Healthy School Lunch Ideas
Back to School
September is always a great month to think about how to introduce some healthier habits for our children’s school lunches. Most kids today start school before Labor Day, so very likely, you have had one to two weeks to get acclimated to the new schedule. For those of you that have children starting now, think of this as an ‘early bird reminder’. In some schools, children are required to eat the food provided in the cafeteria. In these instances, the best solution is to educate our children on healthier choices. For this lesson to be relevant to our children, it is helpful to relate it specifically to them and their body. It is also helpful to make it fun! In many school districts, they have the monthly cafeteria food calendar accessible online. With this access, it is easy enough to print out the schedule and review the different options with your child to help them understand what is good to eat and what will make them feel sluggish.
Unhealthy Foods to Avoid
When thinking of how to prepare a healthy lunch for our children, there are some general criteria to consider. Ideally, the food we provide to our children will help them feel more energetic during the day, rather then sluggish. This will help them perform better in the classroom and also have more clarity of thought. Certain foods are ‘inflammatory’ which means that when we eat them, it affects our body in a negative way. These types of foods can make us feel lethargic. Here are some foods that should be avoided when preparing a lunch for our children or helping them choose cafeteria lunch options:
1. Gluten: Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, rye, barley, and often, oat. Commonly, gluten is in pasta, bread, cake, cookies, soy sauce, and crackers. There are so many substitutes that are widely available at most supermarkets today. There are even substitutes for sandwich bread, all types of pasta shapes, crackers, and soy sauce. Locally, there are several bakeries that carry gluten free baked goods, including: Dee’s One Smart Cookie (Glastonbury), Nature’s Grocer (Vernon), The Sweet Beet (Granby), Cake Gypsy (Canton), and Healthy Harvest (Meriden). Sometimes, school cafeterias serve tacos for lunch. Tacos are typically made out of corn flour and are commonly gluten-free.
2. Refined Sugar: The negative effects of refined sugar on the body are extensive. It can affect the long term health of our brain, our digestive system, and our immune system. The rise in childhood diabetes has been correlated with an overall increase in sugar intake. There are multiple good options for substitutions, including raw honey, pure maple syrup, stevia, palm and coconut sugar. For school lunches, incorporating fresh fruit will help the child feel most energetic.
3. Processed Foods and Preservatives: A good rule of thumb is to avoid putting anything in our mouth that is not natural. Processed foods and preservatives are filled with chemicals that can alter the health of our body significantly and affect the way we feel. Trying to maintain a diet of natural foods is a good first step to health.
Healthy Lunch Ideas
When preparing a school lunch for our children, it is helpful to incorporate foods that are not too messy but still fun. Here are some ideas:
1. Sandwiches on gluten free bread or a gluten-free roll (Crown Supermarket in West Hartford carries Katz gluten free rolls that are delicious). Some sample sandwich ideas: Sunbutter (peanut butter substitute made out of sunflower seeds) and jelly (Polaner’s All Fruit and Bionature organic jams are sweetened with fruit instead of refined sugar); turkey and cheese; chicken salad; cucumbers and humus.
2. Carrot sticks and humus
3. Cucumber sticks with honey mustard dressing (kids love dressings—you can make them from scratch with healthy ingredients or buy an organic version that has no refined sugars)
4. Rice crackers and chicken salad
5. Apple slices and Sunbutter
6. Fresh fruit: organic apple, orange, grapes, etc.
7. Package of Nori (roasted seaweed snack)
8. Olives and pickles
9. Gluten free pasta salad with chunks of chicken
10. Yogurt with fruit and nuts
11. Turkey roll with honey mustard
12. Chunky soups for cold weather (stews and chili are great also! You just need a good thermos)
13. Gluten-free zucchini bread
14. Nuts and seeds (avoid peanuts because most schools are peanut free zones and peanuts can be inflammatory)—you can also make your own homemade trail mix with healthy nuts and dried fruit!
15. Organic popcorn
16. Wraps using brown rice flour tortillas—can include chicken salad or turkey and cheese or humus and veggies
17. Roasted sweet potato chunks (peel/cube sweet potatoes and roast in oil and sea salt and let cool)
18. Leftovers from dinner!
Gluten-Free Zucchini Muffins
Muffins are a great vehicle for delivering some good healthy ingredients into our children. Here is an easy recipe for gluten-free zucchini muffins that are moist and delicious.
*2 cups all purpose gluten-free flour (Can use Bob’s Red Mill All Purpose Gluten-Free Flour or make your own—see below for all purpose gluten-free flour mix ratio)
*1 tbs baking powder
*1 tsp baking soda
*¾ tsp xanthum gum
*¼ tsp sea salt
*2 eggs, beaten (can substitute with egg replacer or 2tbs chia seeds plus 6 tbs water—let sit on counter for 10-15 minutes until gel-like)
*½ cup olive oil (or other)
*½ cup rice milk (or other)
*2/3 cup maple syrup (can substitute with palm sugar)
*1 tsp vanilla extract
*1 cup shredded zucchini, drained/squeezed
*½ cup mashed banana
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
2. Grease muffin tin or insert paper muffin holders
3. Mix all dry ingredients (not zucchini yet)
4. Mix all liquid ingredients separately (including mashed banana)
5. Pour liquid mixture into dry mixture and mix well
6. Fold in zucchini
7. Using ice cream scooper or large spoon, add muffin batter into muffin tin
8. Bake at 350 for 18-22 minutes until lightly golden brown on top
Gluten-free All Purpose Flour Mix:
[This recipe is from Annalise Roberts’s Gluten Free Baking Classics]
- 2 cups brown rice flour
- 2/3 cup potato starch
- 1/3 cup tapioca starch
Chicken salad is packed with protein. This recipe is a great way to deliver protein to our children. Mix the following ingredients to make a delicious chicken salad that can be eaten with corn chips or spread on a brown rice tortilla or on gluten-free bread with lettuce and tomato. You may need to alter the amounts of ingredients to meet your flavor preference. Be sure to taste test along the way!
*2 cups shredded/chopped chicken meat from roasted chicken (can substitute with baked chicken breast but not as flavorful; roast chicken with lemon wedges inside cavity and chicken lathered in olive oil, sea salt, pepper, parsley, thyme, paprika)
*¼ cup finely chopped celery
*¼ cup finely chopped carrots
*½ tsp sea salt
*¼ tsp pepper
*½ tsp parsley
*¼ cup mayonnaise
*Juice of ½ lemon
Changes can be challenging, especially when it involves more then just yourself. It is helpful to make these changes throughout the home, and not just single out the children’s ‘lunch box’. Have fun and include your children in the process whenever possible.