Well, it’s back-to-school time, and parents are feeling the pressure of the school lunch routine. While it seems like it should be so easy, it causes so much stress and anxiety that it almost offsets the relief we should feel when summer vacation is over and the kids are back to their school schedule. After witnessing this issue dominating my friends’ discussions over the last few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that packing lunches is one of the biggest stressors parents face during the school year.
But the truth is, it’s just not that hard, and my opinion is that there are two reasons parents have problems with school lunches– the same reason they have problems with breakfast and dinner: portion size and rigid expectations about what constitutes an “appropriate choice.” Kids don’t like many of the same things we do—and they don’t like change very much either—so any attempt we make to impose our own desires on them is met with resistance, leading to more frustration and culminating in increased resentment. Eventually, to cope, parents often lean on pre-packaged and sugar-laden options just to stem the complaints. But I think that once we stop foisting our own desires about what foods and how much of them onto our kids, our lives get much easier.
To illustrate the first issue—portion size—we can look at one of the major complaints some moms had when I polled them previous to writing this article: their kids are picky about certain vegetables. Or they only like two fruits. Or they won’t eat the whole apple. Hey! That’s a good problem to have! All of those “problems” assume their kids are actually eating fruits and vegetables! The fact of the matter is a portion size for fruits and vegetables for children ages is generally ½ cup: that equates to a small apple, 15 grapes, 10 baby carrots, 5 broccoli florets, or a small banana. And considering that grade and middle-school-aged kids need between 5 and 7 servings per day total, the amount you need to be packing for lunch is pretty small, all things considered.
So now you can stop worrying about how little your child is eating and start contemplating how to get them to eat the biggest variety. My suggestion? As cliché as it is, pre-packaging appropriate servings into reusable containers and storing them in the refrigerator is the best ten minutes per week you’ll spend. Plan to have at least four colors of fruit and vegetables available at all times. Then tell your kids the rule is: Take Two Items, Take Two Colors. That way, if it’s the same choices every day, that’s okay: they’re still getting the critical variety they need, and they think they’re in control. Plus, they’re doing the work: they’re packing the lunch themselves.
The other issue that came up in my query of parents was protein. Our local school is trying to go nut-free this year, and with no peanut butter, lots of parents are wondering what kind of protein they’ll pack. But again, with the RDA for protein for grade- and middle-school-aged kids hovers around 0.4 grams per pound of body weight per day; so, for example, if your child weighs 60 lbs., she needs around 24 grams of protein per day (adjusted, of course, for activity level and health conditions). Divide that between three meals and two snacks, and again, the pressure to get enough protein into our kids at lunch seems to ease up.
Try going sandwich free. Instead, think up some alternatives that would appeal to your child and still get them the protein they need. Some ideas are:
- Yogurt, part-skim mozzarella sticks, and the like are all great options. But there’s no reason a serving of healthy dip such as Zucchini Hummus or Blue Cheese Dressing can’t fill the protein gap.
- A cup of wide egg noodles contains up to 8 grams of protein per serving, and kids love to dip them in ranch dressing or marinara.
- How about protein fortified muffins or sweet breads like my Pumped-Up Pumpkin Bread or even waffles or pancakes made with white whole wheat flour and a vanilla-flavored protein shake mix instead of milk?
- Don’t forget about some of the store-bought items out there that can make your life easier on the protein front: high-protein wraps contain around 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber: brush triangles lightly with olive oil, bake them until crisp and send them with some salsa.
- The low-carb diet craze can actually work to our advantage. Protein-fortified cereals make great finger food or a nice addition to a smaller serving of yogurt or berries. They’re typically high in fiber as well, yielding another significant health benefit.
Like the veggies and fruit, most of these items can be packaged ahead of time, allowing your child to make a choice—within the healthy limits of what you offer—by themselves; this gives kids the control they crave and your food battles disappear.
