I Love School Lunch (and So Do My Kids)

A version of this post originally appeared on Stone Soup, a blog written by registered dietitian contributors. 

For the past several weeks, my social media feeds have been flooded with tips, tricks and gorgeous pictures of nutritious and appealing lunches for kids. It seems like kids across the country will be plunking down properly insulated and portion-perfect bento boxes of adorable cookie cutter-cut sandwiches and sides of fruit in caterpillar-shaped cuteness served with a carton of organic milk.

Not my kid.

In our house, we nudge our school-age child toward buying a hot school lunch. If you haven’t been to a school lunch cafeteria in while, I urge you to visit with your child someday. You might be surprised. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required for the first time in more than 15 years that school lunch standards conform to the latest dietary guidelines. This meant using only whole grain ingredients, serving more fresh fruits and vegetables, providing lowfat or nonfat milk only, reducing sodium and setting calorie limits, among other changes.

The foods served at my child’s school may look like normal kid fare, but they are made with better-for-you ingredients. Chicken nuggets and buns are made with whole grains, hot dogs are actually turkey dogs, and pizza is made with a whole wheat crust and lowfat cheese. All vegetables served on the side (and a child must take a vegetable) are either fresh or reduced-sodium if canned. There isn’t dessert served except on special occasions. Yes, not everything on her tray gets eaten and may end up in the trash, however more often than not the packed lunches I give her come home with untouched food as well. With lunchtime crunched into a 20-minute timespan, that barely gives enough time to get lunch, sit at a table, have some unstructured time to connect with friends, and, oh yeah – eat!

Another thing I like about having my child eat school lunch is that it allows positive peer pressure to work. If other kids at her table are eating the same thing and her good friend is gobbling up the pea-and-carrot cup with gusto, that may inspire her to give it a try. Exposure and modeling are powerful teaching tools, especially when it comes to trying new foods. It works great at my son’s preschool, where kids and their teachers are all served the same lunch and snacks. They even have paella on the menu, which apparently my son has gotten to like.

So parents, when you get tired of making broccoli tree and celery boat dioramas, packed lovingly but returned home as if an avalanche hit the scene, put some money in your kids’ school lunch account and send them off with a kiss and the knowledge that they’re getting a healthy lunch…served lovingly by someone else!

Disclosure: none. All opinions are my own.

When you just can’t do homemade…

Ok, I’ll admit – there are some days when the supermom cape must come off. Usually that happens around 5:30 p.m., when I hang up the phone from a business call that went longer than planned, my preschooler is bounding through the front door with my husband behind her, carrying the baby in his car seat on one arm and bookbags/briefcases on the other, everyone screaming: “we’re home!” And while the schedule says we’re supposed to have meatloaf (or chicken curry, or homemade pizza, or whatever…) for dinner, I just don’t feel like cooking. 

It’s days like those when a well-stocked pantry and freezer come in very handy.  

Yes, we have some go-to dishes for nights like those, but we’re all getting a little tired of spaghetti and meatballs or chicken-apple sausage and orzo. That’s why I’m so glad to have found Mom Made Foods.

Mom Made is a local company, but its frozen meals, munchies and snacks are found in grocery stores around the country. The “mom” of Mom Made is Heather Stouffer, company founder and mom of two. Many of the dishes are organic and/or made with antibiotic-free meats, and contain a lot less sodium than most packaged foods. And while I’m usually not much of a proponent for hiding healthy foods in kids meals, most of these foods are loaded with vegetables – some you can easily see, some you can’t.

Take for example, the Cheesy Mac. It’s what most kids would expect from a mac & cheese – elbow pasta, orange, cheesy. But unlike monotone macaroni and cheese, this version is dotted with green peas, and the orange color is as much from the cheddar cheese as it is from the butternut squash. In fact, this mac & cheese wasn’t overly cheesy at all, which I like. And at 230 calories per serving, it’s a full meal for a kid that also provides a good source of fiber (3 grams). If you do have any leftovers it tastes really good cold, straight out of the fridge!

For dinner the other night, my 3-year-old and I set up a buffet of several of the munchies, cut into quarters for sampling. I had a hard time picking a favorite, though the cheese pizza munchie is definitely at the top of my list. Now, I make homemade pizza fairly often, but in a pinch these little snackers would make a great little nosh in case someone took the last of the leftovers (again!). My daugher’s pick? The apple pie munchie (big surprise – she has a sweet tooth that’s stronger than mine!) I had to agree…it’s pretty amazing.

