What one mom learned about school lunches from a school cafeteria visit

Sack Lunch Savvy

by Nancy Steinkoenig

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I met my daughter at her school one Friday and had the experience of eating with several of her friends. If you get a chance, you should do the same. I learned many interesting things.

Children buying the cafeteria lunch paid about a dollar for a lunch prepared according to U.S. government standards. In some schools, the price is more than that. I know they are trying, but check out the published school lunch menus in the newspaper. The menus seem to repeat the same things over and over. They attempt to prepare foods that the kids will eat -- and end up with tacos, pizza, hamburgers and french fries.

Many of the children on the reduced price or free lunch program also brought money with them to buy desserts not included in the plate lunch. My daughter seemed to resent that they got dessert and she didn't. I know the lunch program is worthwhile for many families who desperately need the help. I am just reporting on my experience in the school lunchroom with my kid. Suffice it to say that programs don't always work out the way government intends. A lot of food was also thrown away untouched. I hate to see so much waste.

Another thing I was surprised at were some of the kids who brought lunch. What an eye-opener! I had assumed that kids brought lunches to save a little money. Boy, was I wrong! One little girl at our table had a collection of small, prepackaged items in a colorful, fancy, no doubt expensive, insulated lunch kit. She is a picky eater, and her grandmother packed her lunch every day in an attempt to entice her to eat. Guess what? She ate less than half of each item, even though she opened and sampled them all. She then proceeded to give away and throw away the items she didn't finish. She told me it would hurt Nannie's feelings if she knew that she didn't eat it, so she didn't take any back home. In an effort to get this kid to eat, Nannie had spent over $3.00 on juice boxes, cheese & pretzel combos, and animal-shaped fruit bites. I had to bite my lip to avoid commenting that Nannie must be crazy to try to cater to this kid! I guess we all do funny things in the name of love.

The overwhelming availability of fast food has changed the way Americans eat. When I was a child, none of us ever expected to choose what we ate. Our parents, who thought they knew more about nutrition than six year olds, set it on the table and we ate it. My mother, looking for inspiration, would sometimes ask if we would rather have meatloaf or spaghetti. We did not become accustomed to ordering food at home as if there were a menu on the kitchen wall, nor did we refuse to eat what was prepared for us.

When we did get a chance at a meal "out," one of my parents would drive down to the neighborhood burger joint on 5 for a $1.00 night and bring home burgers in a plain paper bag. (I guess you know now that I am over 40 - by the price of the burgers!) We would have potato chips or homemade fried potatoes and drink iced tea. We might even have Neapolitan ice cream! We didn't all go the restaurant, we didn't each order something different, and we didn't expect a toy! Things are really different now. Some children think a family dinner is one where you eat in the car on the way to somewhere else. I can't believe that this is really anyone's idea of a happy childhood memory.

Related: Get Your Kids Involved with Their School Lunches

School Lunch Punch

We can't change the whole world, but we can improve the quality of nutrition for our own children, and save money at the same time. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Kids love crunch. Provide it with raw veggies or low-fat pretzels. Avoid chips and other high-fat, low-nutrient junk.

  2. Kids like small things. It makes them feel special. You can make lunch box treats more manageable for little hands. Cookies can be cut with smaller cookie cutters. Bake brownies in a mini-muffin pan. Cut sandwiches in four pieces.

  3. Make your own juice boxes. Recycle those pop-up water bottles. You can even buy the pop-up lids that will fit a plastic cola bottle. To keep the lunch fresh and the juice cold, fill the bottles half-way with juice the night before and put in the freezer. In the morning, fill the bottle the rest of the way with juice. By lunch time, it will be thawed, but still cold.

  4. Those prepacked munch-a-lunch things will bankrupt your budget. Cut cheese and sliced ham in 2-inch squares to include with crackers.

  5. Lunch items with some kind of dip are popular with kids. Get small containers with lids for the dip. Combinations can be pretzel sticks and peanut butter, bread sticks with low-fat Cheese Whiz (bought on sale, with a coupon, of course), salsa with homemade tortilla chips, or carrots and celery with ranch dressing. A tablespoon of dip goes a long way.

  6. Avoid fruit gummy things. Real fruit is cheaper. Buy the smallest apples or bananas, not the giant ones. Dried fruit is great. Dried fruit may seem expensive at first glance, but bought in large containers and divided out into small portions it will provide for many lunches, and keeps well in the pantry.

  7. When you bake cookies or other lunch box treats, be sure to explain to your family that they are for lunches. I have a 6'4" cookie monster at my house who would eat a whole batch of cookies by himself if I didn't bag them up and freeze them right away. If you bake a different kind of cookie each week, you will end up with a variety of cookies in your freezer in a short time.

Related: Unique School Lunch Ideas to Stop Brown Bag Boredom

Make Your Own

Low-fat tortilla chips: Take corn tortillas and cut them in sixths (I use my pizza cutter and cut through a stack of 5 or 6 at a time). Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray, spread out the tortilla pieces in a single layer, and spray the tops with cooking spray. Lightly salt (the salt won't stick if you don't use the spray!) Bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned and crispy. They will crisp more as they cool. You may have to repeat several times, depending on the amount of chips you are trying to make.

Brownie bites: You can certainly make homemade, but I bought a brownie mix to find out how many brownie bites one could make. (This research is so tough!). The mix I bought was for fudge brownies and makes a 9"x13" pan full. It cost $1.59 and I added 1/2 cup oil, 1/2 cup water, and one egg. You can do much better than this on sale with a coupon. I sprayed the mini-muffin pans with cooking spray and put a heaping teaspoonful in each. They bake in about 12-14 minutes. I happen to have several mini-muffin pans, so it didn't take very long. The mix made five (5) dozen brownie bites! If you don't have mini-muffin pans, put a heaping tablespoonful in regular muffin pans. The key is to make individual portions, not a pan full. If you make brownies in a pan, you are more likely to cut them in larger portions. Brownies cut in squares crumble more in going from the pan all the way to the lunch room via a paper sack or other lunch vehicle.

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After they cool, bag them in a large zip-loc and stash them in the freezer. For each lunch, two or three brownie bites will seem like a lot to a child!

Baby Bear Cookies: I found a small (1 1/2" tall) teddy bear cookie cutter at the craft store. Wilton is now putting out mini versions of its cookie cutters. Some Wal-Mart stores carry Wilton cake decorating products, so you might find them there. Here is my favorite gingerbread cookie recipe. This is also the recipe I use if I am out of eggs and need cookies for some reason. After all, it costs money every time you go through the door of the grocery store. Avoid any extra trips and you save more! If you roll it out thick, the cookies are soft. If you roll it thin, they are crunchy!

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/4 cup water
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
3/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Cream shortening and sugar. Blend in molasses, water, flour, salt, soda, and spices. Cover, chill 2-3 hours.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll dough 1/4" thick on lightly floured cloth covered board. Cut with cookie cutter. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes. Immediately remove from baking sheet. Cool.

For crisper cookies, roll dough 1/8" thick. Bake 8 minutes.

Dough may be frozen. It will keep in the freezer for 6 months. To use, let dough thaw in refrigerator overnight. Then proceed as above.

If you do not have a pastry cloth to roll cookies on, it may be easier to roll the dough between two pieces of cling wrap, or wax paper.

This recipe will make about 3 dozen medium size cookies. If you make large gingerbread boys, it makes less; if you make baby bears, it makes a lot more!

I am a computer software trainer for a law firm, but a closet home economics teacher! I love to cook, and it is a challenge to come up with nutritious meals for not much money. I would welcome other peoples favorite tightwad recipes to add to my collection.

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