Now that the kids are back in class, so are school lunches.
If you are a parent who makes your child's lunch, bravo to you. And if you are a parent who wants to ensure your child eats a well-rounded meal with actual hot foods and pays for school lunches, bravo to you, too.
But there are a few things you should know about what it is that your kids are actually eating.
School lunches might as well be fast food, and for all intents and purposes, they are. It's not the fault of the kitchen workers in our schools. It's our fault, collectively, for allowing someone else to manage what our kids eat. Institutionalized, highly processed chicken nuggets, hot dogs and hamburgers, corn dogs, nachos and flavored milk with the much needed added sugar are the norm. And if you think that what you are putting into your kid's "homemade" lunch is any better, think again.
Most of your supermarket "deli" meats or cold cuts are full of nitrites, corn sweeteners and freakishly high levels of sodium and fats, even beyond what is common in cured meats. See our blog www.thegrocersbag.blogspot.com for more info and ingredients on items you buy.
A typical lunch at my kid's elementary school in Walla Walla has between 800 and 1,000 calories. Twenty percent of that is from fats, and not necessarily "good" fats. Sodium levels are more than 200 percent of recommended daily value in one meal, and if your kid also eats breakfast at school, watch out.
There is plenty of information out there if you want to do the research. The choices are yours to make. I'm here to offer ways to help you ensure your kids are getting proper nutrition and something tasty to eat during the school day.
So what can you do make lunches that are both nutritionally sound and actually eaten? Ask your children what they would want; you'll probably be surprised by the answers. Then, take their "not so good" answers (chocolate cake, cookies, french fries) and drop those into the once- or twice-a-month category. Then look at things they suggested that make sense and use those: carrots, fruit and foods that are nutritionally dense but without the extra sugar, fat and salt. Finally, plan your kids' lunches in a way that makes sense following some simple rules:
- Fill their tanks in the morning, not at night. Body metabolism regulates how much "fuel" is used up during the day. Those with a faster metabolism require more fuel (think gas guzzler engine) to get through the day than those with a slower metabolism (think fuel efficient engine). If a person gets 40 percent of his or her calories in the morning, 40 percent at lunch and 20 percent at dinner, the body will begin to regulate itself better (and you might actually see some weight loss, adults). Remember after dinner your biggest activity is sleeping for the next six to eight hours.
- Carbohydrates are complex sugar molecules the body breaks down into usable sugars for muscle fuel. Too many carbs can lead to a buildup of blood sugars or in the body -- stored as fat -- and can also cause insulin production to falter and possibly lead to diabetes. Carbohydrates combined with fats is the double whammy; think french fries, great once in a while but disastrous on a regular basis.
- Condiments should be used sparingly. They alter perception of flavors and add sugar, fat and salt in large quantities. Ketchup is high in sugar. Ranch dressing is heavy with fat. Salt, obviously, is mostly sodium.
- Remember that institutional foods rely on adding fat and salt to compensate for lack of flavor. Processed lunch meats should be treated like cookies and such, once or twice a month. Don't assume that just because the package says "turkey" that it was raised or processed in a way that would make you want to eat it. Smoked products have higher levels of carcinogens than non-smoked products. Skip the lunchables and boxed drinks.
So what's left?
The best solution is to have a good menu plan set up. I know, it's extra work, but here are examples:
- Monday -- Cold steak sandwich from Sunday night's steak. Garden fresh tomatoes or good cherry tomatoes. Fresh fruit. Carrots or celery with or without peanut butter.
- Tuesday -- Cold pasta is a great lunch option, or it can be kept hot for hours if you have a thermos. Small salad with some quick vinaigrette on the side.
- Wednesday -- Give them something they like, like a peanut butter and jelly or bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Include some veggies like carrots or celery, and something fun like popcorn, homemade, not microwave.
- Thursday -- Again go with something from the leftovers drawer. Hot or cold it breaks up the monotony of sandwiches. Include something unusual like kiwi or mango as a treat.
- Friday -- Knowing chances of having fast food is going to increase on the weekend, plan accordingly. Great day to add more veggies (cucumbers, bell peppers) and other foods (hummus, couscous) into the diet, even things like cheese, but not the overprocessed kinds
Some things to avoid: Anything labeled "low fat" is an indicator the manufacturer might be trying to get one over on you. Also be wary of "sugar free"; chances are the items contain things worse than sugar to compensate for sweetness or flavor. Read the labels, and do the research. Knowledge is your best weapon.
Damon Burke, who with his wife Colby own the Salumiere Cesario gourmet grocery in downtown Walla Walla, can be reached at email@example.com.
Simple vinaigrette for salads and veggies
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Juice of 2 or so lemons
- Salt and pepper
- About 5 pounds of chicken thighs, on the bone, with skin.
- Mayonnaise, making your own is the best but there are good ones on super market shelves.
- Dijon mustard.
- 1 Apple, preferably Pink Lady or a suitably tart variety, diced (1/16-inch cube brunoise is best)
- 1 Walla Walla Sweet Onion, diced like apple
- 4 stalks of celery, diced as above
- Apple cider vinegar
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- Garlic powder
- Salt and pepper to taste