Lunch Box Chronicles
Photography by Coco Dexheimer

For most of us parents, too busy to think past PB&J, school lunches and their allied issue of nutrition are a double-edged sword. Sure, we’re concerned that American kids are increasingly obese and unfit. Sure, we squirm when yet another newscaster describes how eating disorders are showing up now even in elementary schools and affecting boys as well as girls.

Snatching the high-fructose-corn-syrup soda from your kid’s hand is the right thing to do, but your kid may hear a different message altogether.

Most food is bad. Kids can’t be trusted to make their own food choices. Don’t get fat! Don’t eat that!

Meanwhile, we parents are left to ponder the Big Questions: How do we defend against greasy pizza and lard-based store cakes at birthday parties? Can we compete against kids-food packaging? (Try staring at a box of Captain Crunch cereal a couple of minutes; you’ll see what we mean.)

And, the big one: Is there a way to steer kids away from chips and bologna and prepackaged lunch foods?

After all, you’re dealing with their culture, too. As one third-grader told us, “If you don’t eat that stuff, kids look at you funny.”

But take heart. Because as Jane King, Central Market food groupie coordinator (a “food groupie” is a member of the Central Market Kids’ Club) tells us, the way to a kid’s stomach is good, old-fashioned subterfuge. “The classic pattern is peanut butter and jelly, which is fine, but it can be improved,” King says. So, instead of mass market peanut butter, with all its trans fats, added sugars, and hydrogenated oils, I might work in sunflower butter, almond butter, or experiment with soy butter.

“Kids are persnickety about jelly, so I’d try a no-sugar-added fruit spread. As for bread, the obvious goal is whole grains, but kids may trade that for white bread. Kids eat with their eyes, and they don’t like eating things that look ‘yucky.’ Brown bread may be classified as yucky. Never underestimate the ‘yuck factor.’”

Edible Austin liked the alternative she suggested for brown bread: supergrain quinoa, which “is incredibly nutritious and it’s white,” King pointed out. “I’d give it a try.”

Edible Austin got lots of other subterfuge tips, too, from local kid-lunch experts and food visionaries.

Our healthy food guidelines?

Avoid: high-fructose corn syrup and other added sweeteners. Hydrogenated oils. Hormone- or antibiotics-tainted foods. Foods with long ingredients lists, most of which you can’t pronounce.

Choose: fruits and vegetables. Whole grains. Choose organic, seasonal, local foods.

Be flexible: Don’t put the kid on the wagon completely. Pack a treat that he or she craves once in a while.

Watch portion sizes.

Some suggestions (below): Where not otherwise mentioned, all the items on the list conform to these nutrition standards. In other words, “bread” means “whole-grain bread” and “ranch dressing” means “organic ranch dressing made as simply as possible, with no evil ingredients.”


Main dishes
• Jane King’s Born-Again PB&J (see story, above)
• Yogurt, strawberry and banana smoothie, packed in a thermos
• Hummus or baba ghanoush with pita or home-baked pita chips
• Pasta, seasoned with a bit of pesto and topped off with steamed
(possibly leftover) vegetables, including: corn, peas, tomatoes, olives, sliced basil and more

Sandwich fillings
For sandwiches, pitas, wraps or to spread on whole wheat crackers:
• Shredded chicken or tempeh cubes with BBQ sauce and crisp lettuce
• Leftover rice, vegetables, salad and meat, in any combination
• Tuna or egg salad with crunchy diced veggies
• Puréed black beans
• Cream cheese with shredded veggies

What to pack in a wide-mouthed thermos
• Organic soup, canned or homemade and pre-frozen
• Baked beans with all-beef/no-nitrate hot dog chunks, or soy sausage
• Small sack of trail mix—one of Jane King’s favorite protein sources
• Spring roll filled with Chinese leftovers. Wrap in a damp paper towel to avoid drying

How to top off refrigerator pizza dough (or wrap into a calzone)
• Tomato sauce, part-skim mozzarella, sprinkling of Parmesan
• Leftover roasted veggies, all-natural ham or smoked turkey, thin slices of chicken sausage (check fat-to-calories ratio)
• Soy crumbles, black olives, pineapple, etc.

What to put in those little plastic tubs
• Tuna and chopped pickles, with crackers
• Hard-boiled eggs

Fruit and vegetable sides suggestions
• Edamame pods
• Red pepper strips, steamed or raw green beans, carrot sticks, raw broccoli “trees,” cucumber or kohlrabi spears, grape or cherry tomatoes
• For dipping those vegetables: a small tub of yogurt dip (add lemon and dill), ranch dressing, or a sprinkle of lemon juice
• Apple slices with a dab of honey
• Frozen grapes (tastes like a snow cone when partially thawed)
• Frozen banana pieces (these taste like ice cream when partially thawed)
• All-natural pre-packaged applesauce tubs
• Dried fruit: raisins, apricots, mangos, dried plums, cranberries, cherries, etc.

Treats
• Whole-grain pretzels and crackers
• Rice cakes
• Homemade cereal mix
• A dab of nut butter as a dip for pretzels or fruit
• One or two Gummi worms—natural-food-store version
• Small tube or container of pre-packaged, naturally flavored yogurt
• Small tub of yogurt packed at home, with a spoonful of spreadable fruit or honey
• A square or two of dark chocolate
• Organic animal crackers
• Graham crackers
• Air-popped popcorn


VIEW FROM INSIDE

By Gabriella Lane   

Have you ever opened your lunch and seen a Lunchable and some chips and cookies and a drink and thought, Yum, great, I love this stuff?

But think back. How did you feel afterward?

Did you feel ready to run a mile, or did you feel like you could just lie down and go straight to sleep?

Personally, I think falling asleep would be the best bet, because that lunch is super unhealthy. A lunch that would make you feel ready to run and play would be some fruit and veggies. Like an apple or bananas or carrots or cucumbers. Maybe your favorite sandwich and some water. And that is one healthy lunch.

But telling your kid things like that won’t help at all. They’ll just say healthy food sounds gross, or who needs it, or I hate it. So be specific. Make a game out of shopping for healthy foods at the supermarket. Be creative. Get them to try stuff that’s new.