School Lunches: Think Simple and Minimally Processed

Ahhh.... we just completed our first week of school and we're embarking on another full week. While I loved the summer, I was ready for the routine and structure of the school year. Visiting grandparents and attending family reunions was great, but I am enjoying the peace that comes with staying put for a while. And while my little cherubs do love to play with each other, a little time apart will be good for them. Let's be honest. It will be good for me, too.

But with every new school year comes that ever nagging question: what shall I pack for lunch?

With peanut butter now on the list of banned school lunch items, the answer to this question has become difficult. Oh those blasted allergies! What's a busy mom whose picky eaters live on peanut butter to do? How can we pack simple, nutritious lunches in a timely manner? I don't know about you, dear reader, but I am not going to get up at 5:45 to whip up a gourmet lunch for my toddlers that is unlike anything that I will eventually scarf down myself just before racing out to my car to pick them up.

Here's what we need: quick, minimally processed lunch items that we can assemble and throw into a lunch box either the evening before, or the morning of, school. Easy right? Well, I guess it depends on your child. My children are very picky. They are actually embarrassingly picky.

Nonetheless, I do have a list of lunch items that work for me.

It is not an extensive list, but it is a good, basic list of menu items for toddlers attending school between 2 and 4 days a week. Remember, children don't even like variety. Don't beat yourself up when you hear Jonny's mom talking about some vegetable salad she made with a side of sliced chicken breast and mixed fruit. Rest assured Jonny will not eat it, and if kids could still share their lunches, no one would be looking to him for a good trade.

The "Main Course"

1) Sunflower butter on oat-bran bread or whole wheat pita. Yes, sunflower butter is actually very good. Steer away from soy-nut butter, however. It literally tastes like dirt, and I personally can't believe that it is even on the market. Who buys that crap?

2) Applegate now makes hot dogs made from grass-fed beef. Warm up in the morning and stick the cut up pieces in a thermos.

3) Cheese sandwiches.

4) Strained soup. Look for healthy options without too much sodium. Sending your toddler to school with soup would likely send any preschool teacher over the edge, so just get rid of the broth. After straining chicken noodle soup, for example, you will have a hearty mix of noodles, chicken, carrots, and celery. Heat and put in a thermos.

5) Hummus on whole wheat pita bread. Read the hummus label. Some brands have a lot of unutterable ingredients. I love Good Neighbors. The taste is pure chickpea, because that is what it is.

6) Macaroni and cheese. If you can hardly stand the thought of sending the traditional macaroni and cheese to school for fear of being labeled the bad mommy who feeds her kids junk, make it with milk and mix in some chopped broccoli. You'll look good, even creative.

7) Leftover spaghetti. I can't believe it, but this is the one dish where I can load my sauce with good foods and my kids still indulge. I start with sauce and add either grass-fed ground beef or ground turkey. I add loads of frozen spinach and even mushrooms! Serve on top of whole wheat spaghetti and this is a great meal. Re-heat and send to school. Good nutrition just doesn't get much easier than that.

Sides: Choose Two

1) A snack size bag of fresh fruit: grapes, apple slices, nectarines, watermelon slices, blueberries, and strawberries are our favorites.

2) Dried fruits: mangoes, raisins, or craisins.

3) A slice of cheese or a cheese stick.

4) A bag of almonds or cashews, if you are among the lucky few who can send nuts to school.

5) Yogurt. Be careful in selecting your yogurt. Many are loaded with sugar. Try the Greek yogurts. If your child won't eat the fruit on the bottom variety, try the Better Whey yogurt. It's low in sugar, high in protein, and more similar to the whipped yogurts that kids tend to like.

6) Cut vegetables: carrots, cucumbers, peppers, cherry tomatoes. No, my kids don't actually eat them, but I figure looking at them hundreds of times throughout the year must have some kind of positive effect. At the very least, they will be able to recognize and name a few vegetables before they yell, "yuck!"

7) Lunch sized containers of applesauce.

8) Popcorn. Yes, I think this is a good treat once in a while. It is high in fiber and fun to eat.

Keep things simple. Pack healthy foods your child will eat. Otherwise, you'll end up throwing his lunch out and doling out junk food all afternoon because the poor thing is starving. Good luck, though I'm sure you won't need it.

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