Vanessa Van Petten writes a blog for parents and teens. She is also the teen author of the parenting book “You’re Grounded!”
“I’ll give you two Ritz cracker bites for one of your donut holes?”
“Anyone want my Peach cup?…anyone?…I’ll give it away for free?…Please someone just take it so my mom doesn’t yell at me”
We had a lunch monitor at my school that guarded the trashcan at lunch like a rhino guards a watering hole. She would make sure that unopened food and Tupperware filled with leftover brussel sprouts either went in your belly (and you would have to deal with the taste) or went back home in your lunchbox (and you would have to deal with an angry parent). Therefore, if you didn’t like what you had in your lunch, you either had to trade it, give it away or, heaven forbid, eat it.
Interestingly, there is also a sort of stigma for having a bad lunch. If you made a bad faith trade, then your whole rating as a lunch dealer shot way down. My friend Alyssa once traded a ‘cheese panini sandwich’ for pizza bites. Well, it was discovered that her mom snuck tomatoes into the depths of the sandwich—this of course, in fourth grade terms, made the once kid-friendly cheese sandwich a veritable health trap on soggy bread. Alyssa lost trading privileges for a week because she was labeled as having a ‘mom veggie hider.’ So how can parents make their kids lunches healthy and untradeable? Here are a few tips along with actual food suggestions for keeping lunches organic, vitamin filled, and, most importantly for everyone, fun to eat and make (many of these can be made gluten-free as I am allergic and find many kids these days are as well!)
1) Pick a Great Name:
There is a reason why Ritz crackers are more popular with kids than ‘water crackers.’ When you are making kids or teen’s lunches at home, tell them what you are making and call it something really kid friendly using words like cheesy, crunchy and crispy. You can also create a snack (see the ones below) and call it something after your kid’s name, or after your name. You can also use the name of a pet or favorite animal. A kid is much less likely to trade something named after themselves or their dear fluffy! (besides, its much harder to trade something you create—”Anyone want some Randy Ralphs?”
* “Sloppy Frisbees” Get some whole grain crackers with sesame seeds and spread some organic almond butter between two crackers.
* “Laura’s Lettuce Logs” This is a lunch version of lettuce wraps and works really well for vegetarian or even vegan kiddies. Make a large batch of stir-fried chicken, tofu, scallions, peppers or anything chopped small with some low-sodium Tamari. Put some big leafs of butter lettuce in a Ziploc and put the mix in a Tupperware and let them create their own little wraps. You can make a big batch of the filling at the beginning of the week and serve it for dinner too.
2) Use and Name Kid-Friendly Ingredients
Ok, this might seem like an obvious one, but I have a caveat: Call something that is not kid friendly, something that is kid friendly. What I mean is, as adults, we love to fancy things up. Kids like things that look, taste, sound, smell and are called something familiar. There are some great organic, homemade and even ethnic dishes and ingredients that hold really well in lunches. Use them!…but disguise them a little. See my examples:
* “Tuna and Chips” Most kids these days are ok with Pita, but if not you can try tortilla or chips. Get some whole grain pita, lightly toast it in the oven so they are healthy chips and then make some tuna salad with celery and craisins for sweetness (kids love these).
I am a true believer in eating a wide variety of foods to get all the nutrients and vitamins nature has to offer. With kids, it’s much easier to expand their pallet if you pair new foods with familiar ones.
* “Angel’s Ambrosia” Persimmons and yogurt (goat milk is great and you really cannot tell the difference)
* Figs wrapped in organic turkey bacon on little toothpicks (these are really good). I call them “Yummy Mummies”—get it because they are wrapped like little mummies?
3) Make Sure They Eat It at Home—but beware of leftovers.
Before you try something new in lunch, make sure they actually will eat it normally. Try it out as an after-school snack or over the weekend to make sure they like it. Beware: leftovers can be a little tricky. Usually leftovers do not taste nearly as good the next day and they are very easy to secretly dump in the trash. So, if you wouldn’t eat it for leftovers, then do not pack it for your kids. Some great leftovers:
* “Sinful Sweet Potatoes” This one my younger sisters love, especially because it reminds us of a delicious thanksgiving meal. Bake squash or sweet potatoes with some nutmeg and cinnamon. Put it in a baggy with the skin still on and tell them they can eat it like a slice of watermelon. It is actually surprisingly un-messy and utensil free.
* “Noodles” Instead of regular pasta noodles (can be very starchy and not give much vitamins) try Shirataki noodles which are made of tofu and very low in calories and sodium. If you have a kid who is afraid of veggies, take a zucchini and peel it. Then continue to peel it so you get long flat noodles…I actually prefer this to pasta.
4) Talk to them.
I know, I know, sometimes it is hard to get them to tell you what they do and don’t like, plus it always seems that one day they like one thing and the next day they hate it. But, usually if they really do not like something then they will tell you. I would sit down and ask them what they would prefer to have for lunch, what leftovers do they like, do they ever trade food? You can make this like a game: “Ok, I want to guess which food you eat in your lunch first,” it will tell you a lot about their school eating habits.
I was THE pickiest eater ever when I was younger, not only have I gotten better, but also I am now one of the most adventurous eaters out of my friends. Lastly, two of my favorites:
* “Crispy Chicken Tenders” Get some chicken breasts, clean and cut them into strips and roll them into corn flakes with a little bit of garlic and low sodium soy sauce. Bake in the oven at 350 for 30-40 minutes. You can give them a little dipping sauce as well.
* “Cheesy Oatmeal” Sounds gross, I know, but kids love it! The cheese is actually goat cheese and the oatmeal is actually quinoa. Take a basic quinoa recipe and put some melted goat cheese on top. It tastes a bit like cheesy mashed potatoes…if you close your eyes…and if you forget about texture. This is great when you stuff a red or green bell pepper with it and make it like a sandwich, that way they do not need utensils.
Please feel free to post additional tricks and ideas in the comments. I am always looking for new things to recommend to people on my teen blog!
What do you think about her suggestions? We think most of them are fantastic, but, as you may expect, think a few could use a little modifying.