TORONTO - Zannat Reza says the worst part of packing school lunches is when the food is brought home uneaten.
"For me it's the most worrisome because it's like OK, what have you eaten all day and how can you learn? You're there to learn and have fun with your friends and eating healthier food is part of that," the registered dietitian says.
To remedy the situation, she has found that sitting down with her two children to map out the week's lunches helps enormously and teaches them a life skill.
"That way they have some input and they're more likely to buy into it and eat the food if they've had a say," she says.
"But that doesn't mean if they're saying chips and chocolate that that's what you should pack. There needs to be some sort of guidelines around that."
She posts the menu for the week on the fridge so her nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son know at a glance what they can expect to eat.
If children bring food home, trouble-shoot to find out why. Perhaps they didn't have enough time to eat or a sandwich might have been soggy, for example. Reza learned to her chagrin this summer that her son couldn't open a container she'd sent with him on a camp day.
"I also have to put it in perspective because it's not the only meal of the day. They have had breakfast and we always have a good after-school snack as well," such as fruit and milk, a home-baked muffin or whole-grain crackers and cheese.
When planning lunches, include protein, a fruit or vegetable and a whole grain to round out the meal.
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Ants on a Log
<strong>Ants on a log:</strong> This one might make you feel nostalgic as you make it. Turns out this classic kindergarten snack isn't just fun, it's also healthy: celery is a source of potassium, peanut butter has protein, and raisins have fibre.
Carrot Sticks and Hummus
<strong>Carrot sticks and hummus:</strong> Make this crunchy snack — a great way to get some protein and vitamin A into their bellie — easy to transport and eat by putting the hummus at the bottom of a small jar and placing the carrot sticks in so they stand up. A great idea for a workday snack for you, too!
These are the perfect way to sneak in healthy ingredients like yogurt, greens, or chia seeds — <a href="http://www.marthastewart.com/search/apachesolr_search/smoothies" target="_hplink">Martha Stewart's site has some great recipes</a>, but doing an online search for your favourite ingredient plus "smoothie" is sure to bring up tons of suggestion. Companies like <a href="http://thesilico.com/proddetail.php?prod=silisqueeze" target="_hplink">Sili Squeeze</a> and <a href="http://www.yummipouch.com/" target="_hplink">Yummi Pouch</a> sell portable smoothie containers that are great for all ages, from toddlers and up. Just squeeze and enjoy!
It's hard to beat simple, whole fruit as a snack — it's healthy, it's easy to transport, it requires zero prep, and it's inexpensive.
Okay, maybe your creations won't be quite as stunning as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/01/back-to-school-bento-box-lunches_n_1730487.html" target="_hplink">these Japanese ones</a>, but a bento box is still a great snack idea. You can make ingredients like rice balls en masse and use them throughout the week, and layer in other options like chopped meat (a way to repurpose leftovers!) and raw veggies.
There are a million things you can do with this basic recipe: get a healthy pita (look for whole grains and fibre), spread it with your ingredients of choice (goat cheese and jelly, almond butter and chard, hummus and thinly sliced meat, anything you can come up with — just make sure you have a sticky layer), roll it up, and then chop it into fun wheels.
Here's a great option if your kids love chips — you can incorporate their favourite flavours, like salt and vinegar or chili, with a healthy ingredient like chickpeas, a source of fibre and protein. <a href="http://www.howsweeteats.com/2012/10/exactly-how-i-roast-my-chickpeas/" target="_hplink">This basic recipe</a> can be adjusted with your favourite herbs and spices.
Greek yogurt is all over the grocery aisles now, and it's a good thing — it's full of healthy bacteria that keep your gut humming along, and it's a great source of calcium. To avoid excess added sugars, look for plain yogurt, and add in your own mixers like berries or chopped pineapple.
Homemade Trail Mix
Trail mix can be a great snack, but packed mixes are often full of fat and added salt and sugar. Easy solution: make your own! Just pick the ingredients you'd like to have, mix through, and package into smaller containers to make it easy to grab and go.
These cheese discs are easy to transport, fun to unwrap, and a great hit of calcium, filling fat and protein. They come in several different flavors so you can give your kids their favorite cheese.
