So here you are more than halfway through the school year and let’s face it: you’re in a rut. You’re sick of packing those stinking school lunches and snacks and your kids are probably thinking you’re the most consistently unimaginative being on Earth. You’re struggling to get the right fruits and veggies into them and they’re coming back with a lunch box full of flaccid, slimy, and uneaten stuff. Of course, a fruit is usually thrown in whole or cut up because you’re trying; but, you’re busy, the morning routine is worsening the situation, and that whole thing about packing lunches and snacks the night before is, well, a nice idea and all…
A few weeks ago I had an epiphany when my daughter begged me to buy those little applesauce squeeze bag things: those four dollars for four squeeze bag things. I started looking around the grocery store and realized the lengths that manufacturers go to when targeting kids: and it’s all in the packaging. The Hannah Montana gummies, the Sponge Bob and Friends toaster pastries, the Dora the Explorer yogurts and the superhero cereals are cute and fun, but they pose several problems depending on our priorities.
Sometimes the presentation improves our chances of getting that food into our kids; on the other hand, many of those items aren’t healthy in the least: you rarely see organic or whole food products marketed with cartoons. Then there’s the whole price thing: you pay through the nose for that stuff, and the biggest reason is that the producer is licensing the images of the popular character. Lastly, we in effect perpetuate a dangerous cycle—that began nobly enough with Lou Gherig’s Wheaties box in, believe it or not, 1938—a cycle of convincing kids that the best foods to eat are the ones cool people eat or ones the t.v. says we want. But those innocent minds never put it together that maybe the sugar in Sponge Bob’s pastries aggravates Eugene Crab’s, well, crabbiness, and it may contribute to his rotund shape as well.
So with budget and health leading the priority pack, I’ve set about devising ways to make my daughter’s snacks and lunches much cooler than it actually is. She’s a grazer, so her lunch might just be a string cheese stick, some crackers, and some juice or water. She’s still in half-day kindergarten, so I try to pack a snack full of nutrition. While she often eats everything without complaint, I wanted to get more of those good foods into her. I look at my kids’ diet in terms of a week’s consumption, so I figure that the more vitamins I can cram into a meal or snack, the lower the pressure is to keep it up at all times. I’m not always feeling creative or motivated at meal times.
Since packaging was on my mind, I went to my cabinets and I settled on canning jars for my packaging. They’re clear, they’re tough, they’re cheap, and they’re probably the one thing that the other kids aren’t packing in their lunch boxes. Mason jars come in every size you might need, and while plastic screw caps exist for them, the rings and lids they come with are perfectly fine and give you a chance to riff on the decorations in different ways. A few stickers, a paper towel, a piece of Scotch tape and a pen was all I needed to customize the containers. I made a layered fruit salad in a ½ pint jar, stuck a sticker on the top, and labeled it with a silly name. She ate the whole thing: all two servings of fruit, and she came home proud. The next day, a version aimed at boys came to me in the form of orange juice and a bottled green smoothie—with 3 servings of fruits and veggies per 8 oz.—that I labeled “Warning: Toxic Bug Juice!” Well, my daughter took that to school and killed it at snack. The boys in her class were jealous.
Do I do this every day? Not a chance. But even one day out of five is fine in my book. It throws a wrench into the works, which is always helpful to break the cycle of monotony; plus, you can pack anything in the jars from crackers stacked with cheese to layered trail mix ingredients that they can shake up to combine before eating. Even dry cereal and blueberries to which they add milk and eat from the jar is novel to them. If you pack items in the jars that individually earn Guiding Stars, then you know that the snack’s a good choice. Most fruits and veggies earn 2-3 Stars, so it’s a natural place to start. Then you can move on to dried goods and combos once you figure out what sells to your kid.
Worried about the glass? Well, remember it’s BPA-free, recyclable, and dishwasher/microwave/ oven safe. Canning jars require significant abuse to break or even chip. Packing two? Slip a kid’s tube sock over one of them to keep them from clanking around. Or just find another container you prefer: remember the allure is in the packaging and the pitch: take a lesson from the “Apple Fries” you’ve seen at the fast food restaurant. How brilliant is that?
If the kids are still looking for a famous character, you have two options as I see it. You can cave and comply, pick up some dollar store stickers or use a comic book page as your lid decoration. Do it up as much as necessary if it means they’ll eat more good stuff. But if you’re like me, you might print out some photos of famous people—people like Magellan, George Washington, or Louis and Clark—and attach a little factoid note with their bio or their birth date. I prefer portraits of random Pilgrims on the Mayflower: you can outline the foods those poor people ate for snacks or lunch if there in fact was food to eat (and/or they hadn’t already died from the lack thereof), and be sure to focus the emphasis on that whole scurvy/eating shoe leather part. No better marketing strategy exists to teach kids about the importance of Vitamin C than the specter of losing their teeth before having to boil and eat their sneakers.
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.