In just a few short weeks, kids will be boarding school buses and moms everywhere will be jumping for joy…but not before school supplies have been bought, book bags have been packed, and school lunches have been made. As a natural-born writer and honors student, back-to-school shopping for supplies was my favorite part of summer. But my lunches? I didn’t give them a second thought. Thankfully, my mom made sure we had (relatively) healthy lunches each day.
Build a Better Breakfast
The typical American breakfast rivals dessert in terms of sugar content. One Pop Tart contains approximately 17 grams of sugar and only 2 grams of protein. A Toaster Strudel pastry is only slightly better, with 11 grams of sugar and 3 grams of protein. But, how often does anyone eat just one of either of those? So, two Pop Tarts contain 34 grams of sugar and only 4 grams of protein. One half cup of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream contains 28 grams sugar and 5 grams of protein—arguably a ‘better’ choice than two Pop Tarts!
Instead of pumping your kids full of sugar before their long day at school, consider a breakfast higher in protein and fat than what is typically found in breakfast cereals or granola bars. Aim for about 15 grams of protein at each meal for elementary and middle schoolers. Eggs, yogurt or meat should be an integral parts of a child’s breakfast. When buying yogurt, choose varieties high in protein and low in added sugars, or choose plain and add your own fruit. One egg and one ounce of meat both contain 7 grams of protein, which makes it easy to estimate how much your child is getting at each meal. For vegans and vegetarians, use organic soy and tempeh as meat-alternatives, or newer varieties of ‘protein nut milks’ for increased protein at meals.
Just because it’s breakfast doesn’t mean veggies are off the table. While V-8 juice (choose the low sodium variety) is a great choice as it provides a full serving of vegetables per half-cup, eating actual vegetables shouldn’t be disregarded. Baby carrots, sliced peppers, cucumbers, celery and cherry tomatoes are a great option in the morning. Pair veggies with some fruit or toast and a source of protein, like an egg. Or, blend spinach and kale into smoothies, along with a frozen banana and a source of protein, such as a plant- or whey-based protein powder.
Don’t forget about fat! Fat helps keep us feeling full longer than simple sugars, like fruit and white bread. Spread whole grain toast with peanut butter or mix avocado into smoothies. Because bacon is very high in fat, it’s not a great source of protein, but can (and should!) be enjoyed every once in awhile.
Breakfast Basic: 1-2 cooked eggs, 1 cup cut-up veggies, 1 piece whole grain toast with 1 tablespoon almond butter
Bento Box Lunches
These divided dishes are all the rage and make what I call ‘snack’ meals even more fun and festive! I often make ‘snack dinners’ if I’m solo in the evenings. An easy-to-pack bento lunch might include: deli meat rolled and secured with toothpicks (for protein), an apple (for carbs) and some nuts (for fat). Add in some blueberries and a cheese stick for variety and increased calories for older kids. Bento boxes are a great way to ‘think outside the sandwich’ without adding extra cooking or a lot of prep time. Simply get familiar with your macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) and build a balanced meal.
I grew up in the time of NutriGrain bars and fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts, both of which were considered health foods. These days, it’s easy to find healthier items (i.e. fewer added sugars, fresher alternatives). While we shouldn’t eschew carbohydrates for fear of sugar (approximately half our daily calorie intake should come from carbohydrates), it is important to find higher quality carbs, like whole grain bread that is high in fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, and plain yogurt.
No need to include an ice pack! Simply freeze a water bottle that will help keep food cold and thaw enough to drink by lunchtime.
Lunch Basic: 1 cup mixed veggies and hummus, ½ large apple, 2-3 slices deli meat, 1 tablespoon cashews
Busy nights call for preparation! It’s hard to bust out the crock-pot when it’s still warm, so rely on cold dinners, like salads with chicken, or sandwiches. Cooking big batches of mains on the weekends helps, as leftovers can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner the following days. Grill a few days worth of meat and veggies that can be used a variety of ways. Recently, I had a chicken with BBQ sauce, two kinds of sausages and cut-up cauliflower on the grill all at once, knowing I had some busy evenings ahead.
Dinner Basic: large salad with dried cranberries, feta cheese, sliced steak, and grilled pita bread
Interested in finding out more about building a better lunch? The East Aurora Cooperative Market is holding a ‘Lunchbox Workshop’ in the café from 4-5 pm Sunday, August 26. This event is open to the public and adults and children are welcome to attend. Sign-up using the event’s link, found on the co-op’s Facebook page. Attendees will bring home a completed lunch!