixture onto each tortilla and top with ¼ of the cheese.
Fold in half and place on a greased pan over medium-high heat.
Cover with a lid or oven safe dish and let cook for 2-3 minutes, until golden brown, flip, and cook another 2-3 minutes, until cheese is melted and tortilla is golden brown on each side.
Continue with remaining tortillas.
Gluten Free Peanut Butter Chocolate Cookies:
-by Taylor Grant Greenberg
Ever since I featured this recipe on a “Nutritious Cookies” segment on Better CT, it has been one of the most requested recipes of mine. Peanut butter, sweet honey, and chunks of dark chocolate all baked to perfection into a chewy cookie. The most intriguing part of this recipe? Its gluten free—thats right, a cookie with no flour; too good to be true? When I first tested this recipe, I cringed in fear that I would be pulling a cookie sheet of melted, gooey peanut butter cookie dough. To my surprise these cookies were beautiful and perfectly cooked into three-bite treats. Makes three dozen.
1 cup of natural crunchy peanut butter
¼ cup of dark brown sugar
¼ cup of honey
1 tsp. of baking soda
1 3.5oz bar of dark chocolate (at least 65% cocoa)
chopped into chunks
Combine all the ingredients in a medium mixing bowl.
Place rounded teaspoons of cookie dough on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet.
Place in a 375 degree oven for 7 minutes.
Let cool and enjoy!
Chicken Noodle Soup (from Scratch)
-by Taylor Grant Greenberg
If I had a dollar every time someone asks me what my favorite thing to cook is, I would be pretty darn rich. The truth, I have no idea what my favorite thing to cook is, sometime I like to cook pasta, sometimes Asian, and other times pancakes; what I love to cook depends on my mood, which is constantly changing. While I cannot settle on a favorite recipe, my cooking pride rests in a bowl of my homemade chicken noodle soup.
Disclaimer: This is not a simple “set it and forget” recipe, but the pride that comes from making chicken soup (broth and all) from scratch is totally worth it! Ten servings.
1 whole chicken (about 3 lbs.)
1 ½ cups of chopped carrots
¾ cup of chopped onion
¾ cup of chopped celery
1 tsp of salt
½ tsp of ground pepper
1 bag of whole wheat noodles (I used Ronzoni)
In a large saucepan, add the chicken and vegetables.
Fill the pot with water until the chicken and vegetables are completely covered.
Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally.
Let simmer for 2 hours, until chicken is cooked and falling off the bone.
Using a colander strain the soup over a large bowl, separating the broth from the chicken and vegetables.
Let the broth settle and cool, as well as the chicken and vegetables (be sure to let them cool, or you will end up with burnt fingers).
Begin to cook the noodles following package directions.
Once cooled, begin to separate the chicken meat from the bones and skin and returning to the pot (this is the part that seems to take forever).
Skim any fat that may have accumulated on top of the broth.
Add the broth to the pot of chicken and vegetables and return to a medium, high heat until warmed through.
Ladle the soup over the noodles and enjoy!
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