Kids love pizza, but it can be greasy and covered in unhealthy toppings. An easy solution is to make your own — you can go lighter on the cheese, and heavier on the healthy stuff like greens and lean meats. Mini pitas or slider buns are a great way to make these mini, which also makes them more fun.
Baked Pitas and Dip
You can give the kids something crunchy without putting chips in the lunch bag. Crisp up some pitas in the oven—brush them with a bit of olive oil, maybe sprinkle with a bit of cumin for a kick. And pair it with a healthy dip or salsa — even homemade!
Popcorn is actually a whole grain, and it's a good way to get some fibre in your kids' bellies. And if you air pop it, it's low in calories, which means you can beef it up with some fresh parmesan and your kids' favourite herbs or spices.
In Japan, edamame is a bar food — sprinkle with salt, pop them open, and enjoy. Much healthier than pretzels! They can be a fun snack for your kids too, one that provides them with some protein to help them get through the afternoon.
Protein at lunch "will keep them full and energized to last them all afternoon," she says. Roast chicken, turkey or beef, eggs, chickpeas or baked beans are great lunch ideas.
"When I make dinner I usually make a little extra because dinner leftovers are awesome in terms of something that's fast and easy and it's done."
Kids also love picnic-style lunches. Muffin tin liners can be used in the lunchbox to separate grape tomatoes, cucumber coins, whole-grain mini pitas and a hard-boiled egg.
Put together a stash of fast, easy, grab-and-go lunch things — cut-up vegetables, grape tomatoes, fruit that's easy to eat out of hand like apples and bananas, fruit cups packed in juice and little boxes of raisins or dried cranberries. It's easy to create a lunch kit that mimics commercial varieties with whole-wheat crackers, cubes of real cheese and home-roasted turkey slices.
Doing some prep work on the weekend and the night before means the meal can simply be assembled in the morning rush.
"I like hard-cooked eggs. If you do up a whole bunch on the weekend they will keep in the fridge for up to one week as long as you keep the shells on," Reza explains.
The best drinks for lunch are white or chocolate milk, water and 100 per cent fruit or vegetable juice. Fruit punches or cocktails are drinks that masquerade as juice and "those are basically like drinking pop without the fizz," says Reza, who's been a dietitian for 16 years. "They're just sugar. Even if it says made with real fruit juice you have to make sure it's 100 per cent juice."
Food safety should be top of mind when packing lunches.
"Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Even though it's only a few hours bacteria can multiply. Any perishable food that comes home should be tossed, not saved," Reza says.
Juice boxes can be frozen and used to keep other lunch items cold. To keep hot food at a safe temperature until lunchtime comes around, fill an insulated container with boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes to let it really heat up, then discard the water and add piping-hot food. Reza says her nine-year-old daughter helps by boiling the water.
Another challenge she and other parents face is that children may want to tote items like chips or cookies that they see other children eating. Reza, who focuses on nutrition communications in her company Citrus, tries to turn that conversation into a learning opportunity by explaining that other families have different rules but what they are choosing will give them energy to learn and have fun with their friends.
Learn to read ingredients and nutrition labels on packaged goods. Parents are busy and rushed and sometimes it's easy to go to the grocery store and pick up what has been labelled as a great snack or lunch idea, but Reza advises that they are more like treats. The first ingredient is often sugar or a refined enriched wheat flour, which is not a whole grain.
She has noticed a lot more marketing of nut-free or peanut-free items "but just because it's peanut-free or nut-free doesn't automatically make it healthy."
If you want to send in a treat to school for a birthday, then those peanut-free options are great, but not on a daily basis.
"It's OK to add in a little treat now and then, but I don't think kids need a treat in their lunch every day," she adds.
Among her lunch paraphernalia, Reza has separate containers for the kids, small ice packs, insulated vacuum containers, lunch bags and inexpensive cutlery so that if a piece goes missing it's not from her good set.
Now, in the lead-up to school, is the time to check over all the gear. If you need to buy or replace something get the kids to accompany you to the store so they'll be part of it and be excited.
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