This week about ten of my friends and I had a Healthy School Lunch Summit. Between all of us, we have around 20 kids ranging from age 3-10, so the moms brought their dishes, we gave the kids a sheet to mark their likes and dislikes, and let them at it. I noted that (in addition to the fact that none of the moms brought sandwiches) the most popular protein-based items were permutations on classics like “pizza” made out of whole wheat crackers topped with provolone cheese and dipped in marinara. They also liked a basic chicken noodle soup made with alphabet pasta and served with whole wheat rolls and apples smeared with sunflower seed butter and sprinkled with cereal. And the kids were surprised and excited to see cinnamon rolls on the lunch—not snack!–menu, made with my new protein-fortified Secret Weapon Bread Dough recipe.
Whatever they’re eating, kids just don’t need that much food. But they need high-quality choices to make that food do the best work for their growing bodies. Providing them with healthy choices that appeal to their kid brains instills in them the concepts of variety and appropriate portion sizes early and easily. And in my experience, kid brains really appreciate tactile, familiar, and fun food. Give them what they need and they’ll give you what you desire: mornings free of drama.
This dough is your secret weapon because this bread is packed with protein, which is especially helpful if you’re trying to feed a picky eater. While we’ve given you only two baking suggestions below, this dough is a great base for anything that calls for a basic bread dough, including cinnamon rolls, breadsticks, and even pizza. Tip: If you have a bread maker, you can use it to mix the dough or make a loaf of bread with this recipe. Use the 1 pound loaf setting.
Servings: 8 (78 g )
Prep Time: 20 min.
Cook Time: Varies
- 1 cup white whole wheat flour
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- ½ cup soy flour
- ¼ cup wheat bran
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 cup skim milk
- 1 Tbsp. honey
- 2 tsp. active dry yeast
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- In a large bowl, mix the flours, wheat bran, and salt.
- Pour the milk into a small bowl and stir in the honey. Stir in the yeast until dissolved, then add the olive oil and set aside.
- Follow the directions below for the mixing method of your choice. In all cases, your goal is a smooth ball of dough that won’t stick to your hands. Add a little water if it seems dry, or flour if it seems wet.
- If mixing by hand: Stir the liquids into the dry ingredients with a spoon until combined. Move to a lightly-floured surface and knead vigorously for 6-8 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.
- In a food processor: With the processor running, pour the liquids into the dry mix in a slow, steady stream. Allow to mix until the dough balls around the blade. Stop the processor and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Restart processor and allow the ball to rotate approximately 30 times, then remove the dough and finish kneading by hand on a lightly-floured surface until smooth.
- In a stand mixer: Add liquids to dry ingredients and mix using a dough hook on low for 2 minutes or until the dough comes together in a ball. Increase speed to medium and allow to knead for 6-8 minutes or until dough is smooth and elastic.
- Allow dough to rise in a covered and oiled bowl until it has doubled in size, baking as directed in your favorite bread-dough recipe.
For bread: Punch dough down and shape into a loaf. Place in an oiled bread pan, cover, and let rise until doubled in size. Bake in a 350ºF oven until it sounds hollow when tapped (40-50 minutes).
For garlic knots: Punch dough down and cut into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a snake and tie into an overhand knot. Place knots on a parchment-lined baking tray. Spritz with olive oil and sprinkle with chopped garlic. Bake in a 350ºF oven until brown (20-25 minutes).
About the Expert Chef
Erin Dow balances three food worlds. As a mother of three young children, she’s fighting the battle every parent faces: how to keep her kids interested in the foods that keep them healthy.
As the chef and owner of her catering company Eatswell Farm, she utilizes original recipes and techniques–focused on enhancing the enjoyment of locally-sourced ingredients–to best interpret the client’s vision. And as Consulting Executive Chef for Falmouth-based Professional Catering Services, a business specializing in production and backstage catering for concerts, she develops and executes menus that accommodate the strict nutritional requirements of the music industry elite.
Erin and her family raise their own chicken for meat and eggs, have dabbled in pastured Narragansett turkeys, and have a very weedy but very large and productive garden.