It’s just nice to know that if I can’t do a homemade dinner, there’s another mom out there making homemade food for me to heat and serve. Thanks, Heather!

The art of dinnertime

I wrote this post as a participant in the Eat, Play, Love blog carnival hosted by Meals Matter and Dairy Council of California to share ideas on positive and fun ways to teach children healthy eating habits. A list of other registered dietitians and moms who are participating in the carnival will be listed at the bottom of this post or can be found on Meals Matter.

Flipping through my parenting magazines, I can always find a fun design for a birthday cake. Even the most uncreative parents look to recipe books, bakeries or websites to find the cutest little cupcakes or designs to give their child a unique and special birthday treat. I’ve heard of parents spending hours learning to make fondant or dipping little cake balls into frosting in order to make the most perfect edible centerpiece.

If only we’d put even a fraction of the effort into dinnertime.

Sure, cake and other treats are almost universally accepted food, whereas broccoli is not. But taste is just one aspect of the eating experience. In fact, eating is one activity that engages pretty much all of our senses: taste of course, but also smell/aroma, touch (as in mouthfeel or texture of the food), sound (think of the crunch when you break that shell of a creme brulee), and sight. Ask any chef or restaurant owner, and they’ll tell you that the presentation of food is incredibly important. Of course those cakes taste good – they look pretty good, too!

A common complaint I hear from parents of toddlers is how they can’t get their kids to eat anything healthy, that he or she will only eat certain foods and nothing else. But how can a slice of cheese compare to cheese-flavored crackers in cute little goldfish shapes? Or a slice of apple compete with chewy fruit-flavored snacks in the shape of cartoon characters?

The trick is to make food fun for kids. Sure, we allow ourselves time to experiment with recipes for special occasions such as birthday parties, but getting artistic for dinnertime need not take any more time than assembling a regular dinner plate. Take, for example, the salads we make every night in my family. These are what my husband and I eat.

And this is what we give to our daughter:

Sure, eating dinner together and modeling healthy habits for our daughter certainly helped cultivate her love for carrots and bell peppers, but she also loves the fun plate we make for her.

The Super Healthy Kids blog also has incredibly creative ideas and gorgeous pictures to help busy parents entice their children with healthy options.

So please, stop sneaking in veggies and instead highlight them – make it fun. And don’t limit your artistic talents and food art for holidays and special occasions only. Be a little creative every day.

Don’t stop here! Join the carnival and read other Eat, Play, Love blogs from dietitians and moms offering the best advice on raising healthy eaters. And if you don’t get enough today, for more positive, realistic and actionable advice from registered dietitian moms, register for the free, live webinar Eat, Play, Love: Raising Healthy Eaters on Wednesday, May 18.

The Best-Kept Secret for Raising Healthy Eaters, Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD
Feeding is Love, Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN
5 Quick Ways to Prepare Veggies with Maximum Flavor, Dayle Hayes, MS, RD
The Art of Dinnertime, Elana Natker, MS, RD
Children Don’t Need a Short Order Cook, Christy Slaughter
Cut to the Point – My Foodie Rules, Glenda Gourley
Eat, Play, Love – A Challenge for Families, Alysa Bajenaru, RD
Eat, Play, Love ~ Raising Healthy Eaters, Kia Robertson
Get Kids Cooking, Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN
Kid-Friendly Kitchen Gear Gets Them Cooking, Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD
Kids that Can Cook Make Better Food Choices, Glenda Gourley
Making Mealtime Fun, Nicole Guierin, RD
My No Junk Food Journey – Want to Come Along? , Kristine Lockwood
My Recipe for Raising Healthy Eaters: Eat Like the French, Bridget Swinney MS, RD, LD
Playing with Dough and the Edible Gift of Thyme, Robin Plotkin, RD, LD
Picky Eaters  Will Eat Vegetables, Theresa Grisanti, MA
Raising a Healthy Eater, Danielle Omar, MS, RD
Putting the Ease in Healthy Family Eating, Connie Evers, MS, RD, LD
Raising Healthy Eaters Blog Carnival & Chat Roundup, Ann Dunaway Teh, MS, RD, LD
Soccer Mom Soapbox, Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
Teenagers Can Be Trying But Don’t Give UpDiane Welland MS, RD
What My Kids Taught Me About Eating Mindfully, Michelle May, MD