Pack a Powerful Punch in Their School Lunch

by Sharon Palmer, RD

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Add pizzazz to your child's lunchbox

As the golden days of fall approach and children make their annual pilgrimage in search of a new lunchbox, the nagging reality dawns on millions of parents across the country, "Oh, it's time to start packing those school lunches again." Flashes of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, boxed juices, and chips pass before their eyes. Remembrances of bleary-eyed mornings spent rummaging in the fridge for anything to fill up an empty Scooby Doo lunch box flood back. Memories of a long white cash register ribbon tolling up the price of packaged juices, rice krispy treats, cookies, and chips summon up a groan of despair.

But here's an idea. Throw an apron on your kid and hand them a wooden spoon. Get them involved in their lunchbox production. Say "no" to high price packaged lunch box goodies, which are conspicuously laden in sugar, fat and salt. Go for the gusto with kid friendly recipes that add pizzazz to combat the lunch box blues. Here are some tips for lowering the school lunch tab, while pushing up the flavor and nutrition:

  • Try using a thermos to fill with milk or 100% fruit juice diluted with water. Professionals agree that today's children consume too much soda, fruit drinks, and even fruit juice. When giving fruit juice, it's a good idea to dilute it so that children don't become accustomed to such sweet flavors. Relying on 100% fruit juice concentrate that you reconstitute at home gets the biggest nutritional bang for your buck.
  • Include a protein starch combo for stay-with-it nutrition power. Add a little spice with some new uptakes on the classic sandwich. Fill pitas, French rolls, biscuits, bagels, tortillas, cornbread, and muffins with meats, fillings, and cheese. Hearty soups, and pasta or rice salads make a creative alternative to the standby sandwich.
  • Include a serving of fruit or vegetable. With recommendations for 5 fruits and vegetables a day, that lunchtime portion can help meet the quota. Look for fruit in season or fill a plastic container with canned fruit or applesauce during the winter. Box up some carrot sticks, celery sticks, or broccoli florettes. Fill a cup with raisins or dried fruit. Remember, individually packaged fruits may carry a hefty price tag.
  • Save empty calorie snack foods like chips, cookies, cakes, and pies as a treat, perhaps weekly. These foods may fill up the lunchbox and tummy; yet contribute little nutritional bang for the buck. Try granola bars, crackers, pretzels, yogurt, and pudding as a healthier filler.
  • Use the plastic. Not your credit card, but plastic reusable containers to cut down on Ziploc and sandwich bag costs that add up over the year.
  • Remember to pack blue ice in the school lunch box to keep food at safe temperatures during the day.

Let your kids stir up some lunch box ideas in the kitchen with these recipes:

It's A Meatball Soup

Make this hearty vegetable meatball soup the night before. Heat up and fill thermoses the next morning for a meal-in-one lunch box satisfier.

  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1 - 14-1/2 ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 3/4 cup dry pasta
  • 1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
  • 1/2 t. Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 t. pepper
  • 1 # prepared meatballs, or follow this easy recipe for meatballs:

Easy Bake Meatballs:

  • 1 # ground lean beef
  • 1/3 c. bread crumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1/2 t. pepper

Meatballs: Mix ground beef, bread crumbs, egg, salt, and pepper together. Form small balls with meat and place on a baking sheet. Bake 15 minutes at 350 until browned and cooked through.

Soup: Add broth, tomatoes, vegetables, Italian seasoning, and pepper to large pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Stir in pasta. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add meatballs. Simmer for an additional 5 minutes until pasta is cooked through. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 large portions

Wrap it Up California Tortilla Swirls

These fun to make colorful sandwiches are stuffed with vitality for an afternoon energy kick.

  • 2 large flour tortillas (may use wheat or flavored tortillas)
  • 1/4 cup softened Neufchatel cheese (reduced fat cream cheese)
  • 4 ounces thinly sliced turkey
  • 2 large romaine lettuce leaves
  • 1 sliced tomato
  • 1/2 avocado, sliced (dip in lemon juice to avoid turning brown)
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds

On the top of each flattened tortilla, spread a thin layer of Neufchatel cheese over the entire surface. Then place evenly over the surface of the tortilla: 2ounces of thinly sliced turkey, a large romaine lettuce leave, 1/2 sliced tomato, 1/4 sliced avocado, and 2 T. sunflower seeds. Roll up burrito fashion, pressing tightly. Secure with toothpick. Chill for approximately 30 minutes. Slice into cross sectional pieces. Place in covered container to avoid drying out.

Makes 2 large servings.

Gone Bananas for Peanut Butter Bread

This take on two classics, peanut butter and banana bread, is a perfect lunch box filler to beat the boredom.

  • 1 3/4 c. all purpose flour
  • 2/3 c. sugar
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 c. oil
  • 1 c. mashed bananas
  • 3/4 c. crunchy peanut butter
  • 1 c. chopped peanuts

Preheat oven to 350 F. In mixing bowl, add flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a small bowl, beat eggs well and blend in oil, mashed bananas, and peanut butter. Blend into dry ingredients, stirring just until moistened and smooth. Pour the batter into an oiled and floured loaf pan and bake about 45 minutes until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Turn out and cool. Slice into thick slices and spread with additional peanut butter, cream cheese, or jelly.

Makes 1 loaf.

Groovy Granola Munch

This granola-meets-trail mix snack is packed with nutrition to appease any kid's case of the munchies.

  • 1/4 c. vegetable oil
  • 1/3 c. packed brown sugar
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • 1 t. cinnamon
  • 2 1/2 c. uncooked oats
  • 1/4 c. walnuts, chopped
  • 1/4 c. almonds, chopped
  • 1/4 c. raw sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 c. shredded coconut
  • 1/2 c. raisins
  • 1/3 c. chopped dates
  • 1/3 c. dried cranberries
  • 1/3 c. banana chips

Preheat oven to 350 F. In large mixing bowl, mix vegetable oil, brown sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon. Stir in oats, nuts, and coconut. Spread mixture evenly on baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes to evenly brown. Cool and stir in dried fruits. Store in airtight container.

Makes about 5 cups

Sharon Palmer is a registered dietitian, children's cooking class instructor and mother of two in Southern California